Library of Congress



Ike, Where Are You Now?

President Eisenhower’s farewell address of January 17, 1961 is remembered, if at all, for coining the term military-industrial complex and for his warning about it.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Ike’s prescience went largely unheeded. President Trump’s defense budget will feed the military-industrial complex, with much of the $54 billion increase intended to build ships and planes, arms that — Eisenhower would be the first to point out — will make hardly any difference in combatting the kinds of enemies we now have and are likely to have in future.

But the rest of his address is equally important. It contains exactly the kind of wisdom that our politicians and our citizens need to hear. Speaking against the tendency to wish for magical solutions to complex problems, Ike advised balance, something so commonsensical and self-evident, it puts our collective loss of that quality in astounding perspective.

“Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. …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 the cost and hoped for advantages, 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.”

There is more. Listening to his address of 56 years ago we can hear Eisenhower speaking against the roll back of U.S. efforts to meet the Paris agreement on climate change, the Keystone pipeline approval, and the relaxation of federal regulations on vehicle pollution.

“As we peer into society’s future, 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.”

And finally we can hear Ike, awkward and sometimes stumbling in front of the cameras, warning us against the very things that are tearing us apart today, fear and hate.

“During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength.”

It is more than unfortunate that we have largely forgotten one of the most important roles of a president: to keep us not just safe, but sane.