Fifty years ago today, the about-to-be-outgoing President delivered his valedictory radio address.
Dwight D. Eisenhower consistently makes it into the Top Ten of those beauty-parade Presidential Rankings. If we must have republican Presidents, let them be like this one. His farewell speech is as widely quoted as any. In many respects Ike had it made, we liked Ike: the United States was at the height of its imperial power; the country was enjoying unprecedented prosperity; there was domestic harmony; the mood was benign:
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.
Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.
The commendable undertone there is typical Eisenhower: a note of humility. The reinforcement for that came from a recognition of what the continuing Cold War (which regularly threatened to go molten and nuclear) implied:
Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. 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. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.
So far, so cliché-ed good.
What Eisenhower then went on to develop was worth the wait. He warned of arrogance:
… a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research–these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs-balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.
Two sides of the same coin
In particular the speech is often cited because of one particular sentence, right in the middle, the heart, the centre, of the argument:
… we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower immediately hedged this with a particular context: that the unprecedented military build-up made the arms industry (and by implication much of the American economy) dependent the Federal largesse. And (perhaps sotto voce) a premonition of the obverse of that:
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present–and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Human, humane and humanitarian
What made Eisenhower a great military leader was a profound concern for his foot-soldiers.
He had been courted as a presidential candidate by both Republican and Democratic Parties; and his administration was as much a continuation of the FDR-Truman order as it was recognisably GOP. One cannot conceive of a contemporary Republican being so inclusive and having such “green” edges:
… 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.
No, it’s not some prating about “balancing the budget” and then, like every Republican administration since Reagan, piling up the deficit. It’s a genuine concern to balance the life-style.
Newton’s third law of academic thought
Predictably all of this has to be systematically rubbished by a poemicist on the make.
We should not be surprised then to find David Greenberg on Slate sharpening a keyboard:
Eisenhower’s speech itself has come to be romanticized all out of proportion to its merit, and the reasonableness of straightforward critiques of Pentagon spending cannot account for the mad embrace of Eisenhower in recent decades by anti-war leftists and so-called realists. (Both groups once brimmed with contempt for this steely Cold Warrior.) In our time, fulminations against the military-industrial complex have become a lazy, hackneyed, histrionic reflex, while Ike has implausibly morphed from martial hero and hard-line anti-Communist into a prophet of peace …
The value of that is diminished once Eisenhower is envisaged as something more, someone nobler than a mere steely Cold Warrior. And he was.
Greenberg provides four arguments to (mis)represent Ike:
- his later support for intervention and for continuing the war in Vietnam;
- as presidential candidate in 1952 his support outvoted the isolationist wing promoting Robdert Taft;
- his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was a hawk who talked up and developed the nuclear strike-force;
- Eisenhower remained true to his training as a military man, believing that the military were (Ike’s own words) a vital element in keeping the peace.
No where in his piece does Greenberg concede:
- that the 1950s were a dangerous time, that Stalin’s, Brezhnev’s and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was an unpredictable and dangerous beast;
- that it was Truman and his Secretary of State, George Marshall (Eisenhower’s former boss and patron) who sent the nukes to Attlee’s Britain at the time of the Berlin blockade [Apparently that was a grand bluff: Truman was precluded by Congress from sending nuclear material abroad — the "bombs" were concrete dummies.];
- that the “Eisenhower doctrine” of 1957 (applying to Egypt and the Middle East) was a logical development of the Truman doctrine of a decade earlier (referring to Greece and Turkey);
- that Eisenhower, as former President, could hardly spit on the deck and call the cat a bastard over Vietnam.
And now Cornwall
All of this was running through Malcolm’s small mind before he came across Rupert Cornwall in today’s Independent: well worth the visit.