Gates invokes Ike, challenges Pentagon, Congress to scrutinize military spending

On May 8, the Eisenhower Library marked the 65th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe.  Sectary of Defense Robert Gates was on hand to address the crowd, and used the occasion to challengeboth, the Pentagon and Congress, to take a hard look at how the U.S. defends itself.

Gates explained that the WWII anniversary was not what he was there to discuss.  “Instead, I’d like to discuss the approach [Eisenhower] took, and especially the choices he made…,” Gates said.

Choices that played a major role in keeping America safe, prosperous, and free for nearly six decades.  Choices that, …, can inform greatly the dilemmas we face today in providing for – and paying for – our national defense.

Among the dilemmas Gates was referring to is the disproportional amount of the U.S. Federal Budget presently allocated to its national defense:  23 per-cent of Federal spending in 2009, $782 Billion, nearly the combined total of military spending by all other nations.

It was appropriate, then, for Gates to make his speech at the Kansas library dedicated to former U.S. President and military icon, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Indeed, Gates professed his admiration for the venue’s namesake, holding up Ike’s management of the military budget during his two terms as a model to emulate, going forward.

From Gates’ May 8 remarks:

Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state – militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent.   He once warned that “we must not destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.”  This fueled his passionate belief that the U.S. should spend as much as necessary on national defense – but not one penny more.  And with his peerless credentials and standing, he was uniquely positioned to ask hard questions, make tough choices, and set firm limits.

Due to present economic realities, Gates said, the status quo of how the Pentagon does its business is “unsustainable.”  Gates repeatedly invoked Eisenhower as he laid out his prescriptions for bringing defense spending under control.

Gates mentioned his own personal effort in assessing the necessity of all major weapons systems and setting procurement limits over the last year.  “The gusher of defense spending” following Sept. 11, 2001, “has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time,” Gates said.

The changes we have made in the procurement arena represent an important start.  But only a start…  The Defense Department must take a hard look at every aspect of how it is organized, staffed, and operated – indeed, every aspect of how it does business.  In each instance we must ask:  First, is this respectful of the American taxpayer at a time of economic and fiscal duress?  And second, is this activity or arrangement the best use of limited dollars, given the pressing needs to take care of our people, win the wars we are in, and invest in the capabilities necessary to deal with the most likely and lethal future threats?

Specifically for the Pentagon, Gates “hard look” is focused upon the enormous overhead associated with military bureaucracy which has only grown more bloated since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stressing that the Pentagon, limited by the military’s present level of engagement, can’t make the necessary cuts on its own, Gates also challenged Congress to honor the Defense Department’s request to cease funding for an “alternative engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter and for more C-17 cargo planes…”  Gates stated he’d already encouraged president Obama to veto any budget proposal containing either program.

He also solicited lawmakers’ resolve in honoring the DoD’s desire for “modest increases in premiums and co-pays” for TRICARE, the military health insurance program.  “Leaving aside the sacred obligation we have to America’s wounded warriors, health-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive…”

Gates acknowledged that these savings proposals will be met with stiff institutional resistance.  Lawmakers are loath to cut programs that bring money and jobs to their districts and have reacted adversely to previous TRICARE rate hikes.  “It is not a great mystery what needs to change,” Gates said.

“What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices – choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.”

Personally, I think Gate’s remarks were long overdue.  The ballooning of military spending since the Eisenhower days, until recent years, was a function of the Cold War.  I’m curious, though, how it will be received considering, as I’ve stated previously, that a Cold War mentality continues to persist among lawmakers as well as large segments of the American population.

Certainly, Gates was cognizant of it, referring in his speech to Eisenhower as a “cold warrior” only once.  He made no mention of the Cold War, itself; instead, Gates spoke of “the long peace,” a phrase coined by historian John Lewis Gaddis.

I found Gates’ historical angle to be particularly appealing.  After all, it was Eisenhower who warned of our present predicament upon the completion of his second term as president (see video below).  Now Gates is attempting to bring a measure of sanity to what grew out of the failure of Ike’s predecessors to heed his warning.

Photo from user: jim.greenhill by way of


Inez Deborah Altar

How does this airy-fairy computer whiz-kid of yesteryear fancy all the US´s ongoing military campaigns are going to get paid, out of some virtual reality magician´s hat

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W7 years ago

Defense? They spend a lot on invading other countries!

Ann W.
Ann W7 years ago

Is it national defense whan contractors working in foreign countries routinely overcharge the taxpayer and underpay the locals?

