Military-industrial complex

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President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned the U.S. about the "military–industrial complex" in his farewell address.

The term military-industrial complex (MIC) refers to the combination of the U.S. armed forces, its arms industry, and the associated political and commercial interests that grew rapidly in scale and influence in the wake of World War II and throughout the Cold War to the present.

The term, often used pejoratively, refers to the institutionalized collusion among private defense industry, the military services, and the United States government (especially the Department of Defense). Such collusion includes the awarding of no-bid contracts to campaign supporters and the earmarking of disproportionate spending to the military. Many observers worry this alliance is driven by a quest for profits rather than a pursuit of the public good.

In recent decades, the collusion has become even more prevalent, putting the United States' economy, some argue, permanently on a "war" footing; instead of defense spending in response to armed aggression, current government policy guarantees "readiness" by maintaining worldwide bases and spending large sums of money on the latest military technology. Furthering the problem is increased regional dependence on the defense industry for jobs and tax revenues. If the U.S. government were to drastically reduce its military spending, many Americans working in defense manufacturing plants around the country would lose their jobs; this reality makes it politically difficult for U.S. congressmen to vote against unnecessary defense spending.

The increasingly global nature of the U.S. military-industrial complex has led some to charge that the United States is intent on establishing a new, worldwide empire based on military power. Nonetheless, the term MIC can also be applied to similar arrangements elsewhere in the world, both past and present.

Origin of the term

Did you know?
The term "military-industrial complex" was first used publicly by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address on January 17, 1961

The term military-industrial complex was first used publicly by President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. Written by speechwriter Malcolm Moos, the speech addressed the growing influence of the defense industry:

[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

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.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.[1]

In the penultimate draft of the address, Eisenhower initially used the term "military-industrial-congressional complex," indicating the essential role that the U.S. Congress plays in supporting the defense industry. But the president was said to have chosen to strike the word congressional in order to avoid offending members of the legislative branch of the federal government.

Although the term was originally coined to describe U.S. circumstances, it has been applied to corresponding situations in other countries. It was not unusual to see it used to describe the arms production industries and political structures of the Soviet Union, and it has also been used for other countries with an arms-producing economy, such as Wilhelminian Germany, Britain, France, and post-Soviet Russia. The expression is also sometimes applied to the European Union.

Background in the United States

Legal framework

At its creation, the American Constitution was unique for its inherent separation of powers and system of checks and balances among those powers. The founders feared that one branch or one office would gain a disproportionate amount of power, so systems were put into place to prevent it. Changing times, however, have limited the effectiveness of these systems. For one, when the Constitution was written, the few corporations that existed had little power in American affairs, but today, corporate money has more and more influence in Washington, D.C. For another, when the founders prepared the document, the United States was an isolated state protected by two vast oceans with little need to involve itself in world affairs. In light of the relative simplicity of American foreign policy at the time, the Constitution granted the executive branch almost absolute power in that area. In today's globalized world, however, the fact that the executive branch wields enormous power and military might can lead to excessive militarization.

These issues have contributed to the formation of the American military-industrial complex.

World War II

The pre-December 1941 Lend-Lease deal, which provided aid and equipment to the United Kingdom and preceded the entry of the United States into World War II, led to an unprecedented conversion of civilian industrial power to military production. American factories went into high gear, producing tanks, guns, ammunition, and the other instruments of war at an astonishing rate. Increased industrial production, however, was not the only change in American life brought on by the war. The military participation ratio—the proportion of people serving in the armed forces—was 12.2 percent, which was the highest that the U.S. had seen since the American Civil War.[2]

World War II did not, however, cause the shift to a permanent military-industrial complex. For all practical purposes, the military demobilized after the war, and the American economy shifted back to peacetime production. After World War II, political scientist Chalmers Johnson writes, "…the great military production machine briefly came to a halt, people were laid off, and factories were mothballed. Some aircraft manufacturers tried their hands at making aluminum canoes and mobile homes; others simply went out of business."[2]

