A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
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. [emphasis added]
The phrase was thought to have been "war-based" industrial complex before becoming "military" in later drafts of Eisenhower's speech, a claim passed on only by oral history.Geoffrey Perret, in his biography of Eisenhower, claims that, in one draft of the speech, the phrase was "military–industrial–congressional complex", indicating the essential role that the United States Congress plays in the propagation of the military industry, but the word "congressional" was dropped from the final version to appease the then-currently elected officials.James Ledbetter calls this a "stubborn misconception" not supported by any evidence; likewise a claim by Douglas Brinkley that it was originally "military–industrial–scientific complex". Additionally, Henry Giroux claims that it was originally "military–industrial–academic complex". The actual authors of the speech were Eisenhower's speechwriters Ralph E. Williams and Malcolm Moos.
Attempts to conceptualize something similar to a modern "military–industrial complex" existed before Eisenhower's address. Ledbetter finds the precise term used in 1947 in close to its later meaning in an article in Foreign Affairs by Winfield W. Riefler. In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills had claimed in his book The Power Elite that a class of military, business, and political leaders, driven by mutual interests, were the real leaders of the state, and were effectively beyond democratic control. Friedrich Hayek mentions in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom the danger of a support of monopolistic organization of industry from World War II political remnants:
Another element which after this war is likely to strengthen the tendencies in this direction will be some of the men who during the war have tasted the powers of coercive control and will find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the humbler roles they will then have to play [in peaceful times]."
Vietnam War–era activists, such as Seymour Melman, referred frequently to the concept, and use continued throughout the Cold War: George F. Kennan wrote in his preface to Norman Cousins's 1987 book The Pathology of Power, "Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military–industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy."
In the late 1990s James Kurth asserted, "By the mid-1980s ... the term had largely fallen out of public discussion." He went on to argue that "[w]hatever the power of arguments about the influence of the military–industrial complex on weapons procurement during the Cold War, they are much less relevant to the current era".
Contemporary students and critics of U.S. militarism continue to refer to and employ the term, however. For example, historian Chalmers Johnson uses words from the second, third, and fourth paragraphs quoted above from Eisenhower's address as an epigraph to Chapter Two ("The Roots of American Militarism") of a 2004 volume on this subject. P. W. Singer's book concerning private military companies illustrates contemporary ways in which industry, particularly an information-based one, still interacts with the U.S. federal and the Pentagon.
The expressions permanent war economy and war corporatism are related concepts that have also been used in association with this term. The term is also used to describe comparable collusion in other political entities such as the German Empire (prior to and through the first world war), Britain, France, and (post-Soviet) Russia.
Linguist and anarchist theorist Noam Chomsky has suggested that "military–industrial complex" is a misnomer because (as he considers it) the phenomenon in question "is not specifically military." He asserts, "There is no military–industrial complex: it's just the industrial system operating under one or another pretext (defense was a pretext for a long time)."