Then there are th cultural barriers.

johan l.
paul l7 years ago

It is high time America turns from the sword to the plough.
Please ask Pres. Obana to listen to Pres. Eisenhower's short video.
Incidentally Mr. Gates looks quite a bit like Eisenhower, doesn't he? Did the man in the street have any idea of the enormous armaments present in the US.
As much as all the other nations combined??

eileen k.
eileen k7 years ago

There are many great comments here, and I respect them. The late President Eisenhower had keen foresight as to what a bloated military/industrial complex would do to the US economy; thus, warned the nation against such a monster.

As we can certainly see, Ike's dire warnings were ignored by his successors, beginning mainly with LBJ and continued to today. Also, another and earlier warning had also been ignored. "Those who do not learn from history," said Spanish writer Jorge Santayana, "will be doomed to repeat it."

As Mary B. states above, the GOP under Ike understood quite well that to have a strong nation, we need a sustainable economy and a strong social safety net, as well as a clean environment. Also needed is a fair tax system based on a national sales tax, not income, which only punishes saving and rewards profligate spending. We must return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, with the ballot box leading the way. Unscrupulous legislators (and state governors) must be replaced with those who will honor their oaths of office and obey the Constitution.

carole abajian
.7 years ago

Eisenhower was right. He warned people, but the little people have no say unless they want to fight, but God have mercy on us, mentioning violence is verboten here. Guess America has not hit bottom yet. Hope we get some courage before the planet ends. Drop by drop. When you are dealing with legalized crime then when they are seen for their colors, immediately will turn to some other group, usually poor and hardworking and use them as scapegoats. Then the focus is off of them.

Lionel Mann
Lionel Mann7 years ago

Nobody who has experienced it supports war. There is nothing heroic, noble, glorious, magnificent, justifiable about war. War is murder, war is a bloodbath; war is denial of civilisation; war is a relapse into barbarism; war is a return to the jungle; war is excrement deposited upon this earth by power-crazed politicians and the armed forces are no more than sanitary operative trying ineffectually to clean up the filth. As a result of war I have seen shivering children scavenging in dustbins for food in sub-zero temperatures, families living in holes in the ground amidst a sea of bombed-out ruins with trucks going round every morning to collect corpses of men, women and children who died overnight from starvation, exposure, hypothermia. Call home your mindless moronic bloodsoaked murderering military and set about using your nation's wealth in repairing the deplorable deficiencies in your social structure.

Rob and Jay B.
Jay S7 years ago

The US doesn't have national Defense if has national Offensive forces to fight the ever present enemy that these paranoid loonies have always seen. Politicians have always needed some dangerous enemy "out there" who wants to destroy the US, even if they have to make them up. Read this excellent article from TruthDig about how the US's actions create more hatred & more enemies for it that wouldn't have been there otherwise. The US has been creating enemies & phony wars ever since they created a reason to attack Mexico so they could steal half of that country - much of what is the western US now. They made up an excuse for the SpanishAmerican war & took Spain's remaining colonies for itself. Then there have been all the many other invasions, occupations & intimidations to take the resources from countries all around the world, but especially in the Americas (fortunately these countries are now freeing themselves from the US & electing progressive democratic governments). Can anyone remember a time when the US wasn't attacking someone? This huge military budget is starving the needs of the people. We must ask if any of these "enemies" would really exist if the US wasn't meddling in their countries? & all for the benefit of US Corporations. The US has never done anything that wasn't in its own Corporate Capitalist national interests. Never. US leaders need the people to be

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

Should the U.S. spend less on national defense? I didn't answer this poll. Like many of the polls here it ask for a black or white answer, most things aren't that simple.

What I think Mr. Gates is forgetting is that Eisenhower delt with weapons that were, how shall I say this, not as advanced as they are today. He didn't have an all volunteer Army to deal with (which was a mistake), as we have today. And the military, in my humble opinion, has always paid too much for everything, so for sure we need some changes.

People who are going to find solutions to this and other problems of today will look forward, not backward. I will be sixty-seven soon and there are things I miss from my past, but not much. The one thing I miss is the simpler times. But life is more complicated, technical, much more global and situations have to be delt differently. Let's learn from history so we don't repeat it, but let's move forward with new innovative thinking.

Mr. Gates is the Secty. of Defence, if he wants the Deprt of Defence to do things differently he should show leadership and make it happen. We are not looking a Eisenhower to fix things we are looking to him and other leaders of today to get the job done.

Jean A.
Jean A7 years ago

The defense budget is bloated and we all know this. Tell your Senators this or you won't vote for them, The only way Americans will get their way is by the vote. There is your power so use it. Lets spend money on health and social problems in this country. When I hear from Republicans we can't afford health care I want to wring their necks. Lets gear down in Afghanistan and get out next year and let them fight their own battles. We have too many battles right here in America. The great Industril, Military Complex needs to be squashed. Cyber Space is where the new war will be.