Military Spending & the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Three student readings and a quiz explore why the complex developed, how it operates, and some of its consequences. Discussion questions and opportunities for further inquiry and citizenship activities follow.

Military spending and the existence of a "military-industrial-congressional complex" has not been a major issue in the current presidential campaign. Yet the subject is vital to the future of the country, as President Eisenhower so famously warned nearly a half century ago.

The student readings below provide background on how and why the complex developed, how it operates and some of its consequences. Discussion questions and opportunities for further inquiry and citizenship activities follow.



Just before he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a farewell address to the nation. It was January 17, 1961, and the United States had been in a Cold War with the Soviet Union for the past dozen years. First the president reminded Americans of that foreign threat. Then he discussed a second threat to the nation, a domestic one:

"We face a hostile ideology...Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our armies must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

"We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to recognize its grave implications...

"In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by this 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 our democratic processes."

What had happened in the United States to provoke this presidential warning?

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about President Eisenhower's farewell address?

2. What "grave implications" do you think President Eisenhower worried about in a "conjunction of an immense military establishment and large arms industry"?

3. How might a military industrial complex "endanger our liberties or our democratic processes"?


Student Reading 1:

How the U.S. went from depression to war and prosperity

Several decades before President Eisenhower's farewell speech, the stock market crash of 1929 had announced the Great Depression. Fortunes had disappeared, millions were thrown out of work, businesses collapsed, breadlines and soup kitchens appeared, and hardship was everywhere. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped put people back to work, but economic prosperity did not return, ironically, until after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the nation entered World War II.

Wartime industrial production spiked. Planes rolled off 24-hour assembly lines. So did tanks, half-tracks, jeeps, trucks, landing crafts, ships, artillery pieces, bombs, gas masks, machine guns, mortars, rifles. Millions of troops required food, uniforms, housing, equipment. supplies. Anyone who wanted a job had one.

After the war ended, so did the massive wartime production. Worries about the economy resurfaced. Americans also began to worry about disagreements with a wartime ally, the Soviet Union. In 1949 the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb, ending a monopoly US leaders had expected to have for many years. The Iron Curtain slammed down across the nations of Eastern Europe, and the Cold War began.

On April 14, 1950, the National Security Council (NSC) delivered a report to President Harry Truman. Known as NSC-68, it warned of "the Soviet threat to the security of the United States" and the "heavy responsibility on the United States for leadership." The NSC report also declared:
"One of the most significant lessons of our World War II experience was that the American economy, when it operates at a level approaching full efficiency, can provide enormous resources for purposes other than civilian consumption while simultaneously providing a high standard of living."

The NSC was describing the creation of new industries "for purposes other than civilian consumption" that would rebuild America's military power with the latest jet fighters and bombers, nuclear submarines, transcontinental ballistic missiles to launch nuclear bombs, surveillance and communications satellites. Production of this hardware required tens of thousands of workers and was a major factor in ending an economic downturn.

President Eisenhower's warning came eleven years after NSC-68 recommended this massive military production.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How did the U.S.'s entrance into World War II end the Great Depression and produce full employment?

3. Why did the US economy begin to slide again after the war was over?

4. According to NSC-68, what was "one of the most significant lessons" of America's World War II experience?

5. What dual results did the NSC-68 recommendation produce?


Student Reading 2:

How the complex works

Webster's Dictionary defines a "complex" as "a whole made up of interrelated parts." The complex about which President Eisenhower warned consists of the following:

1) A huge military establishment headed by the Pentagon and consisting of such military branches as the army, navy, marines, and air force; a vast collection of weapons and delivery vehicles; and many service personnel to store, distribute, and maintain the establishment.

2) A nationwide collection of industrial suppliers who provide everything from fuel rods for nuclear weapons production to launching pads and missiles to the boots worn by the infantry.

3) The two houses of Congress, which must approve the nation's budgets and vote money to support the military.

The complex might then be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. How does it work?

