The fiftieth anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address and its famous warning about the military-industrial complex presents progressives with a dilemma. They can continue the popular trend of claiming Eisenhower as a prophetic voice against militarism and for peace. Or they can set aside that manufactured image and get Eisenhower straight: they can talk about him and his policies accurately, with analysis based on research straight from the original source documents, and straighten out the distorted image the peace movement has propagated for so long. But they cannot do both, since the image so directly contradicts the reality.
It’s not an easy choice. The fictional Eisenhower, supposedly dead-set against wasteful spending on military (especially nuclear) armaments, has been a powerfully effective poster boy for the peace movement. After all, how could the war hawks argue with a beloved Republican war hero? The image of Eisenhower as the “man of peace” is so useful that I almost hate to burst the bubble.
On balance, though, I think that fiction does more harm than good. It distorts our picture of the early cold war years and prevents us from learning valuable lessons that an accurate history of that time can teach us. So, it’s healthy to see a small debate about Eisenhower triggered by this anniversary because some of the contributors give us a more honest understanding of this president who has had such a huge lasting influence.
And even if you’ve read the most accurate op-eds of the last few days, believe me, you haven’t heard anywhere near the whole story. I offered the most accurate history I could in the three books I wrote on Eisenhower, who once summed up his philosophy when he told the British ambassador that he would “rather be atomized than communized.” In writing those books, I saw over and over again how Eisenhower put his anticommunist ideology above human life.
He maintained elaborate plans for fighting a nuclear war. Though he was never eager for that war, he was absolutely prepared to start it if he believed the Soviets were about to destroy the “free world” in any way. “Shoot your enemy before he shoots you,” he told his advisers, and “hit ’em … with everything in the bucket.” He insisted that, with the right planning, the US could “pick itself up from the floor” and win the war as long as only 25 or 30 American cities got “shellacked” and nobody got too “hysterical.”
(You can read a detailed summary of what I learned about Eisenhower and nuclear weapons here.)
The loudest voice in the current debate is James Ledbetter, an economics journalist who has just published a well-timed book on the farewell address. In a New York Times op-ed, Ledbetter stresses the point that everyone stresses: Ike was indeed worried about excessive military spending. What Ledbetter, like all the members of the “I Like Ike” club, ignores is that Eisenhower spent eight years approving an enormous and unnecessary buildup of the nation’s military arsenal.
Melvin A. Goodman, a columnist for Truthout, falls into the same trap when he claims that, “Eisenhower ignored the hysteria of the bomber and missile gaps in the 1950’s, as well as the unnecessarily heightened concerns about US security” in a number of government reports, and “stood alone in countering America’s infatuation with military power.”
Would that it were true. In fact, Ike presided over by far – and that’s an understatement – the largest nuclear buildup in US history, going from a few hundred warheads when he took office to nearly 20,000 by the time he left. He also approved the deployment of a vast array of new kinds of weapons and delivery systems, including the intercontinental ballistic missiles that made it possible to obliterate the Soviet Union and China in a single day.
True, he didn’t give the Pentagon everything they wanted, but most of the time he bitched and moaned about the cost and then approved new weapons anyway – especially if they were nuclear. When Goodman writes, “Eisenhower understood that it was the military-industrial complex that fostered an inordinate belief in the omnipotence of American military power,” he misses the crucial point. The president, too, believed that the US could be, and had to be, omnipotent in military power. That’s why he kept approving all of those weapons of overkill even though he understood the economic risks.
Ledbetter rightly describes Eisenhower as “a lifelong opponent of what he called a ‘garrison state,’ in which policy and rights are defined by the shadowy needs of an all-powerful military elite.” Ledbetter, like most writers, misses the key point here. Ike opposed the garrison state for the same reason he worried about the military budget: it would restrict the freedom of wealthy capitalists to get richer. (Though he was never a very wealthy capitalist, most of his friends were.)
The president, who was seen in his day as a limited intellect, actually had a somewhat sophisticated economic analysis, all based on a boundless fear of anything that would hamper the growth of free-market capitalism. He loved nukes precisely because they were so cheap, giving “more bang for the buck.” He was convinced that more nukes, like the cold war itself, meant more protection for free enterprise.
Eisenhower managed to mislead so many because of the vast disjuncture between his peace-oriented rhetoric and his huge military buildup. An Eisenhower fan who gets tripped up by the rhetoric, understandably enough, is his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower. In a Washington Post op-ed, she explains quite rightly that her grandfather’s concern about excessive military spending began long before the farewell address. She casts it as “the bookend” to his first major foreign policy speech as president, “A Chance for Peace,” where he warned eloquently of the military and economic dangers of the burgeoning nuclear arms race.
