50th Anniversary of Eisenhower's 'Military-Industry Complex' Speech; Still Shocking on Many Levels

Take 10 minutes. Read Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Speech, to the nation, delivered 50 years ago yesterday. You'll be stunned.

You'll be stunned by its intellectual courage. If your impression of Eisenhower is limited to his military leadership during World War II, and the perceived conformity and deadening of American culture during the "Eisenhower Era," you'll find much here to radically alter your thinking about him, and his Leave it to Beaver brand.

The guts of the speech are contained in these lines, which represent some of the bravest and most prescient words and thoughts ever uttered by an American president:

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 State house, 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.

Eisenhower's fears were well-placed. Since the speech, we've seen a massive extension and consolidation of the power of the military industrial complex. It's unabashedly evident in the vast machinery of lobbying, in the cozy nest of former high-ranking military executives working for defense contractors, in the revenues of military privatizers like Blackwater -- now Xe.

A single example stands in for the rancid whole: Joseph Ralston, who was Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, sits on the board of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. This would have scared the daylights out of Dwight.

Eisenhower's speech is also notable for its focus. Today, a president's valedictory would be an all-you-can-eat buffet of acknowledgments and pandering. It would wander, stroke, and over-flatter. It would scatter candy to every constituency and special-interest group, and of course it would recite a litany of accomplishments. By contrast, Eisenhower's message is muscular, stark, and foreboding. He doesn't reference a single achievement, but rather leaves on a dark, personal reflective note of powerful incompleteness on the subject of disarmament:

Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war -- as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years -- I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

I can't imagine a contemporary president making his exit with such brutal candor. Nor can I imagine a contemporary president speaking in a such a complex and thoughtful syntax. That's ironic, given that Eisenhower was considered a weak speaker, known for garbling his sentences and a habit of pronouncing "nuclear" as "nucular" (as did President George W. Bush.)

But the language in this speech, which he either wrote or more likely approved, is elegant, lapidary and unafraid of making difficult points without political flinching. Can you imagine any politician today having the imagination to use the phrase "insolvent phantom"?

"We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

Here, his description of the qualities required to meet the challenges of the Cold War sound very much like those invoked in the "war against terror" -- but said far more eloquently.

"To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle."

And consider this admonition against the routinely American instinct to believe in the power of the magic bullet, which Eisenhower sees as a particularly risky ideology. This is a bold abstraction for any president to put forth, especially in a farewell message normally given to pleasing platitudes.

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 newer elements of our defense; 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.

He also speaks to the profound changes in research due to the technology revolution; and consider that this was 50 years ago. Here, Eisenhower warns against the evils of state-dominated research, another provocative and complex subject:

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.

In this next remarkable section, Eisenhower uses very contemporary language of entrepreneurship; indeed, the "solitary inventor" has managed to endure and succeed in ways that he would not have anticipated, but surely would have welcomed.

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.

Many activists today warn of the corrosive influence of government-funded research on the objectivity, neutrality and progress of scientific research -- and the stunting risks of grant-grubbing. Eisenhower was there first.

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.

When he speaks of world peace, Eisenhower sounds very much our present president. And note the use of the phrase "certain agony." It's a rhetorically potent and original conclusion to the sentence.

"The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield."

Read the entire speech for yourself and you'll see what I am talking about. Today, Eisenhower's Farewell Address largely remains in the public consciousness for the coinage of the "military industrial complex," an insight about the corporatization of power that has led to a tumble of exfoliations such as the "drug industrial complex," , the "prison industrial complex," the "ag-industrial complex," and the "porn industrial complex."

In retrospect, it was more than a farewell speech. It was a goodbye to a president using his exit to warn a nation and to grapple, publicly, with important ideas -- like the concentration of power, like the relationship between the public and private sectors. It was a goodbye to a presidential message that is pointed and shocking, one whose importance is reflected in its relentless, single-minded focus on a single theme. That's something we'd never see today, in our era of the media industrial complex.