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The "military-industrial complex." Ominous right?
You'd be wrong.
It took a career soldier to warn against the rampant expansion of the arms industry and the military establishment.
It took a five-star general, the Supreme Commander of the Allies in Europe who commanded the Normandy invasion that eventually liberated Europe and won the Second World War. The future Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who faced down the Soviet Union in order to contain the spread of communism. A Republican president of the United States who banned squirrels from the White House lawn because they were ruining his putting practice.
It took Dwight David Eisenhower.
Eisenhower, or, as we like to call him, Ike, or General Ike, or The Kansas Cyclone, or Duckpin (all totally real nicknames), was one of the greatest military and political leaders in American—let's make that world—history.
For most of his life, Ike wasn't particularly political (unless you count kicking Nazi butt as a political activity). In the election cycles after WWII, both the Democrats and the Republicans begged him to join their ticket for a presidential run. The American people probably would have liked him if he ran for president as a Whig, to be honest. He was the most beloved public figure in the country.
Ike thought it was unseemly for a career military guy to get involved in the messy business of partisan politics. But in 1952, when he saw one of the Republican candidate wannabes threatening to make the U.S. an isolationist country, he couldn't let that slide. He knew firsthand how important America's role in the world was. He declared himself a Republican, clinched the nomination, and won the election easy like Sunday morning. A young Richard Nixon was his vice president responsible for all the "political" stuff behind the scenes so Ike didn't have to worry about all of those shenanigans.
With Nixon as attack dog, Ike could focus on the big picture.
In that big picture, Ike believed balance was the answer to the challenges the country was facing. He was a remarkably moderate Republican, and ended up drawing criticism from both wings of the political spectrum for it. Still, he remained wildly popular with the American people. He was kinda like America's grandpa.
They liked Ike.
Eisenhower's "Farewell Address" came, duh, at the end of his presidency. True to form, he didn't use the opportunity to pat himself on the back or to give a list of shout-outs. To the last, he offered guidance and wisdom to an America that was radically different from the one he grew up in, but which he still believed was an exceptional nation with an exceptional responsibility to the rest of the world.
Ike had three main points to make before he officially signed off, all involving a delicate balance between military preparedness and military spending that threated to eat up the whole budget.
(1) He knew the U.S. needed a big military and lots of weapons, but he warned against the "military-industrial complex"—the individuals, corporations, organizations, and ideological interest groups that are involved in the preparation for war and defense—having too much influence over policy. He thought that a permanent arms industry, coupled with a permanent large military, was a very dangerous combo. Pretty interesting point of view for an old soldier.
(2) Ike thought the technology boom of the 1940s and '50s was a good thing, but warned against the "scientific-technological elite" having too much power, too. Ike was living in a world of epic technological advances, which he knew could be used for good (telecommunications) or bad (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Ike wanted to keep alive the American spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship without Big Science gobbling up all the resources or the federal government deciding what could and couldn't be done.
(2) Ike warned against living only in the moment, spending too much money, and using up resources without regard to future generations. Coming at a time of unprecedented industrial production and consumption, this was also a very gutsy thing to say.
Having gotten all that off his chest, Ike bid the country goodnight, wished the new president well, and started planning his next golf trip. Looking at the subsequent course of American foreign policy, it seems like almost everybody promptly forgot every word he said.
If you want to understand the world, the news, politics, or the future of humanity, you have to understand the 20th century. And if you want to understand the 20th century, you have to understand WWII and the Cold War, with its various proxy wars, coups d'état, covert actions, and nuclear standoffs.
And if you want to even get a clue about those titanic conflicts, you've got to understand the role Dwight D. Eisenhower played on the world stage, what he represented to Americans and the world, and what he accomplished during his life.
There's hardly another person in American history with a military resume that can compare with Ike's. He knew better than anyone how necessary it was to have a powerful military. He led the development of the nuclear triad, for crying out loud.
Guy had serious military cred.
And yet—and this is a big yet—he used the last public address of his presidency to gently and calmly warn the nation of certain existential dangers that threatened to eventually tear the country apart. Threats that lived within America itself, chief among them the gargantuan war machine America had created during the 1940s and '50s.
Wasn't he worried about Communism? The Soviets? Nuclear Armageddon? External threats? The external threats the gargantuan war machine was made to deal with? Yes, yes, and yes. And yes. Ike knew all about that stuff. And indeed, in his farewell address he affirmed the Cold War struggle against communism as an ideological battle of Good vs. Evil.
