American military power has always provoked mixed reactions from the rest of the world. It has also been a source of deep ambivalence at home, as a deft new book on President Dwight Eisenhower shows. Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex examines the leader’s 1961 farewell address to the American people, which bequeathed the phrase “military-industrial complex” to the world’s political lexicon. Author James Ledbetter, editor of Reuters.com, uses Eisenhower’s speech as a springboard to explore the modern links between war, big business, and the U.S. government, as well as attempts to reconcile these (often lucrative) relationships with American democratic ideals. He also offers a valuable meditation on the difficulty of understanding the intentions behind (and predicting the impact of) any landmark political oratory.
Unwarranted Influence is the latest in a worthwhile genre aimed at examining major, history-changing speeches (the most famous being Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg). Like other books of its kind, Ledbetter’s is structured like an hourglass, with the speech as the neck that links the contexts, forces, and individuals involved in its concoction to the interpretations and real-world consequences it generates. (The reader ought to first tackle Eisenhower’s address, reprinted in an appendix, before starting the book.)
At the top of Ledbetter’s hourglass: ideas that developed between the 1920s and 1950s about the terrifying and total impact of war on society (including “merchants of death” and “the garrison state”) and that formed the mulch from which Eisenhower’s speech grew. (Ledbetter might well have extended his analysis further back in time to discuss the age-old fear of standing armies and permanent military establishments that agitated U.S. politics from the Revolution through the Civil War.) The author also offers insights into how these ideas—usually associated with the left—became touchstones of postwar U.S. political rhetoric, influencing even a conservative war hero turned president.
After setting up the ideological background for Eisenhower’s speech, Unwarranted Influence turns to the orator himself. Among the book’s many virtues is its thoughtful portrayal of the president (including his little-known stint as a War Department speechwriter) and his evolving ideas on war and peace. Ledbetter’s Eisenhower is a realist—all too aware of the human costs of war; skeptical of political, technological, or economic quick “fixes” for problems of daunting complexity; and open to ideas and arguments from a wide range of sources beyond the bounds of his own party. (It is a shock, and a pleasant one, to learn that the stalwart Republican read and pondered editorials by noted liberal journalist Norman Cousins, and that the two enjoyed an intermittent correspondence.)
Unwarranted Influence also recaptures Eisenhower’s troubled second term, and his sense of urgency about distilling his political legacy and giving some final, informed counsel to the American people. That counsel, delivered in January 1961, stressed the need for balance, a key virtue in Eisenhower’s thinking. Above all, it sought to demonstrate the need for a wise balance between American liberties and national security, a tug of war that troubles the country even to this day.
In Eisenhower’s view, the military-industrial complex posed a grave risk to the checks and balances of the American government. It was a controversial thought at the time, and it still is. As Ledbetter’s book shows, Eisenhower’s words still speak to us, a full half century after he left office—an impact few other political speeches can claim.
Bernstein, distinguished adjunct professor of law at New York Law School, is author of The Founding Fathers Reconsidered.