President Dwight Eisenhower gave his first major presidential speech, The Cross of Iron, on April 16, 1953. He laid out several important precepts guiding US conduct in world affairs as well pointing out the cost of military spending in very concrete terms. Eisenhower stated:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”
In 1957, General Douglas MacArthur also warned about military spending when he said:
“Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear – kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”
Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address warned about the military-industrial complex. He said:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about has certainly gained unwarranted influence. For many years, the military has received about half the discretionary budget at the expense of domestic programs and public well-being. The latest budget proposal shows Congress allocating about $840 billion for the military, an increase of around $40 billion over President Biden’s already huge increase. Note that the recent US military spending of $738 billion is more than the next nine leading military-spending nations combined, most of whom are US allies. A competitor, China, spends slightly more than 1/3 of the US $738 billion amount and Russia spends less than 9% of the US total.
A legitimate question is what have these huge expenditures done for our safety and well-being. Has the world become a safer place? Given the current situation with Russia over Ukraine and the possibility of a nuclear exchange being all too real, I’d answer no. Was this reality preventable? Certainly! The Minsk II Agreement was a path towards a diplomatic settlement brokered by Germany and France, and signed by Ukraine, the Ukrainian separatists and Russia. This agreement was also supported unanimously by the UN Security Council in 2015. However, the US did not push Ukraine to implement the terms of the agreement. Instead, the US provided weapons and more military training, and fighting continued for 8 years before Russia invaded.
Was this spending for our defense and security or for some other purpose? It is hard to accept the idea that, for example, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and Iraq were such threats to our national security that they warranted our criminal attacks on them. In addition, how did the US-aided coups against democratically-elected governments in, for example, Iran, Guatemala, Chile and Ukraine make us more secure?
Unfortunately, it appears as if little has changed regarding the US approach to foreign policy and selling wars to the US public since Major General Smedley Butler explained things in his excellent 1935 book “War is a Racket.” This most highly decorated US Marine said: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
Butler added: “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the “war to end all wars.” This was the “war to make the world safe for democracy.” No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits.”
Has the US public been shortchanged by all this spending for making war? Our crumbling physical and social infrastructure, the lack of affordable housing, homelessness, the lack of mental health support for many, unaffordable health care for tens of millions, the high cost of college education and the lack of training support for skilled trade workers are examples that together indicate the sacrifice of public well-being and our real security for unnecessary and criminal war making. People in many other highly developed nations enjoy the rights specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whereas many of these rights are not provided in the US. In addition, people of these other nations don’t worry about going bankrupt due to, for example, medical bills or the cost of education.
As the words of Eisenhower, MacArthur and Butler suggest, it’s past time to reconsider our nation’s priorities. It is time to focus on constructive projects instead of destructive ones. It is time to benefit public well-being instead of enriching the few. It is time to focus on cooperation instead of competition between nations if we are to ameliorate the impacts of climate change and other global problems. The National Priorities Project provides material useful for this reconsideration of priorities.
Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics, having taught at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Since retirement in 1991, has been an activist for peace and social justice. He ran for Congress and for governor of Colorado for the Green Party.