The military-industrial complex was not born by accident. In 1950, as he gave the go-ahead for the world's first hydrogen bomb, President Harry S Truman asked for a new strategic policy to go with it. The resulting document -- NSC 68 -- set down a rationale that has remained part of official thinking on the Cold War and the arms industry ever since. Its author was Paul H. Nitze, now President Reagan's senior adviser on arms control.
" . . . Our military strength is becoming dangerously inadequate," Nitze, then a State Department policy planner, wrote. "It is imperative that this trend be reversed by a much more rapid and concerted buildup . . . . Budgetary considerations will need to be subordinated to the stark fact that our very independence as a nation may be at stake."
The world did indeed seem dangerous -- U.S. aircraft had detected signs of the first Soviet atomic explosion, communists had prevailed in China, Berlin had been blockaded. Secretary of State Dean Acheson concurred with Nitze. He told Truman that "he must ask for money, and if it is a question of asking for too little or too much, he should ask for too much."
New military steps would be of little use, Acheson advised, "whereas what we do in the line of stepping up production will strike fear into our enemies."
And so, when the nation went to war in Korea in 1950, the arms industry geared up, and when the nation came home in 1953, the industry stayed at war. Despite moderate ups and downs since, the industry never demobilized as it had after World War II and every earlier conflict.
Some in the Truman administration worried that a sustained buildup eventually would harm the economy. NSC 68, one assistant secretary of state wrote, would trigger "a gigantic armament race, a huge buildup of conventional arms that quickly become obsolescent."
Deputy Budget Director William F. Schaub warned that the buildup would "divert resources from the civilian purposes to which they should be put" while "dampening" productivity and twisting "the psychology and orientation of our society." Truman, having campaigned on a promise to keep the military budget below $15 billion, fretted over Nitze's proposals.
But NSC 68 put forward the theory, fairly novel at the time, that spending more for weapons would nurture prosperity. And not even its authors expected the buildup to last as long as it has.
James B. Conant, Harvard University president and an adviser on the report, said the Cold War with the Soviets would surely be over in 30 years.
"By 1980, their absurdities and static system would cause them to grind to a stop," Conant said, according to a State Department memo. " . . . The competition between our dynamic free society and their static slave society should be all in our favor, or if not, we deserve to lose."
Nitze agreed, according to the document. "What we were trying to do," he said, "was to buy 30 years of peace . . . . "