Most Americans get the gist of President Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 warning about the influence of the "military-industrial complex," how money and jobs would tie congressmen to the interests of arms manufacturers in their districts. But there are other less obvious, though equally insidious, ways militarism has distorted the Republic.
Since World War II, even institutions that were supposed to provide some check on this power of military spending have been corrupted -- from the U.S. press corps to academic scholars to analysts of the Central Intelligence Agency. The money from militarism has seeped far downstream from actual arms manufacturing.
In recent decades, pro-military propaganda often has won out over journalism; military-contractor-funded think tanks have overwhelmed honest research; and pro-military government officials have beaten down the professional CIA analysts who were supposed to provide objective information to the President and his top advisers.
This dangerous phenomenon is the topic of National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman. It is a book from the point of view of an insider who experienced many of the key moments of this spasmodic lurch from a civilian Republic to a militaristic Empire. Goodman provides both an overview and a dissection of the crisis.
In Goodman's account, there were many crossroads where the United States could have headed off in a less militaristic direction. But time and again the cumulative pressure from the hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending pushed decision-makers down a path toward more militarism.
At various junctions, some politicians beginning with Eisenhower pushed back against the pressures but typically succumbed to propaganda proclaiming a new foreign threat or accusing an officeholder of unmanly weakness. Politicians often responded by supporting some new war or larding on more military spending.
Tough-guy-ism also prevailed in the national news media where journalists and columnists feared being labeled "anti-American" or "soft" on some foreign adversary. The major Washington think tanks, even ones thought to be left of center, "hired-up" with hardliners to avoid the marginalizing label, "liberal."
This drift toward militarism grew stronger as the memories of World War II grew dimmer. As Goodman noted, Eisenhower took pride in ending the Korean War and avoiding subsequent hot wars during his presidency, although he did dabble in covert operations sponsored by the new CIA. He used these dangerous tools to oust leaders like Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.
Nevertheless, as Goodman wrote, Eisenhower reflected on his eight years as President by saying, "the United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground during my administration. We kept the peace."
Shrinking from Pentagon Pressure
Subsequent presidents couldn't match Eisenhower's claim about keeping the peace or preventing the deaths of soldiers, but some did press for arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, often bucking the desires of Pentagon brass. Eisenhower's four successors -- John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford -- also struggled with the consequences of carelessly entering and painfully departing the Vietnam War.
Then, after a brief post-war respite in the 1970s, the political pressure was on again to invest more in the U.S. military. Jimmy Carter began the build-up in part to counter criticism of his "weakness," but he still fell in Election 1980 to the more belligerent Ronald Reagan.
With Reagan's presidency, the post-Vietnam skepticism about the use of force -- the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" lingering inside the U.S. news media and in parts of Congress -- was routed. Reagan made militarism seem like fun again, whether through proxy support of right-wing "freedom fighters" or quick-and-easy military actions like the invasion of Grenada.
Goodman's insights in his book are most significant for this era of Reagan's rise (from the mid-to-late 1970s through the 1980s), a time when the final checks and balances on American militarism were giving way and when Goodman watched from his front-row seat as a senior CIA analyst responsible for assessing the Soviet threat.
Goodman traced the early stages of politicizing the CIA's analysis to President Nixon's appointment of James Schlesinger to head the agency in early 1973 amid the deepening Watergate scandal. Nixon also had grown disaffected from the CIA because of its critical views on the Vietnam War.
According to Goodman, "Schlesinger put nothing in writing, but he assembled the Agency's Soviet experts and warned them, 'This agency is going to stop f*cking Richard Nixon.' I was one of those Soviet analysts. Schlesinger's objective was to rein in the CIA, which had produced analysis that challenged Nixon's policy on Vietnam." [National Insecurity, p. 245]