Eisenhower’s Distant Echo on “Making Hard Choices”

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most quoted, yet completely ignored Presidential addresses ever.  I am speaking of President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation just prior to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Before I get into the speech itself and comment on it, let me set the stage for my younger students and readers for whom 50 years seems incomprehensibly long ago and irrelevant.  I can no longer rely on students’ high school history courses to  fill in the details.

Eisenhower was one of the greatest military generals in U.S. history – the commander of D-Day and U.S. forces in Europe during World War II. Seven years after the war he was persuaded to leave retirement to run for President in 1952 while we were engaged in another bloody war in Korea, a proxy war with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower proved to be a very popular and successful president as well. With exception of one particularly sharp recession, the nation prospered economically. He quickly achieved peace in Korea.

Yet despite his preferences, politics and public anti-Soviet sentiment during the emerging Cold War era meant that the U.S. pursued a policy that was new in U.S. history. The U.S. supported and provided a war-ready large military during peace time.  Before World War II, the U.S. always de-mobilized and shrunk it’s military following the conclusion of any war. Instead, during the ’50s, despite the end of World War II and Korean Wars, the U.S. maintained a very large military machine consisting of both direct military staffing and a large complex of private industry dedicated to production of weapons.

It is in this setting that Eisenhower warns the nation of the long-run costs and risks to the nation of such a constant-military readiness strategy. His speech gives us one of the most-quoted phrases from any modern-era president: the military industrial complex.  Yet the essence of his message has clearly been ignored.  On this anniversary of the speech, Eisenhower’s grand daughter, Susan Eisenhower has written an excellent piece for the Washington Post here. I quote part here (the bold emphasis is mine):

Of course, the speech will forever be remembered for Eisenhower’s concerns about a rising “military-industrial complex,” which he described as “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” with the potential to acquire – whether sought or unsought – “unwarranted influence” in the halls of government.

The notion captured the imagination of scholars, politicians and veterans; the military-industrial complex has been studied, investigated and revisited countless times, including now, at its 50th anniversary. Looking back, it is easy to see the parallels to our era, especially how the complex has expanded since Sept. 11, 2001. In less than 10 years, our military and security expenditures have increased by 119 percent. Even after subtracting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budget has grown by 68 percent since 2001. In 2010, the United States is projected to spend at least $700 billion on its defense and security, the most, in real terms, that we’ve spent in any year since World War II.

However, at this time of increased concerns over our fiscal deficit and the national debt, Eisenhower’s farewell words and legacy take on added significance.

Throughout his presidency, Eisenhower continually connected the country’s security to its economic strength, underscoring that our fiscal health and our military might are equal pillars of our national defense. This meant that a responsible government would have to make hard choices. The question Eisenhower continued to pose about defense spending was clear and practical: How much is enough?

Later in the article, Susan quotes from an earlier Eisenhower speech:

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. . . . We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

“There is a reoccurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties,” he warned in his final speech as president. “. . . But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs . . . balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”

Ten years into the so-called “War on Terror” and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has built an incredible military-industrial-security complex. It is as costly as World War II, but has no defined end point. It is costing literally trillions of dollars. Dollars that could have been used to strengthen our economy, improve our physical infrastructure, and invest our human capital. These opportunity costs do not enter our political debates, yet they should.  As Eisenhower asks, How much is enough?

For those who have never seen it, here is Eisenhower’s farewell speech in it’s entirety as broadcast to the nation in 1960:

One thought on “Eisenhower’s Distant Echo on “Making Hard Choices”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary about President Eisenhower and the challenges he proposed in his speeches. Our book club was having a discussion about the current sorry state of affairs–war and conflict everywhere– when we decided to look up that famous industrial/military complex referral that we could all attribute to Eisenhower…..but none of us could cite where or when he actually said it. Your article was a clear and concise discussion that clarified things for us. I especially appreciate your inclusion of the quotes about ” spending choices” that he posed in another speech …..somehow my memory had vaguely combined all of those thoughts into one speech.
    Needless to say after reading your article aloud, then listening to the actual farewell speech together, we have a much better understanding and appreciation for DDE’s vision. Your students are fortunate to have you as their teacher. Many thanks again for your generosity in sharing your thoughts.
    Sincerely, Martha Ashleigh
    Avalon, Catalina Island, CA

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