As the Obama administration and Congress wrestle with federal spending in the year ahead, it will be argued — over and over again — that you cannot cut defense spending without harming national security.
While there is some truth to this argument, it is worth looking back at an earlier president who looked at the problem with a cold eye and a quiet determination not to get fooled by his own advisers.
In the early days of the Cold War, the Russian threat seemed to grow. After getting the atom bomb in 1959, the Soviets built up their nuclear arsenal, while maintaining a huge standing army.
With the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the Kremlin showed the world it was building ICBMs that could reach America. Throughout this period, President Dwight Eisenhower was under constant pressure, from Congress, from the press and from many of his own advisers and political allies, to increase defense spending.
But during his two terms in office, Ike resisted, usually successfully. In those days, defense spending accounted for well over half the federal budget (versus less than a quarter today). Eisenhower worried that spending too much on defense would harm national security.
A fiscal conservative, he believed in balanced budgets and warned against what he called “the garrison state,” in which citizens gave up their liberties, as well as their money to guard against real or imagined foes.
Eisenhower knew, from experience, how the top brass used worst-case scenarios to frighten their civilian masters into spending more on unnecessary new weapon systems and various pet boondoggles.
His speechwriter, Emmet Hughes, recalled Ike getting worked up during a review of the military budget and telling his advisers, “Look, let me tell you something.
I know better than any of you fellows about waste in the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut — because I’ve seen those boys [‘boys’ was a favorite Eisenhower usage] operate for a long time.”
Eisenhower had served in the military all his life. He had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II and Army chief of staff after the war.
Ike was not insensitive to looming threats or the need to prepare for them. Indeed, before World War II, some fellow officers called him “Alarmist Ike” about the Nazi build-up.
But Eisenhower had always been more realistic than the jittery Pentagon planners who in the early days of the Cold War had predicted that the Soviet Red Army could — and would — roll virtually unimpeded to the English Channel and even predicted the day: Jan. 1, 1952.
According to an estimate of the Army G-2 (intelligence), the Soviets could overrun Western Europe in two weeks. Writing in the margin of one such estimate in 1948, Ike jotted, “I don’t believe it. My God, we needed two months just to overrun Sicily.”
A few days before he left office in 1961, Eisenhower went on national television to give a farewell address. He warned about what he called “the military-industrial complex.”
This “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large industry is new in the American experience,” said Ike. “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implication … The potential for the disastrous rise of misplace power exists and will persist.”
The phrase “military- industrial complex” became famous, but the arms race went on. President Barack Obama lacks Ike’s military experience, and he will miss his former Defense Secretary, Bob Gates, who knew where the waste was and tried to root it out.
Gates liked to quote from Ike’s farewell speech. Obama would do well to ponder Ike’s example. So would Republicans.
Evan Thomas, former Newsweek magazine editor-at-large, is writing a book on President Eisenhower that is to be published by Little Brown in September 2012.