No, it’s not a round number of years since the night of Tuesday, January 17, 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on national radio and TV, delivered his farewell. Three days later, on Friday, January 20, at noon, he would leave the White House in the hands of his elected successor, John F. Kennedy, who defeated Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon.
In this speech Eisenhower issued his memorable warning against “the military-industrial complex,” perhaps the single most memorable utterance of his eight years in office. We recall that speech now in the light of the momentous event that will befall our nation this January 20th, 2017, the inauguration of businessman/tycoon Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States.
Eisenhower’s record in retrospect has earned a warm, nostalgic glow that is not wholly undeserved. Yes, he was a Cold Warrior, a good friend of Big Business and imperial intervention, and he failed to stop the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Yet he brought the Korean conflict to an end, appointed California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was for his time a realistic gradualist on civil rights, he did not pressure NATO to respond militarily to the Hungarian crisis of 1956 (and thus possibly start World War III), and he presided over a country with a high rate of unionization that became history’s greatest middle-class society.
A theme Eisenhower articulates several times in this speech is “balance”:
“The need to maintain balance in and among national programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped-for advantages — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”
Eisenhower reflected on his relations with Congress, which “on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the Nation good rather than mere partisanship…. America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”
Compared to the bombastic rhetoric America has now become used to — although hopefully not inured to — Eisenhower comes across as sober and deliberate as he approaches his famous warning to history:
“Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research — these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
“But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: The record of many decades stands as proof that our people and their government have, in the main, understood these truths and have responded to them well, in the face of threat and stress. But threats, new in kind or degree, constantly arise. Of these, I mention two only.
“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
“Now, 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 State house, 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.”
“An alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Could Eisenhower possibly have been thinking ahead to us today?
Plundering our precious resources
Although the Eisenhower administration did have its modest share of corruption — after all, he did choose Richard M. Nixon as his vice president and employed the infamous Dulles brothers at State and CIA — he himself was a man of modest mien who did not seek personal enrichment.
“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time,” he continued with this theme. “As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
“During the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
“Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war — as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years — I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight…. As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance along that road.”
In conclusion, the retiring president addressed “all the peoples of the world”:
“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibility; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
Americans, and citizens of the world, are unlikely to hear language of this intelligence, eloquence and magnanimity soon again emanating from the White House. We have traveled a long, long lane and still have many miles to go.
The complete audio transcript may be found here.