An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2011

The Military-Industrial Complex

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower cautioned against a future in which a powerful military-industrial complex manipulated policy to the detriment of American interests. Dunlap argues that, fifty years later, Eisenhower’s fears have not been realized; in fact, the military-industrial enterprise is in decline. Certainly, the U.S. military owes its continued preeminence to both the quality of its combatants and the superiority of its weaponry. Yet as the manpower-centric strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq replaced technology-centric operations; as complicated defense acquisitions laws deterred companies from obtaining contracts; and as the economic downturn and rising national deficit have strained budgets, the defense industry has become less robust than it was in the Cold War era. Consequently, the services are constrained by aging equipment and outdated technology, even as other countries are strengthening their defense capabilities. While it is important to keep U.S. military and industrial power in check, we should also be concerned about the weakening of innovative collaborations between our nation’s military and industrial sectors.

CHARLES J. DUNLAP, JR., is Visiting Professor of the Practice of Law and Associate Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law. He served thirty-four years in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a Major General in 2010. His publications include “The Air Force and 21st Century Conflicts: Dysfunctional or Dynamic?” in Lessons for a Long War: Row America Can Win on New Battlefields (edited by Thomas Donnelly and Frederick Kagan, 2010); and “Airpower,” in Understanding Counterinsurgency: Doctrine, Operations, and Challenges (edited by Thomas Rid and Thomas Keaney, 2010).

[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. . . . [W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the 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 democratic processes.

–President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1961)1

When President Eisenhower uttered this warning in his farewell address, he forever fixed in the public mind the idea–in its most histrionic manifestation–of an ever-present menace posed by grasping arms merchants in league with war-mongering generals. This cabal, so the theory goes, lurks in the shadows waiting for an unguarded moment in which to subvert the American way of life for its own venal purposes. To writer James Ledbetter, the stereotype of the shady arms merchant is still alive and well. In a New York . . .


  • 1President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Military-Industrial Complex Speech,” January 17, 1961,
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