Study Guide

Eisenhower's Farewell Address Themes

By Dwight D. Eisenhower

  • Power

    With great power comes great responsibility. Peter Parker knew it. Ike knew it.

    It's hard to appreciate that until WWII, The U.S. wasn't the superpower we now know it to be. Eisenhower saw the rise of the nation's global power and influence after the war, and that's one of the most important themes in his farewell address. The power of the United States military, the power of new weapons and technology—he knew they had the ability to heal the wounds of the world and the power to destroy it. He saw the growing influence of special interest groups and industry, and was worried that they'd come to have way too much influence on government policies if left unchecked.

    Eisenhower knew a thing or two about how power can be abused. He'd seen the results firsthand while overseeing post-war Germany and visiting a ravaged Europe and Russia. He saw Stalin turning European countries into vassal Soviet states. Now that most of the world could be obliterated with the press of a nuclear button, he believed it fell to the U.S. to see that that didn't happen.

    Like Uncle Ben said, "Just because you can beat him up, it doesn't give you the right to." Ben must have heard that farewell address.

    Questions About Power

    1. What did Eisenhower think was the proper role of American influence in the world, including military influence?
    2. How do you think the rise of nuclear weapons affected Ike's view of American power?
    3. What would Ike think about the current activities of U.S. military/intelligence agencies?
    4. In hindsight, was Ike's interventionist approach during the Cold War the best way forward (look, for instance, at the long-term effects of the Iranian/Guatemalan coups)?

    Chew on This

    Ike saw the U.S.'s power as a major force for good in the world.

    Ike wasn't sure at all if the nation would use its new global economic and military power wisely.

  • Principles

    To 21st-century eyes, Ike's "Farewell Address" can seem almost, well, naïve in its insistence on idealistic, virtuous American principles making the world a freer and more peaceful place. But whether you think American idealism is silly or essential, there's no denying that Ike was a principled dude.

    You can see why Eisenhower thought people needed to be reminded of these principles from time to time. They'd been through two World Wars and were still sparring with the Soviets through proxy wars and technology competition. Soldiers came home from the war, started families, and began a nationwide spending spree and accumulating stuff in hopes of chasing the American dream. It was easy to forget why we fought those wars and how much still hung in the balance.

    Ike himself had been in the thick of all of it. Whether he was commanding armies, heading up a multi-national military alliance, or serving as President, there was always some serious flak coming his way. Grounding himself in some solid principles seems like a good way to stay sane and keep his eyes on the prize.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Do you think Ike's principles/vision of America are sensible? Too idealistic?
    2. How well has America lived up to the principles Eisenhower outlines in this address? Were there certain times in its history when it did particularly well living up to them? When it did particularly poorly?
    3. If you had to condense this speech into a bumper sticker, which principles would make the cut?

    Chew on This

    Ike gave this speech because he felt he hadn't succeeded in following his principles, particularly securing the peace.

    The principles Ike outlined are well-intentioned but ultimately impossible to put into practice.

  • Warfare

    The Cold War between the U.S. and Soviets was still mighty chilly when Ike stepped down as president. Both sides had enough nukes to wipe out humanity, both sides were trying to extend their spheres of influence, and both sides were totally terrified of the other. Nobody had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

    Eisenhower had done a lot to project power in hopes of deterring Soviet aggression and expansion. He'd gotten an armistice signed to end the Korean War, he used the CIA to overthrow "uncooperative" governments in smaller nations around the world, and he'd built up the American nuclear arsenal to save money and intimidate the Soviets. But all of this was, in his mind, the only way toward peace.

    So let's see. What'll it be? Long, drawn-out conventional warfare that could go on indefinitely and cost a fortune in lives and resources? Or nuclear deterrence that you hope worked or else life on earth as we know it was over.

    We'll take neither.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why was WWII so good for the American economy?
    2. Did Ike's nuclear strategy make sense? Did it make the world safer or more dangerous?
    3. If you were President, what kind of balance would you strike between defense and social spending in your annual budget?

    Chew on This

    Ike's statement about peace through mutual respect and diplomacy is a pipe dream. There will always be conflict.

    Ike knew more than anyone how difficult achieving peace would be.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Android butlers, flying cars, laser guns… So much of the technology we take for granted today got started in the 1950s. It was a time of unprecedented modernization of industry, communications, and culture. We got the first microchips, modems, optical fiber, and credit cards. Ike's "Farewell Address" came at the beginning of the 1960s, when a whole new tsunami of tech development was about to come roaring over the nation.

    Ike understood how fast things were moving, and how fast they were getting faster, so it's no wonder one of the biggest things he emphasized was balance. The most amazing thing about Ike's speculation is how relevant it still is. If someone had given this speech last week, it would have seemed up-to-date. Technology is still moving so fast that we're chasing after it hoping we catch it before The Singularity arrives and our robot overlords decide it's payback time.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. How much of consumer technology was originally created for military purposes? Do you think Ike had a problem with that?
    2. Do tech billionaires have outsized influence on American life like Ike feared? Are companies like Google and Facebook a danger to the American way, or do the services they offer outweigh the downsides?
    3. What would Ike have thought about the internet? Would he use Twitter or Instagram if he was alive today?

    Chew on This

    War is always the biggest motivation for technological development throughout human history.

    Ike couldn't even begin to know how right he was about the potential danger of the scientific-technological elite.