Editor’s Note: This piece is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.
Suggest that the defense budget be increased, and you may well hear about Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. Tsk tsk, people will say: the military-industrial complex. We must not forget Eisenhower’s warning about that complex. A reminder of the 34th president is supposed to put a conservative Republican, in particular, in his place. People who otherwise have no use for Eisenhower or his brand of Republicanism — liberals, leftists, “paleocons,” and libertarians — suddenly like Ike, when it comes to this military-industrial complex.
There have always been Americans who say that we went to war because big companies or financiers or their lackeys manipulated us into it. In World War I, J. P. Morgan was the villain. In the Vietnam War, it was Dow Chemical. In the Iraq War, Halliburton played the role of Dow Chemical. Last year, a columnist defended Rand Paul and his mindset, making the inevitable comparison: “In his farewell address, Eisenhower sounded a lot like Rand Paul.”
Eisenhower had a long, distinguished career in war and peace, and just about the only thing people know about him is “military-industrial complex” — that and his generalship in World War II. And maybe his fondness for golf. Jimmy Carter did not have as long or distinguished a career, but he certainly rose to the presidency, meteorically. Today, he is remembered for two or three things — including a “malaise” speech in which he never uttered the word “malaise.” He is also remembered for an interview he gave to Playboy when he was running for president: “I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”
“Military-industrial complex” is universally known, but the speech from which it comes is scarcely known at all. It is a “noble speech,” as the historian Ted R. Bromund wrote three years ago, “and the mature reflection of a great national servant.” In May 1959 — a year and eight months before the end of the Eisenhower presidency — Malcolm “Mac” Moos, the chief speechwriter, wrote a memo for the record. The president was hoping that “the Congress might invite him to address them before he left office, at which time he would like to make a 10 minute farewell address to the Congress and the American people.” Moos added, “I think this is a brilliant idea if it can be carried off with a minimum of fanfare and emotionalism.” Those words, so foreign to our own times, are typical of the Eisenhower presidency.
A few days later, Eisenhower wrote to his brother Milton, the president of Johns Hopkins University. He said the purpose of a farewell address would be “to emphasize a few homely truths that apply to the responsibilities and duties of a government that must be responsive to the will of majorities, even when the decisions of those majorities create apparent paradoxes. A collateral purpose would be, of course, merely to say an official ‘goodbye.’”
In April 1960, one Eisenhower aide, Frederic Fox, wrote a memo to another, Moos. He recommended the re-reading of Washington’s Farewell Address. “It is a beautifully wise and modest piece by a faithful public servant who loved his country.” Moreover, “I was struck by its relevance to our day: the call for Constitutional obedience; . . . the dangers of ‘overgrown military establishments’ but the necessity of maintaining ‘a respectable defensive posture’; . . . the ungenerous habit of one generation to spend beyond its means and to throw ‘upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.’” Everyone involved in Eisenhower’s Farewell Address had Washington’s in mind.
In the end, Eisenhower did not go before Congress. He gave his address on television, on January 17, 1961, three days before his successor, John F. Kennedy, would be inaugurated. It is somewhat startling to watch a video of the speech now: Eisenhower is unpolished, and touchingly so, I think. He fumbles with papers, stumbles over words, mispronounces other words, and so on. No major politician could get away with such a performance today. Saturday Night Live might pronounce it beyond mockery. The speech itself, in any case, is “beautifully wise and modest,” as Fox said about Washington’s. It is also a minor classic of conservatism.
“Throughout America’s adventure in free government,” said Eisenhower, “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 among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”
He then spoke of “the conflict now engulfing the world,” i.e., the Cold War. “It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle — with liberty the stake.”
In this speech, Eisenhower laid stress on “balance”: “the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” Five years later, in 1966, he wrote a letter about the speech. “Our struggle against world Communism,” he said, “involves military, economic and spiritual factors. Each is equally important and it is up to us to see that we maintain the necessary strength in each and the proper balance among the three.”
Here is a line from the speech that is never quoted: “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.” Goldwater and Reagan would have an encapsulating slogan, “Peace through strength.” Eisenhower said, “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” Note the word “compelled.”
Said Eisenhower, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” And here is another line that is never quoted: “We recognize the imperative need for this development.” And here comes the “but,” or the “yet”: “Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Finally, we get to the hallowed line: “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.”
Eisenhower also warned against a “scientific-technological elite”: “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.” What must the ratio be now? Public policy, said Eisenhower, must not “become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Just as Washington counseled the payment of debt, and not “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear,” Eisenhower said, “As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come — not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” Given our $17.5 trillion debt, people today might quote this line, as well as “military-industrial complex.”
Fast-forward to 1985, the middle of the Reagan years. An old Eisenhower hand, Ralph E. Williams, is asked by the Eisenhower Library in Kansas about the Farewell Address, and in particular its one famous line. He says, “I have always been astonished at the attention that has been given to the ‘military-industrial complex’ portion of President Eisenhower’s last speech, and agree with Pete Aurand [another Eisenhower hand] that its true significance has been distorted beyond recognition. I am sure that had it been uttered by anyone except a President who had also been the Army’s five-star Chief of Staff it would long since have been forgotten. But as things were, it became red meat for the media, who have gleefully gnawed on it for twenty-five years.”
Williams is sorry that “scientific-technological elite” did not catch. It “is now about as well-remembered as Edward Everett’s Gettysburg Address. (It no doubt would have fared better if Ike had been a Nobel Laureate in physics.)” Everett, recall, was the scholar and statesman who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg, before Lincoln gave his brief speech.
Ted Bromund gives a neat summation of what Eisenhower was doing in his warning about the military-industrial complex: “He was arguing that undemocratic direction from above, especially if directed by big and bureaucratic government, is dangerous. It was top-down control — not the possession and funding of armed forces that reflect the needs and threats of the day — that Eisenhower found threatening.” Eisenhower’s actions speak at least as loudly as his words (as men’s actions usually do): When he handed over to Kennedy, we were spending about 10 percent of GDP on defense, and over 50 percent of the federal budget. For 2015, we are prepared to spend 3.4 percent of GDP and about 13 percent of the budget. It’s always a tricky business to try to speak for the dead, or to claim to do so, but, given everything we know about Eisenhower, I believe he would be in the camp of those of us who say our defenses are dangerously low, inviting of aggression. National security is undoubtedly a federal responsibility, one that requires adequate funding. Our proper debate is over “adequate.”
Anti-military types, or anti-hawks, love to quote Eisenhower on the “military-industrial complex” more than they love to quote, say, George McGovern: because Eisenhower was a general, war hero, and Republican, and that is supposed to put us in our place. “Military-industrial complex” is the one thing that liberals and others can bless Ike for. Remember what Rand Paul said: “Even Eisenhower . . .” — “even”! I am reminded of obits and commentary about the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., in 2008. You would think that all he had ever done, in his long, consequential, and conservative life, was advocate the legalization of marijuana. It was the one thing that the whole world, or much of the world, could bless him for.
WFB liked to quote a comment attributed to Talleyrand: “Surtout pas trop de zèle.” Above all, not too much zeal. This was part of Eisenhower’s speech and mind, and it is a major part of the conservative mind.