Could a Military Coup Happen in the United States?
by Jacob G. Hornberger
Uh, oh! The Egyptian people might well be learning a lesson about standing armies that America’s Founding Fathers tried to impart to the American people. Egypt’s standing army, which has long been built up and fortified by U.S. foreign aid, is sending a not-so-subtle message to Egyptians that if the civilian authorities are unable to bring the current crisis in Egypt under control, the military might have to step in to establish “order and stability.” Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El Sissi stated, “The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations.”
One might say, “Well, at least the American people don’t have to worry about the U.S. military establishment.”
Interestingly, however, two U.S. presidents and one former U.S. president believed otherwise. Like our nation’s Founding Fathers, they believed that America’s permanent military or intelligence establishment constituted a grave threat to the freedom and well-being of the American people.
The first president was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired army general who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II. In his Farewell Address in 1961, he warned Americans of the grave threat posed by the military-industrial complex to America’s democratic processes:
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.
The second president was John F. Kennedy, who, by the time he was assassinated, totally distrusted the military and the CIA. Here are his precise words about whether a 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.
Moreover, Kennedy had read the novel Seven Days in May, which posited a military coup here in the United States. According to Wikipedia, Kennedy “believed the scenario as described could actually occur in the United States.” Kennedy encouraged the making of a movie based on the novel as a way to warn the American people of the danger, notwithstanding the fact that the Pentagon ardently opposed the making of the film. The movie was ultimately made and starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien.
The former president was Harry S. Truman. Thirty days after the Kennedy assassination, he published an op-ed in the Washington Post about the CIA. Pointing out that the CIA was intended to serve only as an intelligence-gathering agency, Truman stated:
I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue — and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda….
We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.
Since then, however, not one single president has dared to say such things about the military, the military-industrial complex, and the CIA. On the contrary, ever since 1963, every single president has been a cheerleader for an ever-expanding national-security state, with ever-increasing budgets, power, and influence for the military and the CIA.
It should be pointed out though that both before and after Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Truman said those things, the U.S. military and the CIA supported and participated in coups that brought dictatorships into power, such as the 1953 coup in Iran, the 1954 military coup in Guatemala, and the 1973 military coup in Chile.
Why did the U.S. military and the CIA support and participate in those coups, all of which destroyed the democratic processes in those nations? Because they believed in them as fervently as the military establishments that instigated them. They believed the coups were necessary to maintain “order and stability” and to protect “national security” in those nations as well as “national security” here at home.
Time will tell whether the Egyptian people experience the same thing that the Iranian, Guatemalan, Chilean, and others suffered–military coups that destroy democracy in the name of establishing “order and stability” and protecting “national security.”
Of course, Americans once didn’t have to be concerned about the possibility that such a thing could happen here. That’s because Americans chose to live without a standing army, a military industrial complex, and a CIA for the first century-and-a-half of our nation’s existence.