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His farewell speech as President inaugurated the spirit of the 1960s
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
HAD ANYONE TO IKE’S LEFT GIVEN THE SPEECH, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN DISMISSED AS LENINIST CLAPTRAP.
And upon that, America’s post-World War II era and the ethos we associate with the 1950s ended, as the departing Chief Executive explained the great irony of the Cold War: that to maintain our peace and freedom to that point, the United States had had to sustain a megalithic military establishment, but no longer. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Eisenhower cautioned the nation. “The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” Then came the kicker: “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.” With a prescience even more striking for its resonance today, after lauding the punch-card-era marvels that would give birth to the information age we now inhabit, Eisenhower predicted what the military-industrial complex would evolve into and thus why the need for vigilant oversight would continue: “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which The New York Times had initially called “dull and commonplace,” Eisenhower’s farewell sparked little fire at first, though its ideas flickered and finally flared into a heated national debate about the defense industry, particularly the corporate executives and Pentagon brass whom General Eisenhower, the commanding hero of D-Day, was openly accusing of overweening greed. As the Boston Globe later noted, had any political figures to Ike’s left uttered such sentiments, their words would have been dismissed as Leninist claptrap. A survey of articles published the day after the speech in national newspapers reveals that the press at first downplayed the military-industrial-complex bit, as well as Eisenhower’s concept of “disarmament with honor,” treating his tocsin as just another solid, old-fashioned anticommunist appeal to the public.
The true historical impact of the address began to come into focus two months later, according to a memo the former presidential aide Bryce Harlow sent to his former boss on March 17, 1961. “There is an interesting development, Mr. President, involving your Farewell Address,” Harlow wrote. “At least two vigorous young Republicans in the House (Bob Michel of Illinois and Brad Morse of Massachusetts) have interested themselves in your warning to America against excessive power being accumulated by the military-industrial complex and are girding their loins to raise a rumpus through the Congressional investigation route. Nation magazine, of all things, has suddenly interested itself in the same thing and has run a column on the subject written by Jerry Greene, one of the most conservative correspondents in Washington. Congressional Quarterly, widely read, will run a whole spread on this in its next issue. The point is, this part of the Address turns out to be curiously yeasty, and one can expect some fall-out from it in the Congressional-political arena over coming months. All of the interested parties (except Nation, of course!) have been in touch with me about this; I have quietly, without attribution, sought to add fuel to this still small flame.”
Later in the sixties, the anti-Vietnam War Left adopted Ike’s farewell address as a prophetic call to the barricades from a reformed old warhorse. After all, Eisenhower had underlined his cautions against the military-industrial complex by exhorting Americans that they “never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” As the liberal journalist Murray Kempton put it in 1967, Eisenhower was “the great tortoise upon whose back the world sat for eight years. We laughed at him; we talked wistfully about moving; and all the while we never knew the cunning beneath the shell.” Books and articles by such Left-leaning intellectuals as Noam Chomsky, Eugene McCarthy, and the like turned Eisenhower’s warning of an arms industry run amuck into liberal boilerplate. The New Left historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, in the Los Angeles Times in November 1972, declared America’s thirty-fourth President an “antimilitarist.” A New York Times op-ed piece went so far as to call Eisenhower an “unintentional Luddite” for cautioning against “a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals, and corporate CEOs, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed.”
Conservatives tended then, as later, to dismiss Ike’s unexpected peroration as a “liberal cliché” taken out of the context of his whole speech. Eisenhower’s own Vice President, Richard Nixon, called the military-industrial complex a “strawman issue” in 1969 and, as the newly elected President, dismissed the charge that America’s defense budget was bloated. If he were to err on military spending, Nixon declared, it would be “on the side of too much, and not too little. If we do too much it will cost us our money. If we do too little, it may cost us our lives.”