Friday, December 17, 2010

Will the new light shed on the Eisenhower Farewell Address encourage attention to its substance?


President Eisenhower warns about the "military-industrial complex" in his Farewell Address, Jan. 17, 1961. (The complete speech can be found in two parts, here and here.)

"Speaking three nights before the end of his Presidency, in 1961, Eisenhower warned of a 'scientific-technological élite' that would dominate public policy, and of a 'military-industrial complex' that would claim 'our toil, resources, and livelihood.' In the decades since, Eisenhower's warning has seemed prescient. The convergence of American military might and a powerful arms industry has characterized wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and the web of power that he described seems present in American society today."
-- Jim Newton, in a Dec. 20 New Yorker
"Talk of the Town" piece,
"Ike's Speech"

by Ken

"One of the twentieth century's most important speeches" Jim Newton says of the Eisenhower Farewell Address, and it's hard to disagree, except to note the speech has been honored much more in lip service than in real engagement. It really is a heckuva speech. But as Newton notes, it has always been a puzzle -- beginning with its very existence.

Even at the time the speech seemed to come out of nowhere. The audacious substance and challenging seriousness of it didn't much fit with anyone's image of the ex-general. (That he was also an ex-president of an Ivy League university doesn't seem to come into it.) Inevitably, the suspicion arose that the speech really didn't have much to do with him, that it was somebody else's idea and he merely read it for the camera on his way out of the White House.
[G]enerations have wondered what prompted the most celebrated general of the Second World War to leave the White House with a warning about the military. Eisenhower"s grandson David writes in a new memoir that Ike "developed a kind of split personality about the most controversial speech of his life," downplaying its significance to old military and business friends while professing pride in it to others.

Some historians have regarded the Farewell Address as an afterthought, hastily composed at the end of 1960 as an adjunct to the 1961 State of the Union. Others have regarded it as the soulful expression of an aging President who was determined to warn the American people of dangers ahead.

Now we know how little this reflects of the true story. How we know is the news element of Newton's piece, and it's a dandy story.
A few months ago, Grant Moos was closing his boathouse, near Hackensack, Minnesota, as he does every summer, tying up loose ends, sweeping up debris. This year, though, his sister Kathy insisted that it was finally time to do something about six cardboard boxes that for decades had been stacked in a corner next to a 7.5-horsepower Evinrude engine.

The boxes belonged to their father, Malcolm Moos, a journalist and academic who was a speechwriter for President Dwight Eisenhower. When Moos left the White House, in 1961, he donated some of his papers to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, in Abilene, Kansas, but he kept some, too.

The boxes were full of pine needles, acorns, and mouse droppings, and smelled of campfires. As Moos looked through the contents, he came across a batch of folders marked "Farewell Address." He looked up the Eisenhower Library, and sent the boxes off to Abilene.

At first, the library did not know what it had. As archivists began to go through the papers, however, they discovered a trove of drafts, memos, and research materials that had long been missing from the record of one of the twentieth century"s most important speeches.

Among the papers were 21 previously unknown drafts of the speech, for a total of 29.
Eisenhower was a rigorous editor. Major speeches such as the State of the Union might be refined ten or twelve times. Even by those standards, however, the Farewell Address was special. Eisenhower personally rewrote the opening passages, and his brother Milton overhauled the entire speech. It was batted back and forth for months.

Above all,
the Moos papers make clear that the address, far from being an afterthought, was among the most deliberate speeches of Eisenhower"s Presidency. Regarded in his day as inarticulate and detached, Eisenhower in these papers is fully engaged, grappling with the language of the text and the radical questions that it raised.

Contrary to what some historians have speculated, it was not Moos or his assistant, Ralph Williams, who suggested a farewell address. On May 20, 1959, Moos was meeting with the President, when Eisenhower proposed an idea for "one speech he would like very much to make." It was to be, Moos recorded, "a ten-minute farewell address to the Congress and the American people." Moos deemed the idea "brilliant" and began making notes.

It's now clear how much this speech mattered to Ike, who really seems to have had a strong idea of the speech he wanted to give.
One core idea dominates every version: the first draft described "the conjunction of a large and permanent military establishment and a large and permanent arms industry." Policing it would require "all the organizing genius we possess" to insure "that liberty and security are both well served." It added, "We must be especially careful to avoid measures which would enable any segment of this vast military-industrial complex to sharpen the focus of its power." Through scores of revisions, that idea persisted. As delivered, the speech memorably read, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Newton signs off with "a reminder of the contingency of historical research."
Had Moos vacationed in Florida rather than in Minnesota, the documents might have disintegrated. Instead, the memos and drafts survived, snug in a boathouse corner, rejoining history just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower's address.


The best thing that could come of this new understanding of how the Eisenhower Farewell Address came into being would be some sincere interest in what the retiring president felt so compelled to say to the American public. (It would be hard to imagine any more recent president venturing anything remotely like this speech on his way out the door. Most of them, after all, have been integral parts of the problem Eisenhower was trying to warn us about.) Here you can find a full text, vouchsafed as a transciption of the MP3 audio version that's also included.

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At 12:20 PM, Blogger Decidere said...

Ike's 2 poor years as President of Columbia were a mistake, and no sign of him being an Ivy Leaguer.

It's believed that when someone recommended Eisenhower to be president, they were referring to his brother Milton, but the mistake held. (Considering Ike was a highly decorated hero, this may be more urban myth).

Nonetheless, it's refreshing to see him behind the words he's remembered for.


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