President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, delivered 51 years ago (on January 17th, 1961), has been misinterpreted, misconstrued, and manipulated more often and to a much larger extent than any speech of any other American politician. Although it was merely a warning about the potential influence of the US defense industry and of a large standing army on the federal government, and expressed a fear that was proven unfounded, it is now being manipulated and misconstrued by anti-defense groups and individuals, such as the “Committee for the Republic” and by Ron Paul and his minions, as a call for deep defense cuts and isolationism and as a warning of a supposed vast evil influence by the so-called “military industrial complex”, which is supposedly oppressing the American people and skewing the ordinary democratic political process. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In an article for the American Thinker published last year and in a separate blogpost, I’ve refuted a few myths about Eisenhower’s speech and presented its true meaning. In this blogpost, I’d like to refute what I believe to be the three most common myths about that speech.
Here’s the rebuttal:
Myth: Eisenhower, if he was alive today, would’ve supported deep defense cuts.
Fact: Nothing could be further from the truth. His remark about the “military-industrial complex” is routinely being taken out of context and misused, as is habitual for the opponents of a strong defense. Here is the full relevant quote:
“Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American
experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
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. We should take nothing for granted. 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, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
If one reads the entire speech, rather than just one sentence quoted out of context, it is clear that Eisenhower did not call for any defense cuts. What he did do was to call for “the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals”, and not to allow it to subvert America’s ordinary democratic political process, “so that security and liberty may prosper together”, which he rightly believed possible, and which has been achieved in the United States. The defense establishment HAS been combined with America’s peaceful methods and goals, and has NOT skewed the democratic political process. As for the establishment of a large peacetime standing army and a large arms industry, Eisenhower said, “we recognize the imperative need for this development” and reminded the American people that “we can no longer afford improvisation” in the military and in the defense industry during wartime; hence, the US needs a large, strong peacetime military.
Morever, earlier in the speech, Eisenhower said:
“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. “our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no aggressor will risk his self-destruction.”
So, instead of seeing the military establishment as a threat to America’s civil liberties, its economy, or its prosperity, he called it “a vital element in keeping the peace” – which it is. Without a strong defense you cannot have peace.
Moreover, Eisenhower’s presidential and post-presidential papers, available at the Eisenhower Library and on its website, have shed additional light onto the speech and President Eisenhower’s intent. They confirm what I’ve been saying all along. In a 1966 letter to a Special Committee of the American Veterans Council, President Eisenhower wrote:
“Dear Mr Karson
Thank you for your complimentary remarks on the TV address I made just as I left the Presidency. I am glad to know that your organization is devoting time and energy to studying the ramifications of what I then called the “military-industrial complex”.
The influence of tremendous munitions expenditures is felt in every phase of our national life – millions today owe their prosperity, indeed their livelihood to this kind of production. Communities, and manufacturers, compete for new munitions facilities or contracts; to obtain such favorable situations political influence is sought and often given. Manifestly all of us should be alert to the possibility that munitions production could become so imprtant that whole communities will look upon it as a way of life; we may forget that these expenditures are merely for the purpose of defending ourselves and what we now have.
Our struggle against world Communist involves military, economic, and spiritual factors. Each is equally important and it is up to us to see that we maintain the necessary strength in each and the proper balance among the three.
As one can clearly read from this letter from the man himself – President Eisenhower – he was NOT calling for any defense cuts, nor did he label the US military or the US defense industry a grave threat to civil liberties and democracy. What he did call for was 1) making sure that munitions production does not become a way of life for the country; 2) keeping all three elements of national power – military, economic, and spiritual – equally strong, and keeping a proper balance among the three.
So, instead of wanting defense cuts, he wanted a strong, adequately funded defense – but also balance between military, economic, and spiritual power, as he considered all of them equally important for protecting America and for defeating the Communists.
Additionally, in a 1985 letter to Mark Teasley (an employee of the Eisenhower Library), Ralph E. Williams, who worked with President Eisenhower on writing speeches and participated in the writing of the speech, remarked:
“I have always been astonished at the attention that has been given to the “military-industrial complex” portion of President Eisenhower’s last speech, and agree with Pete aurand that its true significance has been distorted beyond recognition. I am sure that had it been uttered by anyone except a President who had also been the Army’s five-star Chief of Staff it would long since have been forgotten. But as things were, it became red meat for the media, who have gleefully gnawed on it for twenty five years.”
So any claim or implication that President Eisenhower called for defense cuts in his farewell address, or that the defense industry and the US military rule the country or have corrupted the democratic political process, is a blatant lie.
Moreover, the context matters. When Eisenhower took office, defense spending amounted to 14% of GDP and when he was leaving office, it still amounted to 10% of GDP and the majority of the entire federal budget. Today, total US military spending amounts to a tiny 4.51% of GDP and just 19% of the total federal budget, while the absolute majority of the TFB, 63%, is being consumed by entitlements. It was one thing for Eisenhower to express doubts about the kind of military spending he oversaw in his day. It is quite another to deliberately quote a tiny, selected part of his speech out of context more than half a century later and misportray it as something it was not.
Myth: Eisenhower would’ve supported US withdrawal from alliances.
Fact: Eisenhower would’ve never supported such a policy. Not only did he support the alliances that the US was involved in when he took office, he even formed new alliances such as SEATO (established in 1954) and mutual defense alliances with the UK (in 1958), Japan (in 1960), and South Korea. And as the first NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he oversaw the formation of the Alliance, the establishment of its HQ, and the formulation of its first contingency plans.
Myth: Eisenhower would’ve supported the closure of all US bases abroad.
Fact: Again, this is a lie, because Eisenhower did the opposite things when he was President. He built dozens of new bases abroad, leased existing bases from allied countries, and made the decision to keep thousands of US troops permanently in Korea. As NATO’s first-ever Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he oversaw the permanent stationing and garrisoning of massive US formations in Europe to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union. Here is a listing of all available files on the Eisenhower’s Administration’s views on US bases abroad from the Eisenhower library. (http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/subject_guides/pdf/Military_Bases_US_Overseas.pdf)
To sum up, as I stated above, if one reads the ENTIRE speech, rather than just one short bit taken out of context, and interprets the ENTIRE speech in line with the context in which it was stated in 1961, one will understand it correctly. It was NOT a call for any defense cuts, for isolationism, for isolationism, nor for the gutting of the US defense industry. Sadly, many anti-defense groups and individuals, both liberal and libertarian (including President Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan, who has teamed up with the “Committee for the Republic” to bash the US military and to lie about defense issues), misconstrue and misportray that speech as something it was no to be. By doing so, they are desecrating President Eisenhower’s memory.