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Eisenhower's Farewell

June 2024
16min read

In his last speech as President, he inaugurated the spirit of the 1960s

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.

Listen to the Farewell Address

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.


Midway through Eisenhower’s second term, as Richard M. Nixon would write in his 1962 post-vice-presidential book Six Crises, “on the domestic front, the first signs of the 1958 economic recession were becoming obvious. At the same time, it was equally apparent that we would have to find more money to bolster our missile program. We were having serious budget problems: the fiscal 1958 budget was $71.8 billion, the highest in peacetime history, the government had borrowed up to its legal debt limit, and we had to prepare the fiscal 1959 budget with still higher defense spending.”

The Democratic senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas had warned Congress in August 1958 of a “drift to disaster,” claiming that U.S. defense funds had been “impounded, sunk, and hidden” by the administration. Making matters worse, Eisenhower’s second Secretary of Defense, Neil H. McElroy, had openly admitted that the U.S.S.R. might have as much as a three-to-one advantage in nuclear weaponry. Congressional Democrats immediately seized on this “missile gap” with the Soviets as a campaign issue, with Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri leading the charge. As head of a Senate Armed Forces subcommittee, Symington issued a majority report pronouncing, “It is now clear that the U.S.…may have lost control of the air,” thanks to Eisenhower’s insistence on putting fiscal concerns above national security and his “tendency to either ignore or underestimate Soviet military progress.” Symington, whom Truman had appointed the first Secretary of the Air Force in 1947, insisted loudly and publicly that only a massive increase in U.S. defense spending could start America back toward military parity with the Soviet Union.

The President believed Symington was inflaming Cold War anxieties to further his own presidential hopes while at the same time promoting the interests of the major defense contractors, such as General Dynamics and Boeing, that backed him. After all, it was Eisenhower who had funded the three great weapons systems that were the foundation of America’s Cold War defense: He initiated funding for the Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missile and the Polaris nuclear-missile-firing submarine and continued funding for the nuclear-bomb-bearing B-52 bomber. What’s more, in 1958 Ike oversaw the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to ensure future technological advancement. But the next year, when Congress tried to appropriate $137 million for the questionably effective Nike Zeus antimissile missile, Eisenhower refused, maintaining that funds “should not be committed to production until development tests are satisfactorily completed.” Interested corporations immediately mounted a massive public relations campaign to promote the Zeus. Western Electric, the program’s lead contractor, and eight subcontractors took out full-page ads in newspapers around the country showing where all the contract money would be spent, while members of Congress in those districts took to making speeches about Soviet military superiority. Then the U.S. House majority leader, John McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat, pleaded for the United States to “close the gap in our missile posture, muzzle the mad-dog missile threat of the Soviet Union, and loose the Zeus through America’s magnificent production line.” Eisenhower refused to flinch, scoffing at the “loose the Zeus” crowd’s preference for pork-barrel projects benefiting their own districts and states.

It is difficult today to imagine the genuine fear that swept America after the news of Sputnik, and it’s startling to realize how lonely Eisenhower’s voice of reason sounded. Yet the President held his ground, insisting that America’s defenses were more than adequate, although for national security reasons he could not disclose the proof provided by the CIA’s U-2 reconnaissance photographs that the Soviet Union had built and deployed very few ICBMs. “Everyone knows,” the Air Force general Nathan Twining told the President in private, that “we already have a [nuclear] stockpile large enough to obliterate the Soviet Union.”

Eager to dispel both the “missile gap” myth and the public’s post- Sputnik worry about overwhelming Soviet technological superiority, Eisenhower’s third Secretary of Defense, Thomas S. Gates, Jr., brought revised intelligence estimates to the House Defense Appropriations Committee on January 19, 1960, showing that the initial estimates of the superpowers’ relative military strength had been mistaken and there actually was “a clear balance in our favor.” Democrats, including the presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, accused the administration of manipulating the statistics and made the missile gap a major issue in the 1960 campaign. The supposed U.S. military deficit had sprung in part from an exaggerated sense of the Soviet Union’s ability to build new missiles; in fact, the U.S.S.R. had never tried to radically increase its production and probably didn’t have the resources anyway. Spy satellites deployed during the Kennedy administration bore this out, revealing that even the CIA’s estimates of Soviet weapons strength had been much too high.

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.


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.”

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.”

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.

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