Fifty years ago today, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation. With the exception of George Washington’s speech, most presidential farewell addresses have been unmemorable affairs. But Eisenhower’s has had the greatest impact, all because of one phrase: “the military-industrial complex.”
Eisenhower used the term only once in the speech, warning that the nation “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.”
In an earlier draft of the speech, Eisenhower’s used the clunky phrase “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Eisenhower took out “congressional” so as not to upset those on Capitol Hill.
In the years that followed, Eisenhower’s speech took on a life of its own. The Left has been especially eager to appropriate the Republican general’s words for political purposes.
Attacks against the “American Empire” go hand-in-hand with attacks on the “military-industrial complex.” The idea that corporate interests and secret cabals have pushed the country into war has gained credence, especially in the last decade, and Eisenhower’s farewell address is often used as Exhibit A in such conspiracy theories. The speech is the central focus of the 2005 antiwar documentary Why We Fight.
Some on the anti-war Old Right have also rediscovered Eisenhower — an irony considering that the Old Right were big supporters of Robert Taft and used to dislike Eisenhower for his internationalist foreign policy and unwillingness to roll back the New Deal.
The American Conservative has a symposium hailing Eisenhower’s farewell speech. “Ike’s Last Stand” features a drawing of Ike standing athwart — in the style of the protester at Tiananmen Square — a tank festooned with corporate logos such as Shell, 3M, IBM, and Boeing.
There are a number of problems with these interpretations. First, the speech, when read in its entirety, is not the denunciation of militarism that many people think it is. Earlier in the speech, Eisenhower talks about the Cold War. “We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method,” explained Eisenhower. “Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.” These are hardly the words of someone upset over Cold War militarism.
A large peacetime military was something new in American history. Eisenhower feared the possibility of a garrison state and was right to be concerned. He was not calling for a pulling back of overseas engagements or a unilateral ceasefire in the Cold War. Nor was he calling for the destruction of the “military-industrial complex,” but rather “the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Americans needed to be vigilant about these new forces in society. That seems like reasonable advice, but hardly the stuff of an anti-war activist.