What Ike’s military industrial complex speech didn’t say
Today is the 61st anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s coining of the Military Industrial Complex in his farewell address, Jan. 17, 1961. His departure and the incoming Kennedy administration would herald, at least in popular lore, the New Frontier. Three years later, the young Kennedy would be dead, an assassination forever at the center of unresolved collective disbelief and mystery. Conspiracy theories have abounded, most all of them involving some level of government cover-up in the aftermath of the assassination.
The latest tranche of declassified JFK documents in December hasn’t helped, for sure. They reaffirm a level of CIA knowledge of suspected lone gunman Harvey Lee Oswald years and weeks before the assassination heretofore unknown. The CIA had long constructed a narrative, beginning during the 1964 Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy’s killing, that the agency’s awareness of Oswald before November 22, 1963 was minimal. We know now, due to all of the documents declassified up through the last year, that the CIA was actively lying.
According to longtime CIA and Kennedy assassination biographer Jefferson Morely, the amount of info the agency had stored up on this so-called lonesome loser before that day in Dallas was “more like maximal”:
By the time President Kennedy left Washington for a political trip to Texas on November 21, 1963 the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff had a file containing 42 documents detailing Oswald’s whereabouts, politics, personal life, and foreign contacts. The Agency had even intercepted and read his mail, according to a document declassified in 2000. The story of the supposed lone gunman, as told in the Warren Commission report, implied the CIA knew little about him, which simply wasn’t true.
In fact, the men and women of the CIA monitored Oswald’s movements for four years before Kennedy was killed. Indeed, they followed him all the way to Dallas. As I reported in the Daily Beast in 2017, a declassified routing slip shows that CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton received an FBI report that Oswald was living in Texas on November 15, one week before Kennedy was killed.
We also know — all from internal memos in the CIA’s own hand — that the agency was aware of Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union in 1959, his return in 1961 with a Russian wife, and his infamous scuffles with pro-Castro and (CIA funded) anti-Castro activists in New Orleans. They knew he had contacted a Soviet intelligence officer in Mexico City in October 1963.
The December document dump showed for the first time in full that that the CIA sent a “reassuring cable” to its Mexico City office that Oswald’s defection and stay in the USSR had a “maturing effect” on him. “Forty-three days later,” writes Morely, “Kennedy was dead and Oswald was under arrest for the crime.”
None of this of course is a smoking gun that the CIA killed the president, or that the agency knew of perpetrators other than Oswald, and covered it up. But it leaves the biggest question unanswered, “why did the CIA lie?”
What any of this has to do with Eisenhower is clear. We know that the CIA under Eisenhower had flourished in its secret Cold War operations throughout the 1950’s, particularly under the aegis of Allen Dulles (Deputy CIA Director 1951-1953; Director 1953-1961). While the president had shown a reticence for major military conflict (as a former commanding general he had seen his share in World War II), he had allowed the CIA a long tether in terms of covert action, which we now know included a sordid number of activities, including the assassination of political leaders (and/or attempts), regime change (including the overthrow Iran’s democratic elected leader Mossadegh in 1953), and notorious mind control/LSD experiments. Ted Snider has a good round-up of some of the most notorious CIA-backed foreign coups here. The bottom line is by November 22, 1963, they became essentially, unaccountable.
“Ike madly loved covert operations. Guatemala and Iran were his babies and he went on to Indonesia, China, Eastern Europe, the Congo, Cuba, etc, with covert gusto. He personally ordered assassinations of foreign leaders and pushed for ‘more extreme’ regime-change ops,” Stephen Kinzer, author of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, and The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, tells me.
“Part of the reason he did this was because he saw covert ops as a peace project. He had sent kids off to die by the thousands in WWII and was deeply affected by it,” Kinzer surmises. “Now he found a way to work America’s will in the world without wars — fantastic! So the MIC speech was certainly a reflection of his budget-cutting instinct, but there was also an unspoken message: ‘forget the bomber squads and tanks, rely on covert ops the way I’ve been doing.’ It’s cheaper and a lot fewer people die.”
Eisenhower’s address was bold and prescient in that it called out the arms complex as a potential abuser of a free and open democratic system (as it is today, no doubt):
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…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.”
What he did not realize is that the covert alternative that he had allowed Dulles to expand had become its own gigantic complex of spies, paired with scientists and researchers, a labyrinth of civilian institutional collaborators, and an explosion of unrestrained taxpayer funding, corrupted by power and driven by ideology, secrecy, and fear. By its very nature it would thwart any possibility for an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” and not until the 1974 Church Committee hearings did the American people know the things that had been done in their names, before and after the Kennedy assassination. Thanks to the destruction and/or classification of files we may never know the full extent. Meanwhile, the CIA’s operations throughout the Reagan years, and more recently the Global War on Terror, showed that covert ops had become a full complement of the MIC, not an alternative. Perhaps Eisenhower could not have anticipated that.
One thing he should have considered when he spoke of the breakdown of the democratic process: The first and biggest step toward that collapse is the loss of trust in the government. Who could argue with a straight face that the CIA’s activities during that era — the first, possibly most robust decade of the agency’s existence — hadn’t begun the awful turn against our institutions, which is at defcon level 5 today. The question now is not so much “why would the CIA lie,” but “why would we ever believe them?” This is as much Eisenhower’s legacy as his farewell address.