Cold War/Korean War

The U.S. military-industrial complex as it is known today really began with the onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the previously "cold" war turned hot, and the Truman administration decided to back its previously announced policy of containment with military action. That conflict provided the impetus for massive increases in the U.S. defense budget, though little was earmarked to fund the actual fighting. Rather, "most of the money went into nuclear weapons development and the stocking of the massive Cold War garrisons then being built in Britain, [West] Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea."[2] In simple numbers (2002 purchasing power), "defense spending rose from about $150 billion in 1950…to just under $500 billion in 1953," a staggering increase of over 200 percent.[2]

The public's intense fear of the Soviet Union, and a now unleashed armaments industry, inflicted intense pressure on politicians to "do something" to protect Americans from the Soviets. In the 1960 presidential race, for example, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy claimed that the U.S. had fallen behind the Soviets in terms of military readiness, an issue that he had previously raised in a 1958 speech to the Senate. The charge was mainly for political opportunism; officials in the Eisenhower administration had images taken by U-2 spy-planes that confirmed American superiority in both missile numbers and technology, but the president worried that publicizing the data would lead to the Soviets ramping up their own weapons programs.

During the Cold War and immediately after, defense spending sharply peaked upwards four times: First, during the Korean War; second, during the Vietnam War; third, during Ronald Reagan's presidency; and fourth, in response to the September 11 attacks in 2001. During those periods, defense spending per year often exceeded $400 billion.[2] The perceived need for military readiness during the Cold War created a new, permanent and powerful defense industry. That industry quickly became so entrenched in the American consciousness that it became normal for the government to spend large sums of money on defense during peacetime.

Vietnam War

A U.S. AH-64A Apache helicopter

The long duration of the Vietnam War required that the United States establish bases and semi-permanent infrastructure in Vietnam for the support of its troops. To do this, the U.S. government largely turned to private contractors, some of which maintained extensive ties to U.S. politicians.

Often, during the Vietnam-era, American citizens supported high defense spending because it was required for the struggle against communism. Also, increased military spending brought economic prosperity to regions of the United States that supported it. California, for example, led the nation in military contracts and also featured the military bases to match.

Contemporary issues

Technological advances in weaponry and the required rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure after the 2003 war enhanced concern over the U.S. military-industrial complex in the eyes of some. One corporation in particular, Halliburton Energy Services, had a high profile in the Iraqi war effort. Halliburton (NYSE: HAL) is a multinational corporation with operations in over 120 countries, and based in Houston, Texas, and has ties to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Preventing conflicts of interest, corruption, and collusion

In an era of increasing militarization and congressional corruption, serious reform is necessary. After the WorldCom and Enron scandals of the early 2000s, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation to better regulate business and accounting practices. That act, however, does not address the military-industrial complex specifically and how it can adversely affect American society. Reform will have to come in the form of legislation specifically designed to define the legal relationship between private defense contractors and the government and also the role that American foreign policy plays in the world.

Legislation could specifically address:

  • Conflict of interests in campaign financing and awarding of contracts
  • The award of contracts through votes where individual representatives and senators are identified (not committees)
  • Disclosure and transparency at a level which the IRS requires of non-profits
  • Competitive bidding of contracts, to include bids from corporations from other countries when on foreign soil
  • Disentangle foreign aid from conditions that dictate suppliers and products for which aid is given
  • Principles of foreign policy consistent with domestic policy
  • Limitation of executive power in management of foreign policy


  1. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address (1961) National Archives. Retrieved September 13, 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004, ISBN 0805070044).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chambers, John Whiteclay (ed.). The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0195071980
  • Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life : John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. New York: Brown, Little, 2003. ISBN 0316172383
  • Eisenhower, Dwight D. Public Papers of the Presidents. National Archives of the U.S / GPO, 1959.
  • Gottlieb, Sanford. Defense Addition: Can America Kick the Habit? Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0813331201
  • Hartung, William D. "Eisenhower's Warning: The Military-Industrial Complex Forty Years Later." World Policy Journal 18(1). Retrieved October 27, 2014.
  • Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004. ISBN 0805070044
  • Nieburg, H. L. In the Name of Science. Quadrangle Books, 1970. ASIN B00005W63K
  • Singer, P. W. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0801474361


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