Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Like Ike

Most memorable speeches are eventually abstracted to the point where what is remembered has little relation to the speech. The best-known example of this problem is Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, in which he never used the word "malaise."

Eisenhower's farewell address is another case. We remember it for his warning about the "military industrial complex." But listening to it the other day I was struck how poorly this tag fits on what is a seriously impressive speech.

Eisenhower chose to address two large historical and philosophical--not political--subjects in his farewell. The first was the "military industrial complex." He was not, however, simply "warning" his fellow citizens about it. He was, instead, making a large and complicated observation: That prior to the World Wars, America did not have a permanent arms industry. That America's pre-eminent position in the world now necessitated a large-scale arms industry. That such an industry would have transformative effects on a country which was now, for the first time, seeing itself as an important actor on the world stage. Some of these effects would be good, others would not. Eisenhower's point, was that we should enter this new era with our eyes open. Here's Ike:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States cooperations -- corporations.
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.
History has shown him to be quite correct. But following his warning about the MIC was another warning, which has been altogether forgotten: the consequences of how invention and research were evolving in the new technical age.
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.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Again, Eisenhower proved quite prescient. But more amazing than his wisdom is the fact that these were the topics he chose for his farewell. They were philosophical and historical. They had nothing to do with politics or Eisenhower himself or his presidency. It is impossible to imagine a president today speaking with such deep wisdom. It's a stark reminder of how very small the men who govern us have become.

1 comment:

TubbyLover69 said...

One notes in passing that Ike was the last president born in the 19th century.

I wonder if Kennedy's Inaugural isn't the counterpoint to Ike's Farewell. It's short, unserious, and a highly--seriously highly--eloquent soundbite. One notes in passing that JFK was the first president born in the 20th century.