The Cost of Modern War

What would Ike make of the modern military budget?

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower speaks with emphasis at a Washington news conference, March 11, 1959 in Washington. The President said those advocating greater defense spending should have the courage to demand higher taxes.

Perhaps my favorite Eisenhower speech, and one of my favorite Cold War speeches, period, occurred 60 years ago today. In the aftermath of Joseph Stalin's death, Ike saw an opportunity to nip the incipient Cold War in the bud; he laid out his vision in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

He said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

It's a dramatic and evocative image, not very Ike-like, but I think that just adds to its power. As I recount in " White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters," Ike had the aid of speechwriter Emmet Hughes, but it was the president who came up with the notion of enumerating the opportunity cost of the Cold War.

" Here is what I would like to say," he told Hughes one day in the Oval Office. "The jet plane that roars over your head costs three quarters of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning $10,000 every year is going to make in his lifetime. What world can afford this sort of thing for long?"

[ Check out editorial cartoons on defense spending.]

The speech is, alas, little remembered, though it did give rise a viral image highlighting the "every gun that is made..." quote. And it's too bad that it's not more widely remembered because, while the numbers in the speech might be out of date, the sentiment remains important.

But now the numbers don't even have to be out of date. Writing in the New York Times's "At War" blog today, journalist John Ismay runs the figures for the items Eisenhower listed 60 years ago and finds their modern opportunity costs. Whereas a modern bomber could pay for 30 schools in Eisenhower's day, a single B-2 now costs as much as 99 schools; the money spent on a destroyer 60 years ago might have housed 8,000 people, but the money spent on the proposed next generation destroyer "is enough to rebuild all the homes in New Jersey damaged by Hurricane Sandy." He goes through each of Ike's examples – it's a fascinating read.