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.
Recently, a video of a speech made by Rand Paul surfaced. The speech was given in 2009, the year before Paul was elected to the Senate. He was speaking to students at Western Kentucky University. He said, “Even Eisenhower, back in the ’50s, said, you know, ‘Beware of the military-industrial complex.’” The Farewell Address was given in January 1961, but that is immaterial. Paul continued, “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy.” He then spoke of Halliburton — and Dick Cheney and the Iraq War. In the 1990s, Paul explained to the students, Cheney had opposed going into Iraq. But then he “goes to work for Halliburton. Makes hundreds of millions of dollars, their CEO. Next thing you know, he’s back in government and it’s a good idea to go into Iraq.”
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.”
The other week, I reviewed a production of La cenerentola, the Rossini opera. At the end, the prince, with his bride, mounted a giant wedding cake. Looking at the (diminutive) tenor, I thought of Thomas E. Dewey — whom Alice Roosevelt Longworth indelibly labeled “the little man on the wedding cake.” Dewey was governor of New York, in addition to a two-time presidential nominee. But all people know is the wedding-cake crack — and maybe the false headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
“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.