Eisenhower's Warning Still Challenges A Nation Just days before President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961, he gave the speech that coined the phrase, "the military-industrial complex." It was his warning to the nation, and some say it's a lesson America should heed.

Eisenhower's Warning Still Challenges A Nation

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GUY RAZ, Host:

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.

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

RAZ: 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.


RAZ: 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.

P: We must increase production facilities for everything needed for the Army and Navy for national defense.

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

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

M: 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.

P: 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.

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

P: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.


M: 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.

M: 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.

P: 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...

M: Yeah.

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?

M: 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...

M: 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: David Eisenhower, thank you.

M: Thank you.

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

P: I think we should view the speech as an admission of failure on the president's part...

RAZ: Hmm.

P: ...an 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?

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

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

P: 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.

P: 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).

P: 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?

P: 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.

P: 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.

P: 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.

P: 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?

P: 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.

P: 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: Andrew Bacevich, thank you so much for coming in.

P: Thank you.

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