The current film, "Why We Fight," is based on a few words by President Eisenhower, referring to dangers of the "military-industrial complex." That chilling phrase headlined Eisenhower's farewell address on Jan. 17, 1961, only days before President Kennedy's inauguration. Here is the back story to that paradoxical declaration by a former commander of Allied Forces that won the war in Europe.
The account opens on Oct. 4, 1957. The Soviet Union had successfully lofted Earth's first artificial satellite; then it spooked our nation with hints of more technological surprises being spawned in secret. As with Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was caught off guard; what followed was shock, anger and high anxiety over unimaginable threats to national security from outer space. This new paradigm of fear was further agitated by the overhang of a Cold War.
Eisenhower acted with massive funds for science and technology. Without the customary fiscal restraints, technical resources of industry and the universities were invited to hustle their ideas to the Pentagon, to the Atomic Energy Commission and to a fledgling NASA.
The president also established a new post of science adviser as a mechanism to pick the nation's brains directly and without bureaucratic delays. By presidential order of executive privilege, however, Congress was denied access through hearings on future plans.
Pained by that exclusion, Congress created its own post of science adviser. I was the first incumbent.
Not surprising, members of Congress asked me to interpret Eisenhower's puzzling characterization of key actors on the national security stage. I could guess, but I sought a more authentic source, the president's anonymous speechwriter who drafted that enigmatic expression.
Fortuitously in the administration's waning days, Eisenhower's science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, invited me to lunch in the White House mess to apologize for instruction not to return my phone calls. I asked if he wrote the speech. "No," he said. "It was written by special assistant, Malcolm Moos."
The next week I found Moos preparing to return to Johns Hopkins University. At lunch and off the leash, this is what he said.
To overtake the Soviet Union, U.S. engineers and scientists were challenged to tap their imagination for new ideas. At first, government customers were hospitable to proposals without tough skepticism. However, the pull of available funds combined with the push of innovation was irresistible. Funds for new starts soon exceeded those authorized.
Eisenhower's promise of a balanced budget in his 1956 re-election campaign was sabotaged by a bevy of "iron triangles." These three cornered fellowships coupled hungry defense contractors, ambitious military officers whose promotions rested on husbanding new defense systems, and members of Congress eager to steer new funds and job opportunities to their district. Beyond chagrin, Eisenhower was angry.
Moos explained that Eisenhower's instruction for the speech was not an intemperate reaction to losing the budget battle. With his well-honed foresight, Eisenhower saw a pathological influence of the military-industrial coalition beyond a healthy arm's-length relationship, especially if the national psyche was prodded artificially by fear. A future chief executive might exploit political energies of the coalition to further a narrow and dangerous agenda inimical to democratic values.
Moos returned to Hopkins, but soon after was appointed president of the University of Minnesota.
After my tour with the Congress, I served on the staffs of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. At ringside, I saw all three bruised by the warfare over funds related to the war in Vietnam and by its distortion of non-defense priorities. Later at the University of Washington, I sorted out further observations from the Washington, D.C., furnace rooms.
In echoes today of Eisenhower's incantation, I see coalitions increasingly entrenched. Failed weapons systems are seldom canceled. Auditing is cursory of contracts for moving and feeding troops; malperformance is accepted in the fog of war, and penalties for fraud uncollected. Threats to slow weapons production lines are blocked by spreading work of subcontractors in enough different states to ignite congressional disapproval. Privileged budget negotiations have become porous to lobbyists.
Influence of coalitions also has grown with the cost of political campaigning. Members spend half their time raising funds rather than forging policy. This leaves to staff the resolution of finicky details so that access to the right staff person is as important as to a member.
Eisenhower was served well by Moos. In the absence of strong vigilance, their concern about a corporate state hatched by stealth might yet happen.
Edward Wenk Jr. of Seattle is an emeritus professor of engineering, public affairs and social management of technology at the University of Washington. His latest book on the anatomy of risk will be published in June.