This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, a Presidential speech considered one of the most noteworthy—and prophetic—ever given. Often compared with John F. Kennedy’s historic inaugural three days later, Eisenhower’s farewell peered from 1961 down “the long lane of history yet to be written.” Like Kennedy, he spoke about the responsibilities and challenges confronting popular government, including his famous call to “guard against the unwarranted acquisition of influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
We tend to remember the Fifties nostalgically as peaceful and prosperous. Eisenhower’s words conveyed a more complicated reality. Fear was a powerful current in national politics—fear of war, of Communism, the A-bomb, and of a second Great Depression.
Having witnessed, as the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, what can happen when a totalitarian movement succeeds in reducing citizenship to spectatorship, Eisenhower believed active and effective citizens were the best antidote to fear. He believed in popular control of institutions formed to meet great problems. Taking office a mere eight years after the war and at the height of the Cold War, he worked tirelessly to defuse international tensions and to restore normalcy in national affairs, believing that prosperity and freedom could not survive a state of perpetual crisis. This meant downsizing the military establishment, without relaxing the guard against the Soviets, and reversing the trend toward big government.
He succeeded in cutting government spending, especially defense spending. Budgets were balanced and the share of economic output consumed by the defense industry fell from more than 40 percent of gross domestic product in 1945 to roughly 10 percent in 1961, even though defense issues—and scares—predominated in his second term.
The surprise in Eisenhower’s farewell speech was the way he likened the defense industry to other pressure groups in Washington, as a “complex” serving a vital role but positioned to corrupt national policy by capitalizing on public anxiety and credulity.
My grandfather seldom talked about the speech after he delivered it, and as a 12-year-old when he left office, I was oblivious to it. When I started hearing about it years later, Republican friends suggested the warning about the military-industrial complex, coming from a conservative military man, must have been just words written for him by a speechwriter. They didn’t know him as I did. The striking feature of his speech is its authenticity. Watching segments of it today, no one who knew Dwight Eisenhower can doubt the earnestness of his words or that they are his own. The underlying themes reflected his experience and his advice to friends and family, in which he always stressed education, dedication to job, and lively interest in public affairs. A moralist, Eisenhower prized hard work and self-reliance. His farewell message conveyed his deeply held values: his dedication to America’s “adventure” in free government and our “charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.”
In the years to follow, Eisenhower’s specific warnings were often cited and sometimes heeded. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, put Pentagon budgeting, procurement, and strategy under civilian control—to a fault, excluding the uniformed military. Vietnam-era protestors adopted Eisenhower’s basic argument to criticize every escalation. Yet no war in American history provides a better demonstration of accountability or the power of public debate. After Vietnam, defense spending fell, then rose, according to need, but never again approached levels reached during World War II. Yet Pentagon budgets today remain large, and the U.S. military operates globally in a way not remotely foreseen 50 years ago. While the military-industrial complex today lacks the power to control American thinking and politics, it retains significant influence, and defense issues are complicated by the arcane nature of high-tech warfare.
Because of burgeoning deficits and the estimated trillion dollars spent annually on all aspects of national security, Eisenhower’s warnings about prudence and economy resonate today. His general reflections on the challenges facing democracy will pertain for as long as Americans value democratic self-government. Were he leaving office today, Eisenhower might well speak of globalization and the social, political, and economic implications of the trillions of dollars managed by four or five New York financial institutions, a concentration of power as potentially dangerous as the military-industrial complex of his day.
He was not the first to identify that complex, nor the first to warn of the self-interested and self-perpetuating nature of large corporate-public “complexes.” But he memorably spoke of these things as a President while freshly affirming a basic truth valid then and valid today: that America’s freedoms and our quality of life ultimately depend on tens of millions of active citizens, a sense of confidence in the future, and mutual respect.