But in his last speech, he told everyone what he thought was the greatest threat to America. It wasn't secret Communists or Space Nazis or even Secret Communist Space Nazis. Unfortunately, nothing so exciting as all that (although, again, there's got to be some screenwriters out there reading this). Ike's top three things to worry about besides the Soviet Union were the out-of-control growth of the military industry, the risks of technological advances if not carefully monitored, and the mortgaging of our children's future. And while we're at it, let's give peace a chance.
History proved the old warrior right.
The arms industry has continued its explosive growth, spending zillions of dollars lobbying congress to continue to manufacture submarines, bombers, and other military projects; tech advances are running way ahead of our ability to keep up with their ethical consequences; the country's spending binges have run up deficits that many worry will endanger the prosperity of future generations (i.e., you and your kids).
Fear of communism has morphed today into fear of terrorism. But the result's the same: decades of military interventionism, a lot of which looks in hindsight to be divorced from the long-term national interest, and closer to the short-term financial interest of individuals, corporations, and segments of the military/intelligence establishment. The domestic defense budget has shrunk somewhat in recent years, but in arms sales to the rest of the world, the U.S. is still number one.
And when you see a headline like "Global Turmoil a Boon to U.S. Defense Industry," you get exactly what Ike was talking about.
War, unfortunately, is good for business.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home
This is the website for Ike's official museum and library, which is housed in his childhood home. After reading this Learning Guide, you could probably win the Eisenhower trivia contest, but you'd have to defeat the incumbent six-year-old champ.
Ike's White House Profile
This is the White House's brief official profile on Ike. It's mostly what you'd expect from an official bio, which is to say it's not as much fun as a Shmoop bio. But then again, we'd be worried if the White House started sounding like us…
The Miller Center's Eisenhower Page
The Miller Center is an affiliate of the University of Virginia and studies Presidential and political history. You can listen to some tapes (scratchy pre-digital ones) that Ike secretly recorded in the Oval office. Maybe that's where Nixon got the idea…
American Experience: Eisenhower
A hard-to-find documentary produced by PBS, which we hear is really good.
Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004)
A dramatization of the months leading up to Operation Overlord, starring Tom Selleck. Seriously?
Interview in US News and World Report, November 1966
Ike was always pretty direct about his views, but seemingly more so on this occasion. What's he worried about now? Welfare payments that encourage laziness; draft deferments; wasting money on large standing armies (no surprise there); crime; the interminable Vietnam War; the Russians and Red China, race relations.
A Date with Germany
A PDF of an article from "Yank" magazine about Eisenhower's new assignment in Europe. Reading old-timey articles can always be something of a trip, but articles like this one somehow convey the different tone life had back then.
Shout-Out to Grandpa
Susan Eisenhower, 50 Years Later, We're Still Ignoring Ike's Warning. According to Ms. Eisenhower, a foreign policy and political expert, we shoulda listed to Grandpa.
"Duck and Cover"
Bert the Turtle shows American children what to do if there's a nuclear attack. The fact that these cartoons were shown to grade-school kids clues you in to how fearful people were about a possible nuclear attack. As we now know, ducking and covering under a wooden desk is a foolproof method that will completely protect you against any nuclear explosion. Well, at least it will keep you away fro the windows.
Eisenhower's Farewell Address
A good quality video of Ike's televised speech. Notice how unpolished he seems? That's because he wasn't a television personality. He was an old dude who got things done without cheesing it up for the TV all the time. Imagine that.
Ike's 20th Anniversary Return to Normandy
Eisenhower gives an in-depth interview to Walter Cronkite while tracing the decision-making process of D-Day. Warning: it gets emotional at times.
Eisenhower's D-Day Speech
A brief address Ike made for troops departing for the invasion of northern France. Super epic and inspirational.
Eisenhower's Chance for Peace Speech
A speech Ike gave in 1953 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which was obviously intended for Soviet ears.
D-Day Minus One
Ike bucking up the troops on the eve on the Normandy invasion.
Ike's Presidential Portrait, 1959
Ike's official portrait from the last years of his Presidency.
Ike's 1952 Election Map
A map depicting Ike's landslide victory in the 1952 Presidential election.
Eisenhower in 1942
A picture of Ike when he was the very model of a modern major general.