In his farewell address 60 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a warning about the risks of war and the dangers of runaway military and intelligence budgets.
Eisenhower himself had overseen the enormous buildup of the nation’s nuclear arsenal from fewer than 300 atomic bombs in 1950 to more than 27,000 nuclear weapons by the early 1960s.
The former Supreme Allied commander had become a Cold Warrior, backing the French war in Indochina to prevent a Communist victory (the Viet Minh prevailed in 1954 despite the U.S. having delivered $3 billion in military aid to France). Eisenhower also approved two covert operations by the CIA to topple democratically elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala, a harbinger of the spy agency’s war crimes and human rights abuses of the following decades.
But as he prepared to exit public life in January, 1961, Eisenhower lamented some of the consequences of America’s rise to global superpower because they threatened the health of democracy.
“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,” said the 70-year-old statesman in his goodbye speech, which is often quoted but poorly understood.
“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 this episode of History As It Happens, historian Jeremi Suri discusses how U.S. leaders and powerful institutions ignored Eisenhower’s wisdom.
“He first of all was referring to the overspending on the military. His speech is largely about fiscal solvency and the importance of making sure we spend our money on things that are productive for the American economy,” said Mr. Suri, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Second, [Eisenhower] was concerned that having an overly large military would get the United States involved in too many conflicts, that it would create a temptation to intervene,” Mr. Suri said.
As president, Eisenhower gave no serious consideration to intervening to stop the Soviet crackdown of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. The commander-in-chief also exercised restraint in the Suez crisis the same year.
In light of the past two decades of U.S. interventionism, which has caused the deaths or displacement of millions of people across the Greater Middle East and South Asia, Eisenhower’s constraint seems quaint.
Ike’s 1961 speech also proved prophetic.
“He was saying it was a tragedy in the true Greek sense that the United States — a peace-loving country, as he believed — had during the early Cold War faced requirements, pressures, and defense needs to build up this huge arsenal,” Mr. Suri said.
Today, with about 900 bases sprawled across the globe and an annual defense budget topping $700 billion, the U.S. is captive to the military-industrial complex of Eisenhower’s dread.
For more of Mr. Suri’s insights about Eisenhower’s legacy, download this episode of History As It Happens. Mr. Suri is the host of the This Is Democracy podcast.