Eisenhower famously introduced the concept of the "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.

"Military-industrial" is straightforward enough. But what does "complex" mean here? Was this a usual meaning of that word? None of the Wiktionary definitions really seem to fit, other than perhaps:

  1. An assemblage of related things; a collection.

Are there other analogous uses?

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  • It's rare to use it to describe abstract things like this. Usually it would describe a group of buildings which are all associated, like a "Sports Complex". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_complex – Max Williams Oct 17 '17 at 8:51
  • 2
    1) Look in one or two, or three or four, dictionaries compiled by professional lexicographers. 2) Such as Oxford 3) Wiktionary is unreliable. – AmE speaker Oct 17 '17 at 8:51

1 a whole made up of complicated or interrelated parts

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed, 2003

This meaning of a system of parts/features that in combination create a whole unit is used a fair amount in medicine, especially in anatomy and physiology and in the names of certain disease syndromes.

Some examples might include:

  • the Golgi complex, a type of cellular organelle
  • AIDS-related complex
  • Eisenmenger complex, a medical condition involving the heart
  • the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) complex, a group of genes involved in immune function
  • the juxtaglomerular complex, an anatomical structure in the kidney
  • the labio-maxillary complex, an anatomical structure of the face
  • the major histocompatibility complex, a group of related genes that control immune function
  • membrane attack complex, a group of proteins in the blood
  • VATER complex, a rare constellation of developmental anomalies

Note that "complex" is also used with a somewhat-related meaning in chemistry

3 a chemical association of two or more species (as ions or molecules) joined usually by weak electrostatic bonds rather than covalent bonds

Examples might include:

  • B-vitamin complex
  • antigen-antibody complex
  • enzyme-substrate complex
  • iron-dextran complex

It seems that Eisenhower's phrase has inspired a number of similar terms, such as "the prison-industrial complex," "the medical-industrial complex," "man-machine complex," "the military-entertainment complex," and "the social-industrial complex."

I am not sure when the sort of phrasing that Eisenhower used, combining social/economic/political systems in the abstract, was first introduced.

There is no entry of that term in the Corpus of Historical American English prior to 1961, but there are multiple listings of it after that year. Nor is there an entry of the term before 1960 in the Hansard Corpus, which covers proceedings of the British Parliament from 1803-2005; but there are 51 listings of it after that year.

The combination "military-industrial" probably goes back many years before Eisenhower's speech. At a minimum, from searches of Google Books, it appears that that phrase was used as "military-industrial cooperation" in an article published in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, volume 75, page 300, circa 1949(?).

The phrase "academic-industrial complex" seems to have been used in a party platform statement of the California Democratic Party:

California continues to receive the greatest share of defense and space technology contracts. The vast academic-industrial complex which has developed in our State is unmatched anywhere in the world.

The Google snippet that includes this phrase seems to be for the 1954 California Democratic State Central Committee's platform, but that might not be the correct year (a shortcoming of how snippets from Google Books' searches are displayed).

An article published in a 1918 edition of The New Republic (vol 17, issue 215, page184-186) used the phrase "military-industrial programme":

They will prove that the whole military-industrial programme of the United States during the first twelve months of the war was a feeble and futile failure.

An WWII-era article in Hutchinson's Pictorial History of the War used that same phrase:

These notes could hardly conclude without a reference to President Roosevelt's enunciation of the military-industrial programme which the United States is to fulfil in 1942....

R. Buckminster Fuller referred to "the Industrial Complex" in articles published in 1950:

In the present world emergency the advantages of the Industrial Complex represent the only buoyant object which the people of the world know may effect their rescue within their durable limits....

A letter to the editor of the New York Times published in 1956 declared:

The capitalist is controlled by the consumer. Each individual consumer stands at the economic heart of a vast industrial complex which exists primarily to serve him. It is he who defines the purpose of the new capitalism.

  • Thank you for such an informative answer! So it seems like the contemporary uses were all very concrete, describing relationships between physical things, and his more abstract use was novel. – Steve Bennett Oct 18 '17 at 0:16
  • @SteveBennett, you might want to keep the request for responses open a few more days. Someone may be able to find earlier uses. – Shosht Oct 18 '17 at 7:19

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