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His farewell speech as President inaugurated the spirit of the 1960s
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Lives, of course, were what Dwight D. Eisenhower had devoted his own to saving. In the years following his Presidency, he retired to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the 230-acre dairy farm he and his wife had purchased in 1950 as “an escape from concrete into the countryside.” Its 15-room farmhouse stood about two miles from the spot where Lincoln had delivered his address. Malcolm Moos called on Eisenhower at his refuge one afternoon in 1964. The South’s civil rights struggles were roiling the nation, and Vietnam was beginning to simmer, but all the former President wanted to talk about was the need to end the Cold War by reaching agreement with the Soviets on mutual nuclear disarmament. The term military-industrial complex never came up, as Moos recalled, but Ike did mention the horrors of World War II, such as the bodies he had seen at Auschwitz and the death certificates he had had to sign every Sunday to inform American families that they had lost a loved one. He told Moos he worried that defense manufacturing had become so important to regional as well as national economic interests that Congress had taken to appropriating funds for weapons systems the Pentagon did not even want, on the dubious grounds that military spending was the best way out of recessionary stagnation. “Peace is what matters; peace is the end game,” Eisenhower protested. “And the more bombs and bombers built, the more difficult it will be to disarm with honor, to negotiate away their demise.”
In retrospect, it is not surprising that as President, World War II’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe would center both his first and last foreign policy statements—his 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech and his 1961 farewell address—on the urgent need for nuclear arms control. His message was based on the common sense at his Midwestern roots, which made it seem obvious to him that when it came to defense spending in the nuclear age, sufficiency, not superiority, was what mattered most. As his biographer Stephen E. Ambrose has pointed out, Ike understood, as few other men in the world have had the firsthand knowledge to understand, how much the nature of modern warfare had changed since D-Day. Back in June 1944, if General Eisenhower ordered 100 conventionally equipped bombers on an air raid over Germany and 90 came back unscathed and successful in destroying their targets, the mission was still a failure, because he could not afford even a 10 percent loss of planes and men. But by the time of the Cold War, if President Eisenhower sent out 100 bombers carrying nuclear warheads and only one succeeded and came back, not only was the mission a triumph, but the battle and perhaps even the entire war was won, “so long as the one dropped its bomb on Red Square,” as Ambrose put it. Eisenhower thus considered it his duty, as he passed the torch to the next generation of leaders, to warn his fellow citizens to scrutinize every politician’s call for taxpayers to fund another new weapons system. In his farewell address, Eisenhower, with his frugal, old-fashioned, Main Street values, simply wanted to remind his countrymen that America’s resources were limited, that, as he had said in the “Chance For Peace” speech, a single fighter plane was paid for with a half-million bushels of wheat, and that every new destroyer meant that thousands of people would remain homeless. His farewell address was a call for prudence and compassion at the dawn of the epoch that put the fate of the world at the touch of a button on one man’s phone.
However inconceivable it might have been to the Founding Fathers that the new nation they forged would be the first to come up with, and use, weapons that could destroy whole cities thousands of miles away—not to mention that their agrarian United States would assemble enough such bombs to blast life from the earth in the space of an afternoon—a surprisingly similar pacifistic theme echoes across the generations between the parting thoughts of the first and last of the career military men to have served as U.S. President.
A full century and a half before the Cold War, George Washington asserted in his 1796 farewell that “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” Yet Washington infused his last presidential statement with the hope—since realized by more peoples around the world than eighteenth-century Americans knew existed—that “the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”