Consider, for example, Boeing's production of C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon has wanted to cut for the past two years. The cost for 15 airframes is $3 to $4 billion every year. Lawmakers say that 30,000 jobs around the country depend upon continuing to build the C-17. Fifty-five members of the House recently warned the Pentagon of a "strong negative response" if the plane is cut from its budget. (, 12/4/07)

To ensure support for its budget, Pentagon planners have distributed military bases around the country. Similarly, their industrial suppliers are located in congressional districts around the country. Lawmakers in the House and Senate almost always seek reelection, and to be reelected they must satisfy people in their districts and states. Do people have jobs and good wages? Manufacturing C-17 cargo plane provides jobs in a number of congressional districts. It also provides money for Boeing, the industrial supplier. So whether they want it or not, the military gets the C-17.

More frequently the military gets exactly what it wants. Boeing is the top supplier of military aircraft. In 2006 Congress awarded Boeing more than $20 billion in contracts. The military get the aircraft, Boeing makes a lot of money. Lawmakers win contributions for reelection from satisfied Boeing (and other industry) executives and get votes from satisfied constituents in their districts and states. This is the machinery that makes the military-industrial-congressional complex run.

The friendly relationships in this complex often lead to what as known as "the revolving door." Lawmakers leave government positions for well-paid jobs in the industries they have supplied with contracts or that they have been charged with regulating. Or perhaps they become lobbyists for those industries. Generals and admirals leave the military service to get well-paid jobs in the industries with which they have established good relationships through their orders for aircraft, ships, equipment. Industrial executives get jobs in government agencies that have been regulating them.

For 40 years NSC-68 was the basis for US government thinking about how to combat the Soviet threat and fueled the defense budget. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat it represented disappeared. But there was no significant "peace dividend." The military budget drifted slightly downward for a few years, but only a few years, before it began a steep climb that continues to this day.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why would Congress insist upon providing the Pentagon with a cargo plane the military did not want?

3. How does the military-industrial-congressional complex work?

4. What is "the revolving door"? What effects might it have on the "democratic processes" President Eisenhower warned might be imperiled?

5. After the Soviet threat was gone, what kind of "peace dividend" might the US
have had? Why might this have been a problem for the military-industrial-congressional complex?


A Questionnaire:


In front of two major federal government sources of spending, write a percentage number to represent what you think the government spends on the items listed. Make sure the two numbers equal exactly 100 percent.

____ Current national defense, including: costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; military hardware and equipment (tanks, planes, nuclear weapons); homeland security; salaries for more than 1 million active duty service men and women; research; construction of bases; medical care and other benefits for veterans; interest on the debt associated with past wars.

____ Everything else, including: education, healthcare, food and nutrition programs; operations of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; operation of the departments of State, Treasury, Agriculture, Interior, Commerce, Energy, etc.; operation of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency; emergency aid for natural disasters and human hardship.

____ Totals


Student Reading 3:

How the government spends taxpayer money

The government breaks down the federal budget as follows to show the percentage spent on each major item:

21%: Current national defense
21%: Social Security (for retirees)
13%: Income security (hardship aid to individuals and families)
12%: Medicare (for the elderly and disabled)
10%: Health
9%: Net interest (interest on national debt)
14%: Other

Source: Washington Post, 2/6/07, from the government's Office of Management and Budget

But there are other ways of assigning percentages. Critics argue, for example, that Social Security and Medicare should not be included in the budget at all since they are not funded, like other programs, from income taxes (but rather through payroll taxes). To exclude them would result in a considerably larger percentage for military spending.

$600,100,000,000 (six hundred billion, one hundred million dollars) was the actual cost for all estimated US Defense Department spending in 2007. This is a larger sum for military spending than that of all other nations in the world combined, according to The World Factbook 2007, Central Intelligence Agency,

Substantial as it is, this figure does not include additional hundreds of billions spent on "homeland security," arms aid to allies, reconstruction aid for Iraq and Afghanistan, the human costs of past and current wars, interest on the national debt as a result of past wars, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or costs to the Treasury for military retirements. ( The Defense Monitor, the newsletter of the Center for Defense Information, March-April 2007) The official federal budget excludes these items from its "current national defense" category

Nor does the current 2008 defense budget include $23.4 billion for the Department of Energy to develop and maintain nuclear weapons. And it does not include the $23.5 billion the State Department distributes in military aid to such nations as Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf countries—even those such expenditures are intended to promote US national defense.

