Just over 50 years ago, on January 17, 1961, addressing the nation as he ended his eight-year tenure as President of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the growing threat of the military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we 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 of democratic processes.”
Although the concept was scarcely understood at the time, it has gone on to represent all that is crooked about the confluence of the ruling elite, large-scale industry and the military establishment in world politics, not to mention a byword for that shadowy force that is seemingly behind all political conspiracy theories, most notoriously the assassination of Eisenhower’s successor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the sainted JFK.
Three days later on January 20, JFK was sworn in and, in an inauguration speech that has been celebrated and replayed these past five decades, made an undeniable impression on history. Sadly, he would never live to see the fruits of that early promise; a casualty some say, with dubious taste, of the same military-industrial complex spoken of by his predecessor. Eisenhower’s words of warning had perhaps turned his successor into a victim.
Even after all this time, the words (indeed, the very the concept of the) ‘military-industrial complex’ chime with menace. Eisenhower, a moderate Republican who had been a celebrated World War Two General, knew of the close relationship between politics and the military, itself an invaluable part of the US economy. That he chose to make this a focal point of his farewell address was no doubt an indication of how seriously he felt about this then-obscure concept and about the way in which direction he felt America was travelling. Kennedy may have got the best lines (“ask not what your country can do for you …”, etc), but it is Eisenhower who struck at the heart of society.
In 1962, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey imagined, in their book Seven Days In May, a military coup against a beleaguered US president; a novel the authors chose to preface with the relevant extract from the Eisenhower speech. The perpetrator of the coup, James Mattoon Scott, is a right-wing martinet General, partly based on Douglas MacArthur. Kennedy was alleged to have read it, and was inclined to take its febrile content quite seriously, privately telling friends that had the Cuban Missile Crisis gone any other way he might have faced a coup of his own (the character of Scott is also heavily indebted to Curtis LeMay, the four-star general who clashed repeatedly with Kennedy and his staff, particularly over the missile crisis).
By the time Seven Days In May was made into a film in 1964, Kennedy was dead, and the rumours were already circulating. Headed by Mark Lane, the so-called conspiracy theorists were looking for answers, and when they turned out to be inconclusive, it was the military-industrial complex that took the hit. By the middle of the next decade, post-Watergate, conspiracies were a positive boon, with lurid pulp fiction and increasingly paranoid Hollywood thrillers dominating the cultural landscape. Incidentally, John Frankenheimer, a close friend of JFK, who directed the screen version of Seven Days, kick-started the whole industry when he filmed Richard Condon‘s novel The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, while Condon would later write a thinly veiled Kennedy conspiracy novel, Winter Kills, itself filmed during the the conspiracy theory fad of 1979.
Flash forward to today, and echoes of Eisenhower’s speech, with its paranoid implications, are still around; in every internet wacko, in our continuing fascination with WikiLeaks and the secrets revealed and in every whisper that swears that the bars and restaurants around the Berlaymont building in Brussels are all bugged.
Well, it is the second-most spied-on city in the world and there’s bound to be a bit of surveillance, right? But for whose benefit?