The Fourth Branch of Government
One of the most interesting aspects of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1960 was his warning to the American people regarding the danger that America’s military-industrial complex posed to our democratic processes. Eisenhower didn’t make it clear whether he was referring to the economic dimension associated with warfare-state spending or to the possibility of a military takeover here in the United States.
Of course, statists would say that there’s no way that Eisenhower would have been referring to the danger of a coup here in the United States. He would have had to be talking about the economic danger posed by ever-increasing spending on warfare-state programs, they would say. The United States is the last place where people would have to fear the danger of a military coup.
Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, however, did not share that sentiment. Kennedy was truly concerned about the possibility of a military coup during his administration, especially given the deep animosity that the military and the CIA had toward his foreign policies, as I outlined in my article “The War Between JFK and the National-Security State.” Interestingly, while I may have missed it, I have never come across anyone who has mocked or ridiculed Kennedy for his concern over this possibility.
Paul Burgess “Red” Fay was the acting U.S. secretary of the navy in 1963 and a very close friend of JFK. In his book The Pleasure of His Company, Fay recites what Kennedy said in response to whether a military coup was possible here in the United States:
It’s possible. It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, “Is he too young and inexperienced?” The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment…. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen…. But it won’t happen on my watch.
Kennedy had read the novel “Seven Days in May,” which posited an attempted military takeover of the U.S. government. Believing that the scenario outlined in the book was a very real possibility, Kennedy encouraged Hollywood director John Frankenheimer to make the novel into a movie, to serve as a warning to the American people.
No president since Eisenhower and Kennedy has dared to take on the military, the CIA, and the NSA. For all practical purposes, the national-security state apparatus has grown to become the fourth branch of the federal government and the most powerful branch at that. The federal judiciary defers to it. So does the Congress. So does the president, whoever happens to be the president. Since the Kennedy administration, few people within the federal government have dared to tangle with the national-security state establishment in any fundamental way.
Consider the current “shutdown.” Neither Congress nor the president even considered the possibility that military personnel are “non-essential.” That’s not because they aren’t non-essential — many of them clearly are. It’s because no one is going to jack with the most powerful branch of the government.
Consider the thousands of military bases here in the United States. What purpose do they serve? Are they there to protect America’s cities and towns from a foreign invasion? Well, there is no possibility of an invasion of the United States. None. No foreign state has the money, the military capability, or the interest in invading and occupying the United States.
Thus, you could shut down all those bases today and send all those people home for an indefinite period of time. Nothing would happen. They serve no essential purpose at all.
The same applies to the people who are serving at hundreds of military bases in foreign lands. They could be sent home and, again, there would be no invasion or occupation of the United States. This is especially true in Europe, where the threat of a Soviet invasion disappeared a long time ago.
But that’s not what’s happened. Instead, the military is treated as an exalted and privileged branch of the government. In fact, just this week the Pentagon announced that along with all active-duty personnel, who are exempt from the shutdown, it had decided to exempt hundreds of thousands of civilian employees from the shutdown. The Pentagon simply decided that they’re essential too. Never mind that under the Constitution, Congress, not the Pentagon, maintains the power of the purse. What matters is what the Pentagon thinks is necessary for “national security,” not the Congress.
Is Congress objecting? Is the president objecting? Are the federal courts objecting? Not on your life. Nobody in those three branches is going to object to the national-security branch of the government.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are announcing that they intend to continue supporting the military dictatorship in Egypt, albeit in a reduced amount. That, of course, shouldn’t surprise anyone given the Pentagon and the CIA’s longtime support of dictatorships in foreign lands, especially the ones they helped to install, such as the military dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere.
Does the danger associated with the military-intelligence establishment that concerned Eisenhower and Kennedy, and for that matter America’s Founding Fathers, exist today? Of course not simply because the military, the CIA, and the NSA have — and get — whatever they want—money, weaponry, power, and influence. Why initiate a coup when you already have and get whatever you want? The fascinating question, of course, is: What would happen if the American people began questioning the necessity for this all-powerful fourth branch of government and decided instead to restore a three-branch constitutional republic to our land?
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.