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What would President Eisenhower say about our military-surveillance industrial complex?

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower is remembered for issuing the first screaming alarm about the growing power of what he called the military-industrial complex. His farewell address in 1961 is largely remembered for this major milestone, but it's worth listening to the entire fifteen minute speech to see how directly his warning applies to us today, in the 21st century. 

Today we are told that the war on terror could last for decades, just like the Cold War on communism did. We pour trillions of dollars into war and surveillance every year, forcing us to fiddle around at the edges looking for ways we can cut anything else from the budget. Meanwhile our leaders don't seem to worry about how the character of a society and a government change when its national defense and surveillance regimes are not only equipped but also staffed and managed by private corporations. But it is clear that the character of our society has changed, and not for the better. The military-industrial complex of the 1960s has grown into the military-surveillance industrial complex of 2013, and it is having an adverse impact on our civil liberties at home.

"The very structure of our society" is at stake, Eisenhower warned in 1961. When profit is on the line, powerful interests that benefit from endless war and increased state surveillance at home make the rolling back of those policies very difficult. Ordinary people don't have lobbies nearly as effective as the war and surveillance industry. Fiesty and mighty as the ACLU may be, the organization cannot compete with Lockheed Martin when it comes to fighting federal grants to police departments to buy surveillance equipment or military grade tactical gear.

The grave danger President Eisenhower warned us about has only grown more extreme. Today nearly five million people hold security clearances in the United States, many of whom work for private corporations that routinely net multi-billion dollar contracts for their secret services. Universities are flush with military dollars to develop the latest robotic, surveillance and weapons technologies, but are freezing hirings of history professors.

That's too bad, because we need all the history lessons we can get.

As William Faulkner said, "History is not dead; it's not even really past." We'd do well to pay attention to past conflicts like the Cold War as we examine contemporary issues pertaining to emergency laws that last for decades and constitutional norms. Our democracy may depend on it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.