Ike’s speech and the military-industrial complex


This is the chart for 2013 proposed discretionary spending. I found it on a third-party politician’s Twitter feed with some idle thought about how society could advance if we didn’t spend so much on the military. It shows defense spending at a whopping 57%.

Notice that Health, Housing & Community are only 5 and 6%. It sounds like General Jack D. Ripper (of Doctor Strangelove) was running the government.

The trouble is, it’s obviously deceptive. The chart lists discretionary spending, which is not the entire budget.


Here is actual federal spending for 2015 (different years, but the numbers are close enough). It puts defense spending at only 16%.

Use of the first chart is actually more deceptive than you’d think. These are federal budget numbers. The states and cities have their own budgets and taxes. That’s where most of the education spending is at, which distorts comparisons to the defense budget. The state healthcare budgets are massive as well.

That brings me to President Eisenhower’s 1961 speech on the military-industrial complex: Does this mean he was making a mountain out of a molehill? No, and here’s where it gets interesting:

For historical numbers, you need to compare to GDP for comparisons to mean anything. You can get the historical tables here. In particular, look at: Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940–2021. (Note: This is an .XLS file.) National defense was a mere 1.7% of GDP in 1940.

It went to 5.5% of GDP in 1941 (when Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “C for Conscription“ before changing his tune), then 17.4, 36.1, 37.0 to 36.6% in 1945. It dropped back down to around 5% after the war, but then rose to 12.9% of GDP in 1952.

Defense spending was still at 9.1% in 1961, but dropping, when President Eisenhower left office. That’s the context of his famous speech on the military-industrial complex on this day in 1961. He wasn’t worried about a military take-over. It was about the focus of our money, resources and power becoming an end in and of itself. You could run into the same issues when another part of the government gets too much attention.

The numbers went down again as the Vietnam War came to its end. They were as low as 4.5% in 1979, then rising and peaking at 6.0 during the Reagan years, and then finally subsiding as the Cold War ended. Defense spending never saw those numbers again. Not even the War on Terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, brought them back. They didn’t rise above 4% until 2008. They were at 3.3% in 2015.

Along those lines, people fretted about bringing back the draft during the war in Iraq. But that was plainly fearmongering. We had a larger military during the Reagan years, and that was without a draft. I wouldn’t be surprised if that politician pushing the above discretionary spending chart had been among those trying to scare people about a draft.