The use and abuse of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, with its warning about the ‘military-industrial complex’
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. While “military-industrial complex” is universally known, the speech from which it comes is scarcely known at all. It deserves a much better fate than that.
In May 1959 — a year and eight months before the end of his term — Eisenhower wrote to his brother Milton, the president of Johns Hopkins University. He mentioned he wanted to give a farewell address, the purpose of which would be “to emphasize a few homely truths.” A “collateral purpose would be, of course, merely to say an official ‘goodbye.’”
About a year later, one Eisenhower aide, Frederic Fox, wrote a memo to another, Malcolm 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 the shaping of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address had Washington’s in mind.
Eisenhower spoke to a television audience on January 17, 1961, three days before his successor, John Kennedy, would be inaugurated. It is somewhat startling to watch a video of the speech now: Eisenhower is unpolished, and touchingly so. 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 further warned against a “scientific-technological elite.” And, like Washington, he counseled the payment of debt: “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.” In view of our $17.5 trillion debt, people today might quote this line, as well as “military-industrial complex.”
Flash-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.”
Three years ago, a historian, Ted R. Bromund, gave 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.