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President Dwight D. Eisenhower was tired of finding ads for Titan missiles in all his magazines. It gave you the feeling, he said, that the business of America was arms. So 25 years ago today the general-turned-chief-executive, in his farewell address, spoke from his heart about the irony of the nuclear age. To stay at peace, he said, the US needed a large arsenal; but the cost of this arsenal could threaten the nation's freedom.

``We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex,'' he said, coining the most-remembered phrase of his presidency.

The lesson for today in the speech, says Ike's grandson, is not necessarily that defense spending needs to be cut. It is that weapons budgets must be carefully judged to distinguish what the Pentagon needs from the things it merely covets.

``He wasn't calling for the dismantling of that complex,'' says David Eisenhower. ``He was saying it deserves special scrutiny in American democracy.''

After smashing Hitler to help end World War II, five-star general Dwight Eisenhower came home and spent eight years in office fighting with Congress over military appropriations. Keeping the defense budget down was perhaps the major theme of the Eisenhower presidency, notes Ike biographer Stephen Ambrose.

Between 1952 and 1960, Defense Department funds stayed relatively stable, at about $46 billion annually.

Ike did believe that he was holding office in dangerous times and that the cold war dictated maintenance of strong forces. In his final State of the Union address, he boasted that he had overseen development of nuclear missiles able to ``strike a target 5,000 miles away in half an hour,'' as well as supersonic jet fighters and nuclear-powered warships.

But as someone who had spent most of his life in the military, Eisenhower felt free to throw out weapons programs he felt were unneeded. Money for development of the B-70 supersonic bomber was sharply cut, because Ike felt missiles rendered such a bomber unnecessary. He opposed big nuclear-powered aircraft carriers because he thought they would be useless in a war.

He believed strongly that defense budgets should ``take into account the ability of the domestic economy to support them,'' says Dr. Ambrose, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans.

All this burst out in his final official speech, given at 8:30 p.m., Jan. 17, 1961, over a nationwide TV and radio hookup.

In the speech, Eisenhower warned that the US faced a ``hostile ideology,'' and must bear ``without complaint the burdens of a long and complex struggle.''

But he stressed the ``need to maintain balance'' between national programs.

He warned against the illusion that ``some spectacular and costly action'' could give the US the upper hand in the cold war.

He noted that the US had ``been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportion,'' allied with a large Pentagon establishment.

With this military-industrial complex, ``the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,'' he said.

When judging what warnings the speech holds for today, the political context Ike spoke in must be kept in mind. For years, particularly in his second term, Democrats and the press had been after him to increase defense spending.

Indeed, first drafts of the speech referred to ``military-congressional-industrial complex'', says Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, who was a key Eisenhower aide. ``Congressional'' was eliminated because Ike didn't want his farewell speech to be seen as a partisan slap.

By some measures the defense budget today is less burdensome than it was in Ike's time. In 1960, Defense Department outlays accounted for 45 percent of the federal budget, and represented 8.3 percent of US gross national product. In 1985, defense outlays were 25.7 percent of the federal budget, and 6.4 percent of GNP, according to the Pentagon.

But Pentagon critics say that the economy today is weaker than it was in 1960, and that the defense budget thus constitutes more of a drag. In particular, it fuels the large federal deficit, say these critics.

And defense -- which creates relatively few, high salaried jobs -- takes up a larger share of the US durable-goods manufacturing sector than it did 25 years ago.

``Everything you spend on defense above the need is a needless drag on the economy,'' says Dr. Robert Lamson, chief operating officer of Business Executives for National Security.

Judging ``need,'' of course, is where people begin to differ.

To the Reagan administration, everything in the Pentagon budget -- B-1 bombers, MX missiles, the Strategic Defense Initiative -- is needed to counter an aggressive Soviet arms buildup.

President Eisenhower worried whether presidents not raised in the military, as he had been, would be good judges of military need.

That may be what his farewell speech was really about, says his former aide.

``He said what he wanted to say,'' says General Goodpaster. ``It was a serious moment for a man that had borne the obligations he had.''

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