In addition, some "30 to 40 percent of the defense budget is 'black,' meaning that these sections contain hidden expenditures for classified projects," according to author and political science professor Chalmers Johnson ("How to Sink America," 1/22/08, "There is no possible way to know what they include... A chief reason for this secrecy is that members of Congress, who profit enormously from defense projects and pork-barrel projects in their districts, have a political interest in supporting the Department of Defense." If these additional costs are included in US military spending, the true defense budget is more than $1 trillion.

This would represent 51 percent of the total US budget, not 21 percent.

The size of the US military establishment and its holdings dwarf those of all other nations.

"The United States is the only nation which divides the entire globe into military commands with a general or admiral in command of each region's designated forces," notes the Center for Defense Information. As of 2007, says CDI, a new US African Command has been created. Antarctica is included in the US Pacific Command's area of responsibility. ( The Defense Monitor , November-December 2007)

The US's 766-850 military bases and other facilities worldwide cover 29 million acres. The US controls 20 percent of the Japanese island of Okinawa and about twenty-five percent of Guam. It has sites from Antigua and Hong Kong to Kenya and Peru, along with others in the Middle East, including in Jordan and Iraq, and in Afghanistan. Seventy-six nations have given the US access to airports and airfields.

In addition to its military bases in 39 nations, the US stations personnel in more than 140 nations.

A US Air Force report in 2004 discusses plans for the militarization of outer space and "makes US dominance of the heavens a top Pentagon priority in the new century." (Nick Turse, "The Pentagon As Global Landlord," 7/11/07,

What do Americans think about US military spending? A University of Maryland thinktank has studied this issue. What it found, according to its co-director Steven Kull ("Current Thinking on Military Spending") is that "Clearly Americans don't fully understand how much goes to defense." They assume "that it's significantly less than it is."

Kull reported that Americans want a strong defense, want a strong military but also want a military defense shared by allies. When they "are given information about how much of the budget goes to defense and how much goes to other items, they clearly want to put less in defense and more in other items." They would cut defense spending "really very deeply," he reports—by about 42 percent, on average.

"The majority of Americans [also] reject the argument that we should maintain defense spending so as to preserve jobs," according to Kull. They would prefer that money be spent to retrain workers and on other social programs like education, health insurance, or programs to eradicate poverty.. (Steven Kull is CO-director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland, and was interviewed by the Center for Defense Information,

The defense budget and the military-industrial-congressional complex has not been a major issue in the 2008 presidential election. However, whether that budget is considered to be 21 percent of all spending or 51 percent, it clearly consumes a great portion of taxpayer money. So why don't the candidates discuss it?

The United States is a wealthy country. But its income from taxpayers is not unlimited. How the government spends their money is a choice made by elected officials.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. The reading presents two ways of categorizing government budgets. The first budget is the one presented by the federal government itself. The other is the way the budget is presented by critics. Should the federal government's budget breakdown include under "current national defense" the kinds of defense-related items that critics say it should? If not, why not? If so, why? What result might that have on people's thinking about the budget?

3. How does Steven Kull suggest that Americans would answer the above questions? Why?

4. Reconsider your response to the questionnaire. Did you, like most Americans, underestimate how much the US spends on defense? What percentage of the budget do you think should be allocated for "current national defense"? Would you define these expenses the government does? As critics do? Some other way? Why?

5. Reconsider President Eisenhower's farewell address. Are "our liberties and democratic processes" endangered by the military-industrial-congressional complex? If so, why and how? If not, why not?

6. Should Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidency discuss this complex and the "current national defense" budget? Should they be asked about it? Why or why not? Why do you suppose they don't discuss it?


For inquiry

1. Investigate Pentagon spending on weapons and weapons systems. What can you find out about how well this money is spent?

2. From the World War II effort to build an atomic bomb through 1996, the US spent at least $5.8 trillion to develop, test, and construct nuclear bombs, according to a Brookings Institution analysis ( The US now has close to 10,000 nuclear bombs. Investigate the explosive and destructive effects of nuclear bombs and why the US has so many. Evaluate your findings.

3. Study the effects on "our liberties and democratic processes" of the military-industrial-congressional complex. What evidence is there to support or to contradict the potential dangers President Eisenhower warned of?

For citizenship

See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for citizenship activities that might educate students about how much money the U.S. spends on national defense and about the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Have students write letters and e-mails to presidential candidates and to their representative and senators following their study of national defense spending and its implications. These letters and e-mails might focus on one aspect of that spending that is important to the writer.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: