The following is an excerpt from James Ledbetter’s new book, “Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex.”
The 50th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 farewell speech, which introduced the concept of a “military-industrial complex,” has caused many to ask: What was the context? Why did a president who had been a five-star general, and had commandeered what was probably the largest military force amassed in the history of mankind to win World War II, seemingly change direction and warn against excessive military influence?
The launch of the Sputnik satellite, on October 4, 1957, hit the Eisenhower White House like a targeted missile. Whether it represented a scientific breakthrough for the Soviet Union is a matter that can still be debated. But as a public relations coup, it unsettled the administration more than any other event, including the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. The President set a defiant tone with his insistence that the first Sputnik launch was but “one small ball” thrust into the sky.
Years of unresolved debates over military budgets and readiness resurfaced with a nagging urgency. To the knowledgeable, the Sputnik launch implied that the Soviets now had the ability to hitch a nuclear warhead to a missile and launch it thousands of miles from their own soil, thus ushering in not only an expensive and disruptive new phase of the arms race but one in which they had the lead. White House advisors estimated that by as early as 1959, as a contemporary press account put it, “the U.S.S.R. could deploy enough intercontinental-range ballistic missiles to smash or paralyze the Strategic Air Command’s U.S. bases. The attack could occur with a warning of no more than ten or fifteen minutes.”
While the public was focused on the two Sputnik launches, Washington’s elite was arguably more devastated by the release of an exceptionally well-timed panel study—delivered four days after the second Sputnik orbit—that appeared to show the Soviet military threat was even greater than the Administration thought. Entitled “Deterrence & Survival in the Nuclear Age,” it was known informally as the Gaither Report after its panel chairman, H. Rowan Gaither of the RAND Corporation. The report—classified “top secret”—cited “spectacular progress” in Soviet military development after World War II. The Soviets, the authors claimed, had enough fissionable material for 1500 atomic weapons and had “probably surpassed” the U.S. in the production of nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. They proposed a massive military spending program that would not only match the alleged Soviet offensive capabilities, but commit more than $20 billion to a nationwide system of nuclear fallout shelters.