I’ve always found it rather haunting to watch old footage of my grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, giving his televised farewell address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961. The 50-year-old film all but crackles with age as the president makes his earnest, uncoached speech. I was 9 years old at the time, and it wasn’t until years later that I understood the importance of his words or the lasting impact of his message.
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 increa
sed 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?
Early on, he realized that if the United States were to prevail in its existential standoff with the Soviet Union, we would have to prepare for a long game. Unlike our experience in World War II, which lasted less than four years, the Cold War would last many decades. Eisenhower understood that we were facing a marathon, not a sprint.
Moreover, the logic of nuclear deterrence made the conventional wars Ike had commanded in the 1940s obsolete. Now, there could be no margin for error; the Cold War brought with it different calculations, which were very costly by nature. These new realities meant that the United States would not only need to project power and resolve, but also had to ensure national solvency – no easy task for a country that had to modernize while assuming, for the first time, the mantle of global leadership.
The pressures Eisenhower faced during his presidency were enormous. Over the years, as the Soviet Union appeared to reach military parity with the United States, political forces in Washington cried out for greater defense spending and a more aggressive approach to Moscow. In response, the administration publicly asserted that there was no such thing as absolute security. “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without,” Eisenhower said. And he followed through, balancing the budget three times during his tenure, a record unmatched during the Cold War.
This theme was introduced at the start of Eisenhower’s first term. On April 16, 1953, the new president spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, just weeks after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s death. In this “Chance for Peace” speech – one as important as the farewell address but often overlooked by historians – he seized the moment to outline the cost of continued tensions with the U.S.S.R. In addition to the military dangers such a rivalry imposed, he said, the confrontation would exact an enormous domestic price on both societies:
“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.”
Contrary to many historians’ suggestions, Ike’s farewell speech was not an afterthought – it was the bookend to “Chance for Peace.” As early as 1959, he began working with his brother Milton and his speechwriters to craft exactly what he would say as he left public life. The speech would become a solemn moment in a decidedly unsolemn time, offering sober warnings for a nation giddy with newfound prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life.
“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.”
While the farewell address may be remembered primarily for the passages about the military-industrial complex, Ike was rising above the issues of the day to appeal to his countrymen to put the nation and its future first. “We . . . 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.”
As I see my grandfather’s black-and-white image deliver these words, a simple thought lingers in my mind: This man was speaking for me, for us. We are those grandchildren. We are the great beneficiaries of his generation’s prudence and sacrifice.
Until today, perhaps, we have taken American leadership, dominance and prosperity for granted. In those intervening years, we rarely asked if our policies were sustainable over the long haul. Indeed, it has only been since the catastrophic financial meltdown in 2008 that we’ve begun to think about the generational responsibilities we have for our grandchildren’s prosperity and welfare.
Eisenhower’s words, from the beginning of his presidency to the end, come back to us from the mists of another era. They remind us, sadly, that sometimes we must revisit our past to learn what we have always known.