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Eisenhower and the Danger of a Military Coup

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Eisenhowerby Jacob G. Hornberger

People are commemorating the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in which he warned Americans about the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex. However, while the commentators are focusing on the obvious impact that the military-industrial complex has on American life — i.e., the out-of-control federal spending, the widespread dependency of the private sector on military spending, the dependency of U.S. cities on military bases, and ever-present crises and threats that are used to expand the power and influence of the military — most everyone seems to be studiously avoiding another danger that Eisenhower may have had in mind: the threat of a military coup here inside the United States.

Look at the words that Eisenhower used:

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. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

If Eisenhower had meant to say “endanger our economic system or monetary system,” it seems to me that he would have said that. He didn’t. He instead said, “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

What more direct danger of a threat to our liberties or democratic processes than a military coup?

For that matter, who better than Ike to know about the danger of a military coup by the military-industrial complex and the CIA? Near the beginning of his term, he authorized the CIA to instigate a coup in Iran in 1953, one that succeeded in ousting the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, and replacing him with the unelected dictator the Shah of Iran, who proceeded to brutally rule the country until he was ousted from power in the Iranian revolution in 1979.

One year after that successful coup, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to engage in another one, this time in Guatemala, where the CIA succeeded in ousting that country’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, and replacing him with a brutal unelected military general. That coup succeeded in throwing the country into a civil war that ended up killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Just prior to his Farewell Address, Ike authorized the CIA and the Pentagon to plan a regime-change operation for Cuba, one that would oust Cuba’s new president, Fidel Castro, from power and replace him with a U.S.-approved ruler. It was Ike who initially approved the planning of what later became the Bay of Pigs disaster under Kennedy.

Was Ike contemplating the danger of a military or CIA coup when he referred to the danger that the military-industrial complex posed to our liberties and democratic processes?

Well, one thing is for sure: Ike’s successor sure contemplated it. After reading the novel Seven Days in May, which posited a coup attempt by the U.S. military to oust the president from office on the ground of national security, Kennedy recommended that the novel be made into a movie to warn Americans that such a possibility was a very real danger here in the United States. Here is an interesting, short video featuring American historian Arthur Schlesinger detailing why JFK wanted the novel to be made into a movie. Or click here for a Google list of articles under a combined search for “Seven Days in May” and “Kennedy.”

Is there any danger of a military coup today? Of course not. The mindset of every single president since Kennedy — LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama — has mirrored that of the military and the CIA: that the national security of the United States depends on an expansive and ever-growing military establishment and CIA, under the rubric of “defense” of course. Thus, there would be no reason for the military and the CIA to oust a president whose policies posed no danger to the military and the CIA or to national security.

But what would happen, say, if a president came into power with the aim of not only reducing military spending but actually dismantling the hundreds of overseas military bases, bringing all the troops home and discharging them, closing the thousands of domestic military bases, repealing the National Security Act of 1947, abolishing the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and ending the standing army.

Then, it seems to me that all bets would be off and that Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s concerns could become a reality.

After all, what would happen today if President Obama were to recommend, say, a 30 percent cut in military and CIA spending to avoid the danger of national bankruptcy? Wouldn’t both the military and the CIA immediately claim that this would be a serious threat to national security, given the perpetual war on terrorism and, recently, the resurgence of the communist threat from North Korea and China? And don’t forget Iran or, for that matter, Cuba itself, which is still ruled by that old Cold War nemesis Fidel Castro.

If military and CIA officials would consider a cut in military spending to be a threat to national security, think how they would react to a complete paradigm shift in which the military-industrial complex and the CIA would be completely demolished. There can be no doubt that they would consider such actions to be akin to surrendering America to the terrorists and to the communists.

Keep in mind that these people consider themselves to be the ultimate guardians of America’s national security. Presidents come and go. They only have 4-year terms. But the Pentagon and the CIA, the ultimate guardians of America’s national security, are permanent.

So, what would happen if the Pentagon and the CIA were faced with a situation in which the American people had made a mistake by electing the wrong person to office, a person whose naivety was leading America down the road to disarmament and surrender to either the terrorists or the communists — a person whose policies would almost certainly lead a communist or terrorist takeover of America.

Would the military and the CIA, the ultimate guardians of national security, simply stand aside and let it happen? How often have we heard the dictum, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact”? What they mean by that dictum is that if it’s necessary to violate the Constitution to save the nation, then so be it.

Even today, we hear statists justifying the U.S.-supported coups in Guatemala and Chile (1973) by saying that the coups were necessary and beneficial because they saved both countries from a communist takeover. If the military and the CIA were convinced that a president’s policies were taking the United States to the same result, would they stand aside and simply let it happen or would they do what they did in Iran and Guatemala and tried to do in Cuba to protect our nation’s existence and national security?

Interestingly, a month after Kennedy was assassinated, former President Harry Truman wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post stating that when he brought the CIA into existence with the National Security Act of 1947, he had assumed that the CIA would simply be an intelligence-gathering agency. Instead, it had grown into a “symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue — and a subject of cold war enemy propaganda.” Truman stated, “We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”

Of course, by that time Truman had long been out of office and, thus, presented no threat to the military-industrial complex and CIA. In fact, at the time Truman wrote his op-ed — December 1963 — America’s new president, Lyndon Johnson, was already working closely with the Pentagon and the CIA to get America actively involved in the Vietnam War, a war that would ultimately take the lives of some 58,000 American men, justified under the rationale of protecting the national security of the United States from a communist takeover.

Perhaps what Ike, Kennedy, and Truman were saying was that the military-industrial complex and the CIA had now become permanent features of American life and that the American people had simply better get used to it. Given the conviction of military and CIA officials that America’s national security depends on the existence of the military-industrial complex and CIA, any president who would threaten national security by attempting to dismantle the military-industrial complex and CIA would face the danger to our liberties and democratic processes to which Eisenhower referred in this Farewell Address.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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