The military-industrial complex arose in the early 1950s in response to the needs of the Cold War. In America's fight against communism, resources had to be harnessed to develop new military and defense technologies. Much of the research for these endeavors was conducted at large research-intensive universities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University were among the top research schools in these areas. Defense-oriented industries often provided much of the capital and additional resources to fund research and development. In turn, they were usually rewarded with sizable government contracts to produce military hardware and weapons systems that had originated in university laboratories. In almost every case, both university and industrial research and development (R&D) was initiated by the U.S. Department of Defense. Thus, a tightly connected military-industrial-academic reciprocal relationship was created.
The Cold War military-industrial complex was born out of the decision by President Harry Truman administration's to engage the United States in a massive military rearmament program after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Between 1950 and 1953, the U.S. defense budget increased almost fourfold, from $13.5 billion in 1950 to more than $52 billion in 1953. The vast majority of those funds did not go to the war in Korea but instead were earmarked for long-term rearmament programs designed to keep the United States one step ahead of its Soviet Cold War rival.
Even after Eisenhower tried to rein in defense spending in the mid-1950s, the defense budget fell only slightly and certainly remained at least three times as high as the pre–Korean War level. The Korean rearmament program essentially gave teeth to the National Security Council's seminal NSC-68 report of early 1950 that envisioned a huge military buildup. Pivotal in fueling the military-industrial complex was the late 1950 decision to create a permanent industrial base that would provide the United States with excess industrial capacity that could swing into high gear at the first sign of war. Such a decision resulted in the government-sponsored construction of a military-oriented industrial sector that was of little use for civilian applications.
It is important to note that Eisenhower was against neither the military nor big industry or academia. In fact, he was a proponent of all. As a five-star army general, he appointed mostly businessmen and industrialists to his cabinet, and he briefly served as president of Columbia University. He was also supportive of the scientific community, establishing the new post of special assistant to the president for science and technology in 1957. It was also his administration that embarked on the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the U-2 reconnaissance plane, and orbiting satellites, all of which utilized the military-industrial complex that he warned against.
But if Eisenhower encouraged the development of these relationships, why did he alert the nation to the dangers inherent in a scientific-technological-industrial elit? The answer to that may be that Eisenhower's address was directed at what science advisor Herbert York called the "hard-sell technologists and their sycophants" who invented the missile gap and tried to exploit Sputnik 1 and the Gaither Report to instill fear that America was losing ground to the Soviets. Clearly, what Eisenhower was warning against was not so much his own science advisors but rather the scientific-technological elite, special interest groups that had sprung from the emphasis on military research and development in industry and universities.
The military-industrial complex, which still exists today, has provided many benefits to society. Superior weapons technology, satellites, nuclear reactors, silicon chips, chemotherapies, molecular genetics, and particle physics have all benefited from the military-industrial-academic alliance. In many ways, the military-industrial complex was simply a continuation of the evolving big science of the prewar years. Most Americans viewed this growth as a positive development for national security and economic growth.
On the down side, however, the military-industrial complex has resulted in the creation of a separate economy whose products, such as nuclear weaponry, are not likely to be used commercially and add little or nothing to long-term economic productivity. It also had made some industries too reliant on defense contracts, the results of which were glaringly apparent in the early 1990s when the end of the Cold War brought about sharp cuts in defense spending, fueling unemployment and an industrial downturn. Finally, many of the jobs in the defense-oriented sector are ones requiring advanced education and training, meaning that America's working class has largely been left out of the military-industrial complex's largesse. All in all, the phenomenon first brought to light in the early 1960s has been a mixed blessing.
Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.; Leslie, Stuart. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.; Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.