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His farewell speech as President inaugurated the spirit of the 1960s
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
On February 7, 1961, The New York Times ran a two-column headline on its front page that read: KENNEDY DEFENSE STUDY FINDS NO EVIDENCE OF A ‘MISSILE GAP’. Ike had always insisted there was no such gap; now JFK’s own Secretary of Defense, the former Ford Motor Company president Robert S. McNamara, had no choice but to admit that Eisenhower had been right. Not only could the United States survive a full-scale Soviet ICBM attack, it could come out of it with enough weapons left to destroy every city in the U.S.S.R., kill 180 million Soviet citizens, and take out 80 percent of Soviet industrial capacity. Indeed, studies conducted in 1963 indicated that actual Soviet ICBM strength in 1961 amounted to only 3.5 percent of the official U.S. estimate.
Troubled by the President’s distress over the defense-gap allegations, Malcolm Moos and his White House colleague Ralph Williams set out in October 1960 to craft a retort to the military establishment, the defense contractors, and their patrons in Congress. They began by reviewing a disturbing congressional report issued earlier that year showing that some 1,400 retired U.S. military officers above the rank of major—including 261 generals and admirals—were in the employ of the nation’s top 100 defense contractors. After a long conversation about this with Moos, Williams offered the foundation for Eisenhower’s farewell address in an October 31 memorandum. “The problem of militarism—for the first time in its history, the United States has a permanent war-based industry,…” Williams wrote. “Not only that, but flag and general officers retiring at an early age take positions in the war-based industrial complex, shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.…We must be very careful to ensure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.”
Eisenhower hadn’t given much thought to his parting words to the nation since he’d read George Washington’s Farewell Address two years earlier, but that changed after he received a telephone message on December 14, 1960, from Norman Cousins, the editor of The Saturday Review and an arms-control advocate. Cousins urged the President to “give a ‘farewell address’ to the country…reviewing your Administration, telling of your hopes for the future. A great, sweeping document.” Already inclined to do this, Eisenhower requested a draft from his speechwriters, into which Moos incorporated the ideas from Williams’s memo.
Shortly before Christmas, Moos handed the finished draft to the President, who “liked the speech,” the writer recalled. “He said, I think you have got something here, Malcolm. Let me sleep on it.” With the help of his brother Milton Eisenhower, then president of Johns Hopkins University, the Chief Executive made some revisions to the draft, but not many: He rewrote only a few passages and excised perhaps a dozen lines. The original cautioned against a “military-industrial-scientific complex,” but at the urging of Eisenhower’s science adviser, James Killian, it was shortened to the now-famous phrase. The White House staff also debated if the speech should be made before Congress, for maximum publicity value, but Eisenhower vetoed that idea, stating, “I’m more interested in how this reads a generation from now than I am in the comment it acts in the headlines.”
He delivered the address nationally on radio and television at 8:30 P.M. on January 17, 1961, just three days before the handsome and vigorous young John F. Kennedy captivated the nation with an inaugural address exhorting his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Eisenhower took to the airwaves, clearing his throat and shuffling his papers behind a pair of those paper-clip-shaped old radio microphones on his Oval Office desk, and declared: “We face a hostile ideology, global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” The visual contrast could not have been more striking: Eisenhower with his bald pate and wire-rimmed glasses in that forceful but flat Great Plains monotone reiterating the evils of communism; Kennedy with glamour and lilting good humor promising American wonders to come.