Eisenhower's Guns vs. Butter


As the latest rounds of federal budget debates rage, we would all be well served to remember a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Jan. 17, 1961, as he was leaving office.


In his farewell, popularly referred to as the Guns vs. Butter speech, he warned against allowing the military-industrial complex to acquire unwarranted influence over federal spending. He clearly believed allowing America to continuously overspend on defense would inevitably damage our domestic economy.

Hedrick Smith, in one of my recent favorite books, "Who Stole the American Dream?", quotes Eisenhower, "To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another." Ike also said, "Making one heavy bomber meant sacrificing 30 modern schools or two fully equipped hospitals, or two electric power plants. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Eisenhower clearly knew each expenditure of limited resources requires trade-offs. However, it seems he never considered how easily our leaders would turn to borrowing to continue feeding the military-industrial complex war beast.

Look at America's financial and social conditions today and consider the validity of Eisenhower's warnings expressed more than five decades ago. One truly unfortunate side effect of the military industry's quest for growth is that wars must be fought to justify and increase demand for its products.

Since Eisenhower, America has fought many skirmishes in various places and engaged in undeclared and unsuccessful wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. These military engagements not only harmed and killed many thousands of America's finest, they also added trillions of dollars to our debt.

Of course, the deaths and injuries of enemy combatants and innocent civilians have been many times worse than our own. This clearly contributed to the hatred many in the Middle East feel for our nation, and the resulting terrorism on our own soil.

Our leaders, in spite of the undeniable reality of America's abysmal financial condition, approved borrowing nearly two-thirds of a trillion dollars this year to support this military industry. This amount nearly equals military spending for the rest of the world combined. Ike must be spinning in his grave!

According to Smith, as recently as 2011, more than two decades after the Cold War ended, America had more than 580,000 uniformed personnel or defense contractors stationed in 57 foreign countries, and more than another million on American soil. He reports that the U.S. military had 611 sites in noncombat zones and another 499 scattered around Iraq and Afghanistan. That's more than 1,000 overseas military installations. That doesn't include installations in the U.S., family housing complexes, schools, resort hotels and even 172 golf courses owned by the Pentagon.

Eisenhower's warnings have been largely unheeded as the powerful military-industrial complex lobbyists convinced our elected to make laws and take actions favoring military spending.

Today we find our nation deeply in debt and unable to supply sufficient jobs or safety nets for our citizens. We clearly won't be able to keep the promises made to our retiring boomer generation, let alone afford to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Yet, somehow our leaders just keep voting for more borrowing to support military spending.

The central question is: When will our elected finally connect Eisenhower's warnings to the reality America now faces? When will they realize we can no longer afford to pretend we are the wealthiest nation in the world? When will they instead set budgets for our inadequate resources primarily for the maximum benefit of our own citizens?

Eisenhower understood every dollar spent on military forced trade-offs with domestic programs such as infrastructure, health care and education. He also understood that we could not adequately provide for our citizens' needs and continue to spend obscene amounts of money on war-making tools. Of course, our leaders have now created an entirely new market for the armaments industry called the Department of Homeland Security.

In the choice between guns and butter, guns have clearly won! Sadly, the American people, especially those who have sacrificed their lives and health in too many needless conflicts, are the real losers. But remember, our future generations will also lose as our nation's debts continue to expand. We keep hearing about the need for reforms to our citizens' promised entitlements, but rarely do we hear a call for action to reform the appetites of the military-industrial complex.

If Eisenhower were alive today, he would have continued to fight for us. Where is our generation's Eisenhower when our nation so desperately needs this type of leadership?

These are my opinions. What do you think?