U.S. Politics: The Military Industrial Complex Research Paper Starter

U.S. Politics: The Military Industrial Complex

This paper takes a critical look at the concept of the military industrial complex and the social and political forces that created this network of governmental and private institutions. The reader will gain a better understanding of government bureaucracy as a whole within the context of the American public service sector.

Keywords Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC); Military Industrial Complex; Power Elite; Strategic Geography

Sociology of Politics


The military industrial complex is a network of governmental and private industrial players that developed out of the need to produce mass quantities of war materials for the First and Second World Wars. What started as an effort on behalf of American industry and government to attain victory in international conflict became a business of industrialists and bureaucrats driven largely by profit motives. This paper takes a critical look at the military industrial complex and the social and political forces that help forge and drive its influence on government. The reader will gain a better understanding of government bureaucracy as a whole within the context of the American public service sector.

The Birth of a Mega-Industry

Prior to the First World War, the United States did not see the need for a permanent national weapons manufacturer. Basing policy on the 2nd Amendment's tenet of citizen soldiers and militias, the country operated on a reactive basis — that is, if conflict arose, the US would look to the people to rise up in response. Until the 20th century, this approach proved effective.

However, the First and Second World Wars required an enormous supply of guns, cannons, planes, ships, and other vehicles, as well as supplies, fuel, and ammunition. Such manufacturing demands placed a heavy burden on the American citizenry, and during each of those wars nearly American assumed the role of a “citizen soldier,” sacrificing their personal goals to the nationalized war effort.

Following World War II, powerful officials became convinced of the necessity for an industry dedicated to satisfying the military needs of the government. The next major conflict into which the US would enter was the Korean War of 1950-1953. During this conflict private entrepreneurs who were contractually obligated to produce weapons and related military supplies worked closely with the US government to help the US armed forces operate with expediency. As the Korean War began, and as the US became embroiled in the a protracted arms race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the links between the US military and its suppliers became essential in the eyes of the American public as well as its leaders.

The growing military industrial complex did not go unnoticed by academics of the time. C. Wright Mills addressed the phenomenon in The Power Elite. In this influential work, Mills stated that a relatively small group of individuals in Western capitalist society control most aspects of government, finance, and other highly influential aspects of society. As a component of the power elite, what he termed "the military industrial complex" consisted of an alliance of military, economic, and political players whose primary motivation is financial and who seek to maintain this arrangement at all costs. President, and former general, Dwight D. Eisenhower also identified this alliance of private military contractors and governmental officials and, while he understood it as a natural response to the international environment, he also perceived a potential danger and suggested that the new system could become corrupted by external elements. In his farewell address at the conclusion of his presidency in 1961, he warned of the "potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power" that could occur within what he termed "the military industrial complex" (Eisenhower, 2006). This was the first time the concept was used in an address to the general public.

In the late 1970s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis led many American officials to believe that a significant investment in defense and security was essential. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, his administration (most notably Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger) began to infuse the Department of Defense with funding. However, no strategic plan was in place-the Reagan administration simply sought funds from Congress without developing a plan of how to spend it. With so much money and no framework by which to appropriate it, corruption ensued-the rush for federal funds caused much of the money to be wasted, and the media began reporting absurd expenditures like $640 custom toilet seats and $435 hammers. The American public, originally fearful of how the US would protect itself from international terrorism and Soviet communism, began to view with increasing cynicism the very institution assigned to protect it ("The candidates and the world," 1988).

Since the Reagan years, much attention has been paid not just to the security issues facing the US, such as conflict in the Middle East, destabilization in the former Soviet Union and international terrorism. Many political organizations have begun looking critically at how taxpayer money is being pumped into addressing the security concerns posed by these and other international situations.

Further Insights

Where Business Development

The military industrial complex has the ability to not just turn an extraordinary profit in a market that is unlikely to see faltering demand, but it can also affect policymaking. Western democracies have consistently prided themselves on maintaining and creating free market economies. Free market proponents argue that such systems encourage competition, thereby lowering the price of goods and services for the consumer. Nevertheless, critics argue that when the consumer is the government, open competition often falls by the wayside.

Industry Mergers

In the late 20th century, for example, the field of American defense contractors shrank suddenly and significantly from eight to three. Defense giants Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Loral, and parts of General Dynamics all melded to form Lockheed Martin. Boeing, once a major aerospace company, absorbed its main competitor, McDonnell Douglas. Meanwhile, Raytheon assimilated Hughes, a giant among missile systems manufacturers. Such a trend would suggest to free market enthusiasts that the industry was experiencing diminishing demand.

However, the opposite was true. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that the bipolar world of the Cold War was no more. As a result, President Bill Clinton's administration was convinced that it needed to prepare the military for the possibility of tending to multiple conflicts simultaneously. He therefore asked Congress, which at the time was spending about $265 billion annually on the military, to increase that figure by $112 billion in order to address the need for multi-stage preparedness ("The insanity defense," 1999).

Mergers between defense companies were not only approved and encouraged by the US government, they were given government assistance. In the late 1990s, Lockheed sought to purchase Northrop Grumman, creating one of the largest military systems corporations ever. The deal was worth nearly $12 billion, and the government appeared to give the merger its blessing. In fact, there was speculation that the deal would receive Department of Defense investment to facilitate the merger. The Pentagon, after all, had subsidized the Lockheed merger with Martin Marietta with $348 million one year earlier (Greenwald & Merchant, 1997). Ultimately, the deal was scuttled by non-Pentagon groups who cried foul at the government's involvement, but the two titans of defense continue to work closely together on a number of projects, most recently including a lucrative, multi-year global positioning system (GPS) contract (Northrop Grumman Corporation, 2008).


Unfortunately, there are two reasons why Eisenhower's famous warning remains relevant. The first is the concern that, given the unprecedented level of access the military industrial complex has to the federal government's security institutions (and those who fund it), it may use this access to assert its own agenda and, in essence, become an unofficial contributor to the public policy and administration system.

The second of these reasons is that the American military industrial complex operates on an international level. In the absence of comparable social institutions in other nations, the US complex has become the sole provider of weaponry and military support for many other nations and armed factions. For those nations that are faced with security threats (or fending off civil conflict), therefore, the US military industrial complex is invaluable to...

(The entire section is 3912 words.)