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[media id=163 width=300 height=200]
“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.
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:
“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.