Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Susan Eisenhower, in crossing the party line to endorse Obama for president, invokes Ike's most enduring phrase:

In his televised [farewell] address, Ike famously coined the term "military-industrial complex," and he offered advice that is still relevant today. "As we peer into society's future," he said, we "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."

She goes on to list the modern problems she sees confronting America:

Today we are engaged in a debate about these very issues. Deep in America's heart, I believe, is the nagging fear that our best years as a nation may be over. We are disliked overseas and feel insecure at home. We watch as our federal budget hemorrhages red ink and our civil liberties are eroded. Crises in energy, health care and education threaten our way of life and our ability to compete internationally. There are also the issues of a costly, unpopular war; a long-neglected infrastructure; and an aging and increasingly needy population.

Which is perhaps crafted to show up the resemblance of America's present anxieties to the problems Eisenhower faced as president. But she quickly and wisely turns from Eisenhower to Obama, and gives a good catalogue of his appealing qualities. But I'm still interested in Eisenhower. Perhaps more so than his granddaughter is. Not that that's a slam; I probably don't understand my own grandfather as well as some other people did, either. (But she also uses "transpire" incorrectly).

She could have stuck with that farewell speech a little longer. It really is a great one, by modern presidential standards. It's short and rich. The whole thing is here. And it's inspiring. Obama often gets compared to JFK, but the rhetoric in Ike's farewell is as inspiring as anything JFK offered:

Throughout America's adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations.

To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.

Any failure traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us a grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Uplifting patriotic words! But they might trouble the waters for a modern Democratic candidate, who will have to depend so much for support on a wedge of the party base that is dead-set on pulling away from enhancing liberty, dignity and integrity in at least one Middle Eastern nation. Indeed, Eisenhower sounds positively ... Neo-Conish. With a "religion" reference thrown in to chill the spines of fundie-haters.

Susan Eisenhower opens by refering to the speech's most famous line, but then steers pretty well clear of it for the rest of her piece. I can understand that, too. Military-Industrial Complex is one of those American expressions (like "manifest destiny" or "pursuit of happiness") which has been taken into the national phraseology but without much reference to what the person meant who first wrote it.

His farewell speech was not "about" the MIC. It introduced that topic in its course. Eisenhower was talking about the overweening growth of government power -- both in fact and in the minds of the citizens, in the first stage of the Cold War. In my opinion, he was right to sound that alarm. Here's grandpa Eisenhower, speaking in the year after I was born:

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. A huge increase in the newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in 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 the 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.

Government economy as a consideration in policy-making. What an idea!

The military naturally came in for attention in the speech. For one, his party had been defeated in the 1960 election in part because its opponents had attacked it for not spending enough on the military to fight the Cold War. Ike was a Republican; the Democrats were the hawks. But Ike knew two things JFK did not: 1. Khrushchev was bluffing about the size and potency of the Russian arsenal; 2. thermonuclear weapons and missile systems had changed warfare entirely since 1950 and made a real war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. too destructive to be likely. Kennedy realized the first once he became president; I wonder if he ever really grasped the second.

Ike wasn't just a soldier; he had led the armies, and he had seen how industrial munitions makers manipulated the supply system to their benefit. He also had seen how civilian politicians foisted pork-barrel military projects on an army and navy that didn't want or need them. In fact, until the last minute, the phrase eisenhower was going to use in his speech was "military-industrial-congressional complex." He is said to have revised his speechwriters' words to avoid angering Congress, where his party still had a base of power.

But Eisenhower didn't stop at the MIC. There were other evolving "complexes" in the American body, mutating out of the federal government, that he warned against:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

"Scientific-technological elite" somehow hasn't gripped the public imagination the way "military-industrial complex" did. But they weighed equally in his warning to us. A yearning for blackboards over computers is quaint. But the corruption of academic institutions by government money during the Cold War never has been undone, and what was lost is more lamentable than blackboards.

Now, Obama has his attractive qualities and may well make a good president, or even a great one. But whether he -- or anyone now running -- is fit or willing to correct the drift Eisenhower identified in modern American history is a doubtful thing.

[Yeah, I know ... Ron Paul]

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