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My Favorite Republican: A Look Back at Eisenhower’s Otherworldly Farewell Address

| February 20, 2011

dwigh eisenhower and john f. kennedy

Two statesmen: Dwight Eisenhower just after John Kennedy won the 1960 election, and just before Eisenhower's Farewell Address. (US Government)

By Donald Kaul

There’s been a good deal happening lately needing immediate attention, but it’s not too late to recognize the 50th anniversary of one of our great presidential speeches–Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address.

The only part of it much remembered is his admonition to avoid “unwarranted influence” by the “military-industrial” complex. There’d been a military-industrial complex operating since World War I, but Ike was the first to name it.

What’s striking about the speech today is its tone of balance and moderation. It sounds like a speech not merely from another era but from another planet.

Near the top the President said:

Listen to Eisenhower’s Address
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“Like every other citizen, I wish the new President [John F. Kennedy, a Democrat] and all who will labor with him Godspeed. I pray that the coming years will be blessed with peace and prosperity for all.

“Our people expect their president and the Congress to find essential agreement on questions of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation.”

Can you imagine a Republican leader saying something like that now? Not if the leader is Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Jon Kyl, or Eric Cantor. Had Ike been that kind of Republican he’d have said: “I want our new president to be a one-term president and I expect our party in Congress to work to make him so.”

Eisenhower was the very model of Republican probity (yes, Virginia, there was such a thing back then) and something of a national father figure. As a five-star general and the commander of Allied Forces in Europe, he led us to victory in World War II. As president, he brought an end to the unpopular armed conflict in Korea.

He had perhaps the best campaign slogan of any American politician: “I Like Ike.” And we did. Even liberals liked him personally, if not politically.

Donald Kaul

His farewell had a kind of Polonius lilt (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”), embodying time-honored conservative principles–idealism, caution, and moderation.

“Throughout America’s adventure in free government,” he said, [our] “basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and nations.”

Then he warned against overreaching:

“There is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties…But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs….Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

His warning against the military-industrial complex took only a moment of the speech, but carried the testimony of a man whose life had been devoted to military service:

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“We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions…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.”

The speech is a virtual critique of the present. Almost everything he feared would happen, happened.

I wasn’t a fan of Eisenhower as President. He was too conservative for me, too ineloquent. I cast my first vote against him.

I can’t imagine what I was thinking. For all his faults, Ike was a fine President. If one were to seek to name his lasting accomplishments, one needs look no further than the Interstate highway system, the largest public works program in our history.

Yet far more than that, he was the last American president able to look the military-industrial complex in the eye and make it blink. For that, if for nothing else, we should honor him and remember his words.

A perfect president? Hardly. But a damn good one.

Donald Kaul worked some 30 years as a syndicated Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register before retiring at the dawn of the new century. He is a columnist for Other Words. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Reach him by email.

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4 Responses for “My Favorite Republican: A Look Back at Eisenhower’s Otherworldly Farewell Address”

  1. elaygee says:

    He was a coward on the issue of equality for all Americans who weren’t white. protestant and straight.

  2. NortonSmitty says:

    Elaygee, I believe that might be a little harsh on the man considering his time. There was relatively little outcry over the obvious discriminations until the ’60’s and plenty else on his plate stabilizing the post WW2 world.

    But The Speech has always fascinated me. Here was a war hero, a supply and procurement specialist no less, warning of the Armsmongers, the Merchants of Death as they used to be called after the war taking over our Government. (Before the war, they were called The Arsenal of Democracy, but that’s another story) He called it out exactly as it came to pass. They became entrenched and have had a stranglehold over all branches of our government and bureaucratic entities ever since. This led to an extended Cold War, Viet Nam, Kuwait, Iraq Afganistan and wherever else we find a buck to be made by Lockheed, General Dynamics and General Electric in the future. About 70% of our tax dollars is directly or indirectly going to feed this beast today.

    He said in another speech that every Tank, every Bomber and every Battleship built represented a theft from America’s schools and needy. What would he say today about F-35 jet fighters that cost $195,000,000.00 each with weapons and radar systems? Or Carrier Strike Forces at a total cost of One Trillion Dollars each, and we have 11 of them? There is almost our entire National Debt right there!

    There used to be Honorable Republicans like Goldwater, Dirksen, and Ike. How they tower over the Gingriches, Bachmans and McConnells we endure today. Joe McCarthy was an aberration, an embarrassment to their party in the 50’s. Today, Tail-Gunner Joe wouldn’t be “Conservative” enough to win a CPAC straw poll! And Ike the War Hero would be labeled so far Liberal as to be considered an Anarchist for defaming our Brave Fighting Boys and the Good American Corporations that supply them with the best killing stuff money can buy. Ike would be thrown out of today’s Republican Party.

    I’m sure if he could have envisioned Sarah, Queen of the Idiots as the GOP’s front-running Presidential Candidate, he would thank them for this honor.

  3. . says:

    Did not know N.S. sees S.P. as his Queen

  4. Why is it that the $600 billion taxpayers is “off limits”. Did you note the Pentagon volunteered to cut $75 billion? The USA spends more on defense than the rest of the entire world put together and we still are subject to terrorism.

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