When Stalin died in 1953, many in the West, including Eisenhower, understood that there was a window of opportunity to strike a different tone with the new Soviet leadership. After some internal struggle, Nikita Khrushchev ended up as Premier, and he actually did have a very different governing philosophy from his genocidal predecessor.
Ike gave this speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors fully expecting its text to be pored over by Soviet analysts for any clues as to what the great Capitalistic Scourge was planning next. And so it's ridiculously clear: The U.S. and the West want peace with the Soviet Union. All the U.S.S.R. has to do is make consistent peaceful gestures, and the Cold War can start to wind down.
Ike's granddaughter Susan, no slouch herself in the fields of international relations and political analysis, saw the "Chance for Peace" speech and the Farewell Address as "bookends" of Ike's presidency. She thought that some people saw the Farewell Address as an afterthought, when in fact, the concerns he expressed in it had been there since before he took office. For example:
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. (Source)
Susan knew that her generation was a beneficiary of Ike's focus on the future. Just like his "Farewell Address," Ike's "Chance for Peace" Speech was a warning that only focusing on the enemy outside could destroy the nation from the inside.
Believe it or not, Washington's Farewell Address wasn't televised like Ike's was; it was distributed to all Americans via Twitter.
Just kidding: Washington didn't have a Twitter account because he didn't have any children to set it up for him.
So he decided to deliver it in the form of a letter, published in newspapers and pamphlets across the country in 1796. The parallels between the two Addresses are striking.
For example, Washington also warned his readers to watch out for individuals or special interests having too much influence on public policy and the government taking on too much debt for future generations to pay back. He also used the colonial mythology of America, which was surprisingly similar to the mythology of WWII-era America. Some ideals never change.
Of course, there are plenty of differences. For one, Washington's letter is long and wordy, as was the style back then. By comparison, Ike's is refreshingly concise. Then there's the fact that Ike was concerned about the unfathomable sums of money and enormous corporations that could influence public policy, while Washington was concerned with such basic things as political parties, which he felt could lead to dangerous partisanship and divisiveness.
Thankfully, Washington was wrong about political parties: Democrats and Republicans love each other, and Congress as a whole is more popular than Taylor Swift and Beyoncé combined.
Boy, talk about contrast.
Nixon was Eisenhower's Vice President for both terms, and though he lost the 1960 Presidential Election to JFK, he made a huge political comeback to win in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey. He won a second term in a landslide victory against George McGovern, but was forced to resign in 1974 because of the Watergate Scandal—the first President to ever do so.
So Tricky Dick's farewell speech wasn't nearly as triumphant as Ike's (actually, it was completely untriumphant, if that's a word), and he spent most of it rationalizing, spinning, and trying to make his "decision" to resign seem like a selfless sacrifice.
In hindsight, the whole episode was pretty sad, especially considering that Nixon's administration accomplished a lot, particularly in the areas of foreign policy, health care policy, and nuclear arms control.
Eisenhower's "Farewell Address" criticized the American establishment in a subtle and indirect way, all the while singing the praises of American ideals and rhapsodizing about the land of the free and the home of the brave. But only a few years earlier, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech to a closed-door session of the Congress of the Soviet Union that was very, very, critical of the U.S.S.R.'s former leadership (a.k.a. Stalin).
The speech was definitely a piece of political theater intended to consolidate his own power again the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party. And it left some key points out. But it did actually set the record straight about some of Stalin's major crimes, a huge deal even if it was given in a private session.
And though the ensuing liberalization of the U.S.S.R. was mixed at best, and political in-fighting continued for decades afterward in the upper echelons of the Party, Khrushchev's speech helped change Soviet society and government for the better. Of course, with his predecessor Stalin, the bar wasn't set all that high to begin with. All you had to do is not intentionally starve seven million of your own citizens and murder tens of millions more, and you'd be doing okay.
While Ike offered a few moderate criticisms and warnings about America on his way out the door, Khrushchev gave an hours-long denunciation of the self-styled Man of Steel (no, not Superman) himself only a few years after Stalin's death. It was a tricky speech to give. He couldn't seem too critical of the Party itself.
But it's not like he had to try very hard to denounce one of the most notorious and destructive megalomaniacal mass murders in human history, especially since Khrushchev was a witness to much of it. Stalin had given him great material to work with.
As an aging, bald President Eisenhower stepped down, he passed the baton to the young, handsome, blessed-with-great-hair John F. Kennedy, whose inaugural address still stands as one of the best speeches in the American tradition. It was arguably more elegant, rhythmic, and poetic than Eisenhower's last speech. It contained the famous phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
But it definitely had the same inspirational appeal to the ideals of America. It gives a vision of peace with the Soviet Union and all other hostile nations, and gives us hope that we can help heal the wounds of the world.
If there was ever a template for how to transition between Presidential administrations, the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition would be a pretty good one. Eisenhower's address anticipated the rhetoric and idealism of Kennedy, and Kennedy's echoed the best parts of Eisenhower's farewell and legacy.
And as far as we know, JFK resisted making any bald jokes.