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Eisenhower's Warning Still Challenges A Nation

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Eisenhower's Warning Still Challenges A Nation


Eisenhower's Warning Still Challenges A Nation

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

A busy week ahead here in Washington as Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives to town for a state visit. And no doubt, questions over America's role in the world and China's will be asked.

We spoke about it on the program yesterday and we pick up that theme today. But with a look back, 50 years ago, to a speech that reverberates, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address.

President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

RAZ: The legacy of the military-industrial complex, that's our cover story today. In a moment, we'll hear how it was received, and later, historian and former Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich on whether we've absorbed its lessons.

But first, a little background. Eisenhower's speech came after two decades of rapid military industrialization in America, a process that began when nearly three million Americans were encouraged to invest billions in war bonds.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: You are speaking because your name is on a piece of paper, a war bond. And the enemy listens to you and dies when America speaks.

RAZ: That money, along with the high taxes of the Roosevelt era, fueled a vast military machine.

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: We must increase production facilities for everything needed for the Army and Navy for national defense.

RAZ: An America at war was a prosperous America, and military production had become a cornerstone of the American economy and remained so well after the war ended.

But then in 1957, the process was ratcheted up another notch when Russia launched its Sputnik satellite.

Unidentified Man #2: You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the Earth circling satellite, one of the great scientific feats of the age.

Mr. DAVID EISENHOWER (Author, "Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower"): Sputnik ended a - an era of normalcy in the 1954 through '57, and Eisenhower was trying to apply the brakes to it.

RAZ: That's Dwight Eisenhower's grandson, David Eisenhower. He says it was against this backdrop of an increasingly hostile Cold War when his grandfather issued a warning that night, January 17, 1961.

President EISENHOWER: We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations. Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American - we recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

RAZ: David Eisenhower, we now know that he spent weeks, perhaps months, on this speech, going through a variety of drafts. He knew that this speech was going to have an impact.

Mr. EISENHOWER: I think he did know it was going to have an impact. But, in fact, it's one of the greatest speeches. There was a poll of rhetoric professors about speeches delivered by Americans in the 20th century. This speech turns up number 18 on that list.

Interestingly, it was delivered within 65 hours of another speech on that list, John Kennedy's inaugural on January 20, 1961.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. EISENHOWER: One interesting angle on the Eisenhower farewell is to compare and contrast it with the message that John Kennedy delivers on the 20th.

RAZ: Because you would argue that they're not entirely - they don't have entirely different messages.

Mr. EISENHOWER: My argument is they don't. I do see differences in style. I see differences in emphasis. But I would say that the basic topic of both speeches is one and the same.

Eisenhower's farewell address, in the final analysis, is about internal threats posed by vested interests to the democratic process. But above all, it is addressed to citizens and about citizenship.

President EISENHOWER: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.

RAZ: David Eisenhower, in your book about your grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, you write that he developed a split personality...


RAZ: ...about this speech, that he would sort of downplay its significance to his old military pals and to business friends, but then he would sort of show a pride in it to others. How do you square that?

Mr. EISENHOWER: Well, there's a lot of buzz, and people acted as though, again, this was something out of the blue. It was certainly not. (Unintelligible).

RAZ: And maybe they thought he just sort of, I don't know, had...

Mr. EISENHOWER: No, I think there are actually two questions here. Number one is, is the speech true? And what are your allies and/or political opponents likely to make of it?

And I think the feeling among Eisenhower's allies was that Eisenhower had said something that in one way or another would undermine the position of many political allies that he had.

For instance, how does this speech relate to the Vietnam War, which was beginning in the 1960s? Has Eisenhower handed anti-war opponents a slogan that they can use to oppose the war? I think that there were misgivings sort of in that vein.

Did he speak the truth? That's the beauty of Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address. I have immersed myself professionally for many years in the Eisenhower papers. I know how his mind worked. I know what his habits of expression were. This is Dwight Eisenhower in the farewell address, and he speaks the truth.

RAZ: That's David Eisenhower, grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower and director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is called "Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower."

David Eisenhower, thank you.

Mr. EISENHOWER: Thank you.

RAZ: Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a professor of history at Boston University, says Eisenhower's warning came too late.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (History and International Relations, Boston University): I think we should view the speech as an admission of failure on the president's part...

RAZ: Hmm.

Prof. BACEVICH: acknowledgment that he was unable to curb tendencies that he had recognized, from the very outset of his presidency, were problematic.

RAZ: His antidote to the growing military-industrial complex, this term that he coined that night, was a better informed citizenry. But he was vague about that. I mean, he didn't specifically say this is how you combat it. Do you think that was a shortcoming of the speech?

Prof. BACEVICH: I don't. I think in many respects, that's the piece that we've overlooked, and we've missed.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BACEVICH: He believed that if there was an antidote, the antidote would have to come from citizens being knowledgeable and engaged and watchful.

RAZ: Even though you would acknowledge that didn't happen. I mean, in some ways, what Eisenhower warned about has finally caught up with us.

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I think so. I mean, one of the reasons that people didn't pay much attention to the farewell address at the time was in the 1950s, a guns-and-butter recipe seemingly had worked. We were safe and we were prosperous, so what was not to like?

RAZ: You could build the highways and you could also build the bombers(ph).

Prof. BACEVICH: Exactly right. In our present circumstance, we can no longer insist upon having both guns and butter. And we are compromising the possibility of sustaining genuine prosperity at home.

RAZ: You write that there were hints of what was to come in this speech almost eight years before, in a speech he gave to a group of newspaper editors just after Joseph Stalin died. What did he say there that foreshadowed his farewell address?

Prof. BACEVICH: This is the speech that historians call his cross of iron speech. This former five-star general stated categorically that spending on military power, the purchase of weapons, constituted what he described as theft, theft from people.

President EISENHOWER: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, of its children, a theft. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

Prof. BACEVICH: And I think that Americans have been interested, really, in hearing that message at a particular time. But Americans today, I think were they to return to that speech, would find that it resonates in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

President EISENHOWER: 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.

RAZ: Andrew Bacevich, last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed about $100 billion in cuts to the defense budget over the next five years. Is he starting to chip away at some of the military-industrial complex?

Prof. BACEVICH: I think not. It's not so much cuts to reduce the overall level of defense spending. It's cuts exacted here in order to transfer that money to another defense account.

RAZ: So how do you, I mean, how would you even begin to try and carry out what Eisenhower warned against? I mean, I wonder if it can be done.

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I'm pessimistic on this, as I am on most matters, because our political institutions demonstrate an unwillingness or an inability to really take on the big questions. And the American people, many of them distracted by all kinds of concerns like having a job when there's almost 10 percent unemployment, aren't paying attention.

But I think were we to formulate an effective response, it would have to begin by asking the first-order questions. There are assumptions about the prerequisites of U.S. national security, way overdue for re-examination.

Ever since the end of World War II, the United States has been committed to the proposition that maintaining a global military presence is essential to our security. And there was a time, I think, in the Eisenhower era, military presence abroad was useful. To a considerable degree, that's no longer the case.

Maintaining U.S. military forces in the so-called Greater Middle East doesn't contribute to stability; it contributes to instability. It increases anti-Americanism. So why persist in the belief that maintaining all these U.S. forces scattered around the globe are necessary and ineffective?

If you can challenge that assumption, then I think it becomes possible to ask a whole - an additional series of questions that can lead to an argument about a different and more modest national security posture that will be more affordable and still keep the country safe.

RAZ: That's Andrew Bacevich. He's the author of "The Limits of Power." He's also a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Andrew Bacevich, thank you so much for coming in.

Prof. BACEVICH: Thank you.

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