A look back at the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower reveals a President who strived to check the growing power of the national security state and the inclination toward militarism in America. Although his record was not perfect during his time in the executive branch and was the first President to abuse the power given to the executive in the newly created National Security Act of 1947, Dwight D. Eisenhower was perhaps the last president to forcibly stand up to the gratuitous power of the military industrial complex. Ironically, in trying to courageously fight the powerful domestic influence of the military industrial complex, a decision made by Eisenhower would contribute to one of his administration’s most embarrassing international moments with the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, the downing of a U-2 spy plane piloted by CIA officer, Francis Gary Powers.
As it is the case with nearly all historical events, the May 1, 1960 shooting down of the U-2 spy plane was set in motion a year after Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his “Chance for Peace” speech in 1954. Although, unknown to the American public at the time, between 1954 and 1957, a powerful defense corporation in an alliance with Air Force generals and the political support of a U.S. Senator, sought more money to build strategic bombers to fill a supposed strategic bomber gap. This collusion of a politician, a defense contractor and members of the military all shared a common goal to undermine Eisenhower’s New Look defense cuts.
Stuart Symington, a Missouri Democratic who was a fierce opponent of Dwight D. Eisenhower,had his own political aspirations of becoming president. During the debate on Eisenhower's New Look defense cuts, Symington was getting a lot of his information about a strategic bomber gap from Thomas G. Lanphier, a defense contractor executive at Convair, a division of General Dynamics. Perhaps making Eisenhower so suspicious of a strategic bomber gap was Ike’s knowledge that when Senator Stuart Symington was the first Secretary of the U.S. Air Force from 1947 to 1950, Thomas Lanphier was his special assistant. Although Eisenhower suspected the strategic bomber gap between the United States and the Soviet Union might not exist, Eisenhower was unable to counter the political lobbying for more defense appropriations and the fear mongering associated with the false information.
As Eugene Jarecki writes in his book, The American Way of War,
“In many ways Symington is the prototype of the role played by many members of Congress today in lobbying- and fear-mongering-for the desires of the military industrial complex.”
On July 4, 1956 the first U-2 spy mission was flown over the Soviet Union. Using the newly bestowed increase in executive power of the National Security Act of 1947, Dwight D. Eisenhower used the CIA to violate Soviet airspace and risk the chance for war in order to assess the true nature of the Soviet Union strategic bomber forces. Confirming his suspicions of the non-existent strategic bomber gap, Eisenhower wanted to conclusively prove the gap did not exist to avert wasteful military spending. Acting as a true fiscal conservative, comparing his actions to today’s republican leadership with their tax cut policy mindset and continued defense spending increases, shows how badly the quality of leaders in America has deteriorated. Although the flights of the U-2 in 1956 vindicated Eisenhower, by the time the flights were conducted, the number of U.S. Air Force B-47 Stratojets tripled from 329 in 1953 to 1,086 in 1955.
In his book Perils of Dominance, Gareth Porter provides extensive data of the massive arms buildup during the Eisenhower administration and the fact that the Soviet Union had far fewer aircraft than proponents of the bomber gap had claimed. The Soviets, not possessing any forward operating bases, “were unable to project power much further from their own territory”. Even the actual number of aircraft the Soviet’s possessed did not pose the threat as advocated by Symington and other politicians influenced by the military industrial complex.
While the bomber gap was troubling for Eisenhower, in 1957 the surprise launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, the Eisenhower administration had yet another fight, this time in the form of being accused of allowing a missile gap to emerge with the Soviet Union. For Eisenhower, and now historians with the same information he had at the time, the missile gap was attributed to the very men who advocated for more B-47 Stratojets and the B-52 Stratofortress. Compounding problems further for Eisenhower, two months after the launch of Sputnik 1, Americans watched in horror as an American Vanguard TV3 rocket exploded on the launch pad.
In the book, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, Peter Roman who traced the bomber gap myth back to Stuart Symington and Thomas Lanphier, also explains how these two men were again largely responsible for the missile gap charge. As Eugene Jarecki explains in his book, The American Way of War, after the Sputnik launch and the Vanguard explosion,
“Symington’s strident posture reflected a combination of factors; his personal bias towards air power, his closeness to Lanphier and thus to the Atlas missile program and- of growing importance in the 1957-59 timeframe-his presidential ambitions. As the missile gap charge became the rallying cry for Symington’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1960, his partisan political ambitions became increasingly interwoven with Lanphier and Convair’s private goals”.
Although Symington would later lose in his quest to win the 1960 Democratic nomination, Senator Robert Kennedy began to use the missile gap rhetoric as early as 1958 when he gave a speech on the Senate floor. Eisenhower, concerned that Kennedy would continue to use a mistruth for political gain, authorized CIA director Allen Dulles to share U-2 intelligence that clearly showed Soviet bomber and missile capabilities to the presidential candidate in August 1960. Eisenhower was angered that even after being shown the information, Kennedy as well as Nixon continued to make a political issue out of the false missile gap rhetoric. As Jarecki writes in The American Way of War,
“Eisenhower saw in Kennedy’s conduct a fulfillment of George Washington’s fears of an “over grown military establishment”. “God help this country”, the general turned president was over heard to say in the Oval Office, “when someone sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do”.
It is in this context that students of political science and American history can appreciate why Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the American people about the dangers associated with a military industrial complex.