Fifty years ago this week, on Jan. 17, 1961, Americans gathered around their TV sets to watch President Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s farewell speech from the White House. He chose his words carefully, and warned the American people about the growth in economic power and political influence of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.
“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 or democratic processes,” he said.
For some, Eisenhower’s warning might seem just a product of the Cold War era. The U.S. military consumed much more government spending than it does now.
But there is still a message for Americans, who spend nearly as much as the rest of the world’s nations combined on their armed forces, and even for Canadians, who send their troops to fight alongside them.
Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex’s “total influence — economic, political, even spiritual” is evident in the modern debate over whether Canada should purchase a fleet of F-35 stealth fighters for the air force.
Canadians are being asked to spend between $16 billion and $21 billion, according to Department of National Defence estimates, on these U.S.-built fighter-bombers, without a clear explanation of why they are needed.
The plane’s stealth and ground-attack capabilities make it ill suited for patrolling the Arctic. The F-35 is made for “shock and awe” bombing missions abroad, but Canada has only dropped bombs from its aircraft once since the Second World War (in Kosovo). And the air force never sent its current fleet of CF-18 fighter-bombers to Afghanistan.
As Eisenhower might have predicted, the forces allied in favour of the F-35 program are defence firms and the military. In fact, it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. The former second in command of the Canadian air force, retired maj.-gen. Richard Bastien, is now vice-president of the U.S.-owned aerospace company L-3 MAS, based in Montreal. Predictably, he told members of Parliament in October that “the government must do its utmost to ensure that the F-35 is not only a military success, but also a success for industry in Canada.”
Likewise the plane’s U.S. builder, Lockheed Martin, has hired one of Ottawa’s most successful defence industry lobby firms, CFN Consultants, which is composed almost entirely of retired officers from the senior ranks of the military.
Auditor general Sheila Fraser found military leaders have been untrustworthy in the past, withholding information from the government on a recent multibillion-dollar military helicopter purchase. She warned MPs that the F-35 project is very risky for taxpayers.
Eisenhower, a war hero and former five-star general, was not a pacifist. Instead he called for “balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual.”
Many in Canada support having a military for natural disasters, search and rescue, protecting our sovereignty and United Nations peacekeeping. But this is contingent upon a reasonable cost to the taxpayer, and must be considered alongside other priorities such as health care.
In an earlier speech, Eisenhower put the choice starkly: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
Fortunately, today we have much better social programs in Canada, but as the federal deficit increases, military spending is coming into direct competition with social programs for public spending. With record-high military spending, coupled with a record-high federal deficit, it is fiscally irresponsible to make a military purchase of this magnitude at this time.
How will this be resolved? Eisenhower worried that the influence of a military-industrial complex would undermine the nation’s democracy. The F-35 debate is a test to see whether Canada’s military-industrial complex has succeeded in unduly influencing our democracy.
As Eisenhower said 50 years ago, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Some things never change.
Steven Staples is the president of the Rideau Institute, an independent defence and foreign policy research group based in Ottawa.