01/13/2011 05:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2014

Heed Eisenhower and King: Slash the Military Budget

This weekend Americans will observe the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and mark the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, perhaps the most significant presidential valedictory in modern times.

What do these two giants of American history have in common?

Both rang the alarm about an unchecked military establishment devouring a disproportionate amount of the federal budget at the expense of pressing domestic needs.

Given the current defense budget -- at $725 billion -- is at its highest level since World War II in inflation-adjusted dollars and double what it was in 1998, their warnings remain all too germane today.

Eisenhower's farewell speech, delivered on January 17, 1961, was most notable for his warning about the "military-industrial complex": the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry."

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," he said. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

He called for the country to maintain a balance among national priorities. And he stressed that Americans must consider the future consequences of their choices. "We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage," he cautioned. "We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

Six years later, echoes of Eisenhower's admonition could be heard in a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave exactly one year before he was assassinated.

Most remember King as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and the August 1963 march on Washington, when he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. But that was the King of the early 1960s -- before violence erupted in our inner cities, and before the country plunged deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. King's April 4, 1967, speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," rebuked his critics who claimed "peace and civil rights don't mix" and condemned the violence perpetrated by the United States on the Vietnamese people. He called for an end to U.S. bombing and a unilateral ceasefire. And he called for mass protest and resistance.

More important, King went "beyond Vietnam" to address what he saw as a destructive flaw in U.S. priorities. For King, the Vietnam War was "but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." Linking the war to domestic policy, he drew the connection between spending billions of dollars on death and destruction and the neglect of the poor, the jobless, the undereducated and the sick at home. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift," he said, "is approaching spiritual death."

In January 1989, in the waning days of the Cold War, I ran excerpts from King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech in the peace magazine I edited, Nuclear Times. As it turned out, it was our second-to-last issue. With the end of the U.S.-Soviet conflict, the foundations that underwrote our bimonthly assumed that our mission had been accomplished, so they cut off our funding. There were no other enemies that matched the might of the U.S.S.R., and many in the peace community we covered were looking forward to a "peace dividend." They presumed the United States now could cut its military budget dramatically and spend that money at home. That perception was bolstered two years later when Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared: "I'm running out of enemies. I'm down to Castro and Kim Il Sung."

Powell's observation 20 years ago is still basically true: The United States has no militarily significant rivals, notwithstanding the terrorist threat and the war in Afghanistan. Regardless, the Defense Department is still buying Cold-War style weapons systems, still maintaining more than 700 bases and facilities outside our borders, and still spending at Cold-War levels - more than all other countries' military budgets combined.

Last month, President Obama's Deficit Commission recommended a modest $100 billion in military spending cuts over five years. After initially rejecting any reductions, the Obama administration last week did an about-face and ordered the Pentagon to cut $78 billion over the next five years. That amounts to less than $16 billion a year -- a paltry 2.2 percent decline.

Given U.S. military superiority, we can afford to be much more aggressive. For example, cutting our spending on NATO, a Cold-War relic with no strategic purpose, would save about $100 billion a year. Killing the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program would save more than $300 billion. It would be a lot more cost-effective to continue the current jet fighter programs instead.

The bottom line is we simply cannot afford all the bells and whistles the military-industrial complex and its friends in Congress want, nor do we need them. So when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dwight D. Eisenhower this weekend, we also should remember their alarm bells about a bloated military establishment, which ring even truer today.

Elliott Negin is the former editor of Nuclear Times magazine, which the Utne Reader named one of the "10 magazines that made a difference" in the 1980s by presenting "bold new perspectives on global survival." He now is the media director of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Union of Concerned Scientists.