Eisenhower

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In only somewhat less ornate diction, Eisenhower said pretty much the same thing when he stepped down from the nation’s highest office in 1961. Like George Washington, he spoke to the finer instincts of the American spirit. “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied,” he proclaimed on flickering TV screens around the country; “that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; 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.” So it was that stuffy, dim, dull old General Eisenhower, as his later image would have it, made way for the 1960s, in words the coming flower children would have been shocked to realize they were echoing, coming from a career military man turned Republican politician who uttered them four decades after reaching the age past which nobody could be trusted.

That two of the military leaders most responsible for America’s freedom from tyranny could step down as Commander in Chief expressing the same hopes for their people more than a century and a half apart says a great deal about the staying power of the nation’s democratic ideals and the individuals who have, when crisis came, stepped up to sustain them. In the end, the gentle, firm valedictions of Presidents Washington and Eisenhower suggest that a fellow general, Douglas MacArthur, got it wrong. Old soldiers do indeed die, but the best don’t just fade away, for the principles behind their bravery remain etched on history for future generations to learn from and pass on in turn.