01.17.11

The Ike Speech That Eclipses JFK

Fifty years ago, the country was transfixed by JFK’s dazzling inaugural—overlooking the plain-spoken wisdom of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address. Leslie H. Gelb on the advice that resonates today.

What a stunning clash of messages: President Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell address and President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address! The clash was little-noticed 50 years ago, and is still much underappreciated today. The straightforward words of the departing leader were drowned out by the electric vocabulary of the nation’s new Sir Galahad.

The old general who had seen it all in war and peace warned the nation against the growing power of the military-industrial complex, decried excessive governmental spending and debt, and emphasized the need to preserve a sound economy as the basis for American power in the world. The young and glamorous intellectual politician called upon his fellow Americans to lift their gaze beyond their borders to the challenges of the world, new threats, and the promise of global power. Ike urged Americans to pay attention to America; JFK said it was time for new American leadership in the world. Ike’s rhetoric was plain and simple, studded with common sense and references to “balance.” JFK’s rhetoric was soaring, captivating, and inspirational to the new generation just coming to power, a generation seeking new international mountains to climb. JFK was about to lead his country into new, greater, more trying and expensive levels of involvement in the world; Ike was telling the country not to forget about the American economy and democracy that underpinned all else. With 50 years’ perspective, including countless wars and no shortage of mindless governmental spending to look back upon, Ike’s words serve us better than JFK’s.

It’s not that I wasn’t inspired by JFK’s clarion call: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” I was inspired. And I was ready to sign up for government service when he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” But these and other JFK rhetorical banners took me and my generation far away from America in our careers and thoughts—and into the cauldron of Soviet-American confrontations. The international arena held the action and excitement. And so many of my generation, in effect, turned away from our own country or paid only casual attention to it, and instead followed JFK and his team of intellectual pied pipers into the glamorous global arena.

With 50 years’ perspective and with countless wars and mindless governmental spending to look back upon, Ike’s words serve us better than JFK’s.

Today, the twentysomethings of the 1960s have morphed into the sixty- and seventysomethings of the 21st century, and many are coming home. We heard Ike’s words and warnings at the time, but we are only truly listening to them now for the first time and trying to heed them. So, join the trek I’ve taken often in recent years back to Ike’s Farewell Address of January 17, 1961—and relish the wisdom.  Half a century later, here are five pieces of advice from Ike that still ring true today:

1.  Put the national interest ahead of politics.

“Our people expect their president and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation.”

In his farewell address, Ike described his relationship with Congress, which was controlled by Democrats for three quarters of his presidency, as “mutually interdependent” and praised Congress for collaborating with his administration on “most vital issues.” Now, isn’t that a novel idea?   

2.  There are no quick fixes for crises.

“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.”

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has engaged in two land wars at the cost of more than $3 trillion. Nearly 6,000 U.S. troops have given their lives to fight these wars. Yet Americans still face terrorist threats around the world and at home. Terrorist threats are used to justify spending on arms and men that have little to do with the threats. Those threats will take perhaps decades to vanquish mainly through intelligence and policy work.

The most important challenge we face today, fixing our economy, is another crisis that eludes any quick fix. President Obama should be more forthright with the American people about the long-term nature of this challenge.  Only then will he be able to make headway in implementing the necessary long-term solutions. 

3.  Balance is the best strategy.

“[E]ach proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: The need to maintain balance in and among national programs—balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage—balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”

Ike was telling us that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing the U.S. economy. Only a balanced approach, including some aspects of tax reform, entitlement adjustments, and investment in intellectual and physical and infrastructure will reenergize the American economy.

4. Beware spending beyond our means.

“As we peer into society's future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

Just ponder the $14 trillion debt that America now faces. Just think about its burden on generations to come.

5.  Guard against the power of special interests.

“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.”

Adjusting for inflation, the average Eisenhower defense budget was just over $400 billion. The comparable number for FY 2010 is more than $700 billion. Another number is also worrisome: 80 percent. A recent study by the Boston Globe found that during 2004-2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. But let’s not forget the other party with a stake in stoking the military-industrial complex. Ike originally intended to refer to the military-industrial complex as an “iron triangle”—the third and omitted part being Congress. Today, Congress tends to back up the “complex” no matter how ridiculous their demands.

In his speech, Ike also warned against “the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment” and its opposite, the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” The rise of the government-technology axis has often made it virtually impossible to debate and formulate public policy.

For 50 years now, American leaders have been paying more attention to the world than their own country. For much of this time, the nation could afford to do so. Now, it cannot. Now, it’s time to change the balance and pour more attention and resources into fixing up America. The United States is still the world’s best home for democracy and peace in the world, and America is burning. It’s just like Ike warned 50 years ago. 

For more on this subject…

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.