The term military‐​industrial complex refers to the loose political alliance of industrial and military interests that has contributed to the growth and persistence of the welfare–warfare state. The term was popularized in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address of January 17, 1961, when he warned his countrymen to be on guard “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military‐​industrial complex.”

Scholars who have studied the workings of this alliance between industry and the military have concluded that this intimate relationship did not originate in the mid‐​20th century. Many trace the development of interlocking political and economic interests among the military and leading industrialists to World War I, when the Council of National Defense and its successor, the War Industries Board (WIB), mobilized billions of dollars for the war effort. The pattern of cooperation between the military and industry expanded during the 1930s as both parties began developing re‐​armament plans that were put into effect after the outbreak of World War II.

The image of the WIB as a band of well‐​meaning industrialists who sacrificed for the good of the country was shattered, however, during the Senate Munitions Inquiry hearings of 1934–1936. Chaired by North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye, the hearings focused on the motives driving the WIB members, aware that President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I was promoted by the so‐​called “merchants of death” who subverted American interests and wasted thousands of American lives.

Similar sentiments emerged during the mid‐ to late 1960s when the antiwar movement repeated Eisenhower’s warnings about the dangers the military posed to criticize the Vietnam War and the U.S. cold war policy. However, the class‐​based analysis popular on the left traced the military‐​industrial complex to capitalists and senior military officers, who, they argued, created international crises to accumulate power and wealth. In other words, the left maintained that capitalism and militarism went hand in hand, with both ideologies collectively thwarting the will of the people. The solution to this state of affairs, at times explicit, but most of the time unstated, was the nationalization of war industries and the elimination of the profit motive.

The libertarian critique of the military‐​industrial complex is informed by elements of leftist scholarship, but leans toward Eisenhower’s original concern that the true danger of the intimate relationship between the military and certain segments of industry arises from its tendency to corrupt the political process by increasing the power of government. Libertarians see war as occasionally but rarely necessary and then, at best, an evil that should be restricted to those instances where the survival of liberal democracy is directly threatened. Mobilization for war, however, should and must be guided by private actors seeking their own benefit in the market because that is the most efficient mechanism for marshalling resources in society.

The actual political and social effects of the military‐​industrial complex are far more subtle, and also more insidious, than scholars on the left realize. Wedded to their class‐​based critique, the left has ignored labor’s role in the growth and persistence of this alliance; defense workers are by far the largest, and therefore the most powerful, constituency driving the military‐​industrial complex because they and their representatives have exerted substantial influence in the political realm. This corporate welfare, dispensed by politicians, flows unevenly to select geographic regions, with the result that defense workers fight to protect their jobs by supporting politicians who steer money to their employers and by punishing those who do not.

Combating this alliance of the military with segments of industry poses a great challenge to libertarians who are intent on reforming the modern welfare–warfare state inasmuch as defense spending has served as a thinly veiled jobs program that has created powerful, entrenched political constituencies who oppose reductions in military spending in peacetime.

Further Readings

Cooling, Benjamin F., ed. War, Business, and American Society: Historical Perspectives on the Military Industrial Complex. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Higgs, Robert, ed. Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990.

Koistinen, Paul A. C. The Military‐​Industrial Complex: A Historical Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Pursell, Carroll W., Jr., ed. The Military‐​Industrial Complex. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Christopher A. Preble
Originally published