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In his last speech as President, he inaugurated the spirit of the 1960s
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Whatever the calendars say, in some figurative sense America’s 1950s ended, and the 1960s began, on January 17, 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the most memorable farewell address by a Chief Executive since another old soldier, George Washington, warned his new nation back in 1796 to stick together always in the cause of its founding principles. Ike, of course, had led the Allied forces in Europe to the triumph of democracy in World War II, a century and a half after General Washington had won America’s freedom in the Revolutionary War. What remains striking about the very similar public good-byes the two generals made upon leaving the Presidency 165 years apart is the depth of thought in their enduring appeals to humanity’s better nature.
Given the parallels in their military and political careers, it’s little wonder that the later President would take an interest in George Washington’s heartfelt farewell address to the nation. In fact, Eisenhower was fascinated one day in the fall of 1958 when his speechwriter Malcolm C. Moos, a tall, demure young political scientist and historian on loan to the White House from Johns Hopkins University, showed him a book on notable presidential declarations, including Washington’s farewell. This “speech” was never actually spoken but had been written by the first President, in the form of a letter addressed to the American people, as “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens,” from drafts by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The resulting 6,000-word valediction was released to the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser and published by the newspaper on September 19, 1796, five and a half months before Washington left office. Although Eisenhower’s own Presidency wouldn’t end for another two years, reading about his most distant predecessor’s farewell set him musing, according to Moos. “I hope you’ll be thinking about this,” the President instructed his aide.
Moos and a fellow White House speechwriter, Ralph F. Williams, a U.S. Navy captain, would certainly deliver, and on the same themes. Eisenhower shared the concerns of General Washington, for both had spent nearly their entire pre-presidential careers in uniform. Their military experiences had brought them to the conclusion that making their profession obsolete should be the goal of humankind. As Ike was quoted saying in the 1952 book Eisenhower: The Man and the Symbol, by John Gunther, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
In fact, the unnecessary cost of lives in the Korean War had brought Dwight Eisenhower to the White House in the first place, and he had achieved his primary objective six months into his first term, ending the war in July 1953. After that, with 36,000-plus Americans having been killed in a useless conflict, Eisenhower resolved that under his stewardship the United States would fight no more land wars. There must be a “balance between minimum requirements in the costly implements of war and the health of our economy,” he wrote to a friend after the Korean War. In April 1953 he said in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” This was not just rhetoric: The Commander in Chief soon after declared he wanted a streamlined “New Look” for U.S. military strategy (after a popular term for the lower-hemline fashions of the day).
During his first three years as President, Eisenhower actually managed to cut the federal budget, largely by controlling defense expenditures. By nature a fiscal conservative, he had no patience for corporate contractors’ insistence that the United States needed ever more defense systems. He had even less tolerance for the same argument coming from his first Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, who had left the presidency of General Motors to serve in the administration and then vexed Eisenhower by giving the impression at his Senate confirmation hearings that he would be a shill for the arms industry (stating, “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa”) and who once in office had made a practice of submitting enormous Pentagon budget requests.
By the time Wilson resigned in 1957, the administration was beset by charges that its “New Look” defense policies were letting the Soviet Union gain a substantial lead in high-tech strategic-weapons strength. The critical drumbeat had begun when the Soviets tested their first H-bomb in 1953, and it reached a deafening peak in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. Eisenhower even took a hit from the report of a committee he himself had appointed to assess U.S. national security policy. Chaired by H. Rowan Gaither of the Ford Foundation, the committee concluded that the administration’s defense-budget penny-pinching put America at grave risk.