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50 years after farewell speech, Eisenhower is seen in newly appreciative light

With the United States armed forces now involved in three conflicts in the Middle East, I’m a bit surprised that hardly anything has been made of how this is the 50th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address as president, the one in which

With the United States armed forces now involved in three conflicts in the Middle East, I’m a bit surprised that hardly anything has been made of how this is the 50th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address as president, the one in which he famously warned of a “military-industrial complex.”

“In the councils of government,” the general who led the Allies to victory in World War II said, “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.”

If I were to guess (on the way to making three connected points), many of the people most likely to have crisply saluted Ike’s line over the years would have been among those least likely to have voted for him back in the 1950s — or, for that matter, any Republican since then or still.

The first point to be made has to do with what Eisenhower said immediately before the iconic phrase; a couple of passages that might sound overly martial to those more inclined to have voted for Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. In referring implicitly to the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the departing president said: “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”

Compelled to create permanent armaments industry
And then: “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 now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” (The italics were not in the original, but could have been.)

Mitch Pearlstein
Scott Theisen, courtesy of Greater Twin Cities United Way
Mitch Pearlstein

To the extent Ike has been used as a poster child by those overly skeptical about the purpose of the arms industry and the role of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines in what remains a dangerous world thick with enemies, it’s only because his message is routinely kidnapped and hollowed out.

A second point has to do with the actual writing of Eisenhower’s farewell. Especially because I’m an old speechwriter, I’ve long been alert to the near urban legend in and out of the trade that the speech was mostly the handiwork of Malcolm Moos — the president’s lead wordsmith at the time as well as later the president of the University of Minnesota — and that Eisenhower really didn’t have much to do with it. Yet, as it turns out, based on the recent discovery of boxes of “mouse-infested cardboard boxes” in the late-Moos’ lake cabin in northern Minnesota, “Eisenhower himself [in the words of the University of Minnesota alumni magazine] conceived the speech and its central message.”

Without question, Moos did an excellent job of overseeing its 29 drafts (it truly is a superior speech), but it was at root the doing of a man — a four-star general who led the likes of De Gaulle, Montgomery and Patton, for heaven sakes — who somehow came to be belittled by some.

A liberally disposed political scientist by the name of Fred I. Greenstein, to his great scholarly and against-the-grain credit, examined such doubts about Eisenhower’s wherewithal for the job in a terrific book first released in 1982, “The Hidden-Hand Presidency.”

“I arrived at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas,” Greenstein allows right at the start, “expecting to find documentary evidence of the working arrangements of a figurehead chief executive.”

A ‘shock of nonrecognition’
But the Princeton professor had “barely begun examining the recently opened files” when he “experienced a shock of nonrecognition,” as the Eisenhower revealed “could scarcely have been less like the Eisenhower who spawned the pre-Beltway Washington joke that, while it would be terrible if Eisenhower died and Vice-President Nixon became president, it would be worse if White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president.”

And even better, in the very next line: “The Eisenhower of Mrs. Whitman’s files was president — he, not Sherman Adams, and not Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was the engine force of the Eisenhower presidency.” Ann Whitman was the president’s personal secretary, and her files included Ike’s most confidential correspondence, private diary, and the like, including (in interesting foreshadowing) “transcripts of secret recordings of his one-to-one meetings with other high officials.”

Which brings us to a third and final point; or more precisely, it leads us to one of Eisenhower’s 10 successors. See if you can guess who.

As with Ike, many folks, particularly on the left, thought he was overmatched; in over his head as the nation’s chief executive. Yet then, again, they really didn’t think he was in charge anyway, but was rather somewhat of a clay puppet molded and choreographed by senior staff. And when it came to ideas, they assumed he didn’t think very deeply, or read very much, or was particularly equipped to string together more than a few fluent lines at a time. Remind anyone of the man from California who did as much as anyone to win the Cold War less than 30 years later without firing a single big shot and who also left hundreds of pages of acute observations in his presidential diaries?

Greenstein’s book came out 21years after Eisenhower left office. What might be described as similarly revisionist history — which is to say more accurate and respectful chronicling and analysis — of Ronald Reagan’s presidency started emerging more quickly than that after he left the White House. This is all to the good. But why (I have my suspicions) were these two leaders so frequently and radically misjudged by so many key observers in the first place?   
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.