“But pulling these quotes out of context, as we like to do, misses the reprehensible context of the speeches in which they originated,” as David Swanson notes on Truthout. The “Chance” speech was a propaganda piece through and through, designed to calm the fears of his Western European allies that the US was itching for a nuclear fight (which would take place on European soil). Though Ike insisted on his nation’s desire for peace, most of the speech was a call for the Soviet Union to show an equal desire – by totally capitulating to the US on every major issue of conflict. Eisenhower knew perfectly well that this speech could never ease cold war tensions. That was never its intent.
Nearly eight years later, as Swanson points out, in the farewell address, Eisenhower still “claimed eternal innocence for the United States in foreign affairs” and blamed all the dangers of the nuclear arms race completely on the Soviets. “He maintained the same set of lies that allowed for the military industrial complex to grow into something today that probably didn’t penetrate his worst nightmares.”
In fact, for eight years, while he talked so believably about his desire for peace, Ike made sure that disarmament talks with the Soviets would bear no fruit, mainly because he was convinced, as he told an aide, that “you can’t trust them when they are talking nice, and you can’t trust them when they are talking tough.” Nothing could change his mind; mistrust and hatred of communism were the bedrock of his faith.
Ledbetter also gets caught in the gap between rhetoric and policy when he speculates that, “Eisenhower would likely have been deeply troubled, in the past decade, by the torture at Abu Ghraib, the use of martial authority to wiretap Americans without warrants and the multiyear detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay without due process.”
I’ve read thousands of pages of private letters, memos and minutes of meetings and conversations recording Eisenhower’s words. If he had any concern about such abuses, he kept them to himself. In fact, Eisenhower approved the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, putting in place cruel dictatorships that held power by massively abusing human rights every day. (Though few Americans remember the violation of democracy in Iran, you can bet most Iranians are still well aware of it.) He was willing to do anything to defeat “the reds.”
Ledbetter’s book, despite its apparent praise for Eisenhower, may provide more of a glimpse of historical reality. David Greenberg, who has read and blurbed an advance copy, writes accurately in Slate that, “Eisenhower’s fears about standing military power never outweighed his conviction that it was necessary.” Then he quotes the book: Ike was, “by any definition, a leading figure in that [military-industrial] complex.” In fact, he started promoting closer ties between the military and corporate America when he was still a young officer in the late 1920’s, and he never stopped.
As Greenberg rightly says, “the cult around Ike’s farewell address” has “misleadingly recast Eisenhower – a lifelong internationalist and military man [and commie-hater, he might have added] – as a veritable peacenik.” And it has misleadingly cast blame for war on the military corporations, as if the American public’s acquiescence had nothing to do with it.
Greenberg adds that Eisenhower’s “warnings about military overreach were couched, it’s usually forgotten, in passages insisting on the need for a military of unprecedented size.” The famous final warning about the military-industrial complex is the best example: It was immediately followed by words that are typically ignored: “We recognize the imperative need for this development [of the complex]…. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action” because the communist threat “promises to be of indefinite duration.”
“Indefinite duration.” That’s the most crucial and ignored point about Eisenhower’s lasting influence. Every time he talked about his longing for peace, he also told the nation that we had to prepare more for war because we had entered an endless “age of peril.” (“This phrase of not an instant but an age of peril – I like that fine,” he told the speechwriter who coined it.)
The influence of that constantly repeated warning lasted throughout the cold war era and far beyond. For sixty years or more, we have lived in a national insecurity state. It has been easy for presidents to persuade the public that we must fight because some enemy is out there ready to destroy us, that we are wholly innocent, that they are evildoers who have no comprehensible grievance against us, they just hate our freedoms.
With his frightening words and his massive nuclear buildup, Eisenhower did more than any other president to create the irrational age of peril that is still with us. The US government is still claiming total innocence in world affairs, still insisting that people who would attack us have no motive but sheer evil and still putting forth plans to survive nuclear attack – as long as nobody gets too “hysterical.”
The current debate about Eisenhower is healthy if it brings out the honest reality of a president who is now especially widely admired in progressive peace circles. Knowing the facts, it should make us wonder how less-admirable presidents talked and thought about nuclear weapons and war. It should remind us how easily presidents can create images that mask profoundly important truths. It should also warn us how easily peace progressives can promote those images and unwittingly serve the warmongering policies that they mean to oppose.