Inside Ike’s Farewell Warning: The Military Industrial Complex

With just days until he would hand over the reins of power to the young JFK, Dwight Eisenhower was faced with one final mission—to send his country forth with the proper guidance.

Bill Allen/AP

January 17, 1961 The Oval Office

The speech had already been sent to the mimeograph machine to be copied and distributed to reporters. But sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, the president was still rewriting. Reporters who were used to Ike’s tendency to edit his speeches up until the very last minute had learned not to take the “official” version as final. Those tempted to file their stories before the actual speech risked waking up red-faced when Ike’s delivery veered off in another direction.

At 8:30 p.m., millions of Americans would miss their Tues- day night episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Red Skelton Show, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents to watch the president bid goodbye. Earlier, some of his friends had urged him to give the address before Congress and make a big display of it. He’d replied, “No, this is the president-elect’s show. I’ll just do it quietly from the White House.”

Ike had been at the final editing since before eight that morning, with a strong sense of purpose. In the background he could hear pounding and hammering as the inaugural parade viewing stand was erected outside. It was, he thought, like be- ing a condemned man in a cell listening to the scaffold going up. Now the hour was nearing when the final script would have to be handed to the technicians to set up the teleprompter. (As it turned out, he would bypass it that night, deciding at the last moment to keep a paper copy on his desk and to turn the pages as he read—while the teleprompter scrolled pointlessly along.)

Television was still a new medium, but Ike had accepted the technology even though there wasn’t an ounce of Hollywood in his demeanor. He’d been the first president to approve the use of television cameras at press conferences back in 1955, believing the American people would surely benefit from seeing the president firsthand without the press filter.

Not that it didn’t take some getting used to. Before the first televised press conference, Hagerty had arranged a “dummy” conference, answering questions for about ten minutes with the camera rolling. Later, Ike watched the result, gave it some consideration, and decisively told Hagerty, “Set it up.” Naturally, there was a fair amount of grousing from the newspaper press, but soon everyone had accepted it. For this contribution Eisenhower became the first president to win an Emmy.

For Ike, television was no more than a necessary evil; he tolerated it. He’d never forget the time during his first presidential campaign when a representative from the Republican Party’s advertising agency had approached him, quaking in his boots, to suggest that Ike use makeup on TV. His broad face and shiny bald head threw off the light, the candidate was told. Ike let him have it with colorful language, but he eventually gave in.

That first time in the barber chair with the makeup man coming at him, he was in a bad mood. “Were you in the Army?” Ike barked at him, preparing to make a remark about this sissy enterprise.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied. “Hundred-and-First Airborne, General.”

Ike snapped his mouth shut and never complained about the makeup again. And he made sure to have that same brave soldier do the honors for the remainder of the campaign.

Eisenhower never became the perfect messenger for the tele- vision era, but he did what he could to improve himself. His friend Robert Montgomery, an Academy Award–winning actor who was active in Republican politics, often came to the White House to coach him before a speech. His primary goal: helping Ike be Ike.

THE ORIGIN OF IKE’S farewell speech traces to a spring 1959 chat with his speechwriter Malcolm Moos in the Oval Office. Moos had joined the administration in 1957 to give a shot of fresh adrenaline to the administration’s rhetoric. “Whenever you get in the sunset of an administration, these are low times always,” Moos said. “You’ve lost that heady enthusiasm that comes on the takeoff,” and you might need help communicating your vision.

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Among Moos’s first observations was the tendency of Ike’s people to write speeches by committee—producing a jumbled mess, like “lumps of cottage cheese,” as he put it. On one oc- casion Moos presented a speech written by committee to Ike without comment. But sensing Moos’s distaste for the prose, Ike asked, “You don’t think I ought to say that, do you?”

“No,” admitted Moos.

“Go out and do me a speech,” Ike instructed. From then on, Moos had tremendous leeway. In May 1959 Ike said to him, “I want to have something to say when I leave here. I’m not interested in capturing headlines, but I want to have a message and I want you to be thinking about it well in advance.”

With a year and a half remaining in Ike’s tenure, Moos promised to start “dropping ideas into a bin.”

Such advance planning wasn’t unusual for the president. He was determined to get his message just right. At that point, he had only an inkling of broad themes—among them the need for common sense to accommodate the broad range of beliefs in the political spectrum of America, particularly in an era when the nation had an executive of one party and a Congress of another.

As he wrote to Milton, his closest confidant, who was then president of Johns Hopkins University, “The purpose would be to emphasize a few homely truths that apply to the responsibilities and duties of a government that must be responsive to the will of majorities, even when the decisions of those majorities create apparent paradoxes.”

For the next year and a half Ike and Moos worked over the idea through many drafts, most provided by Moos. Later, the themes would expand to focus on America’s role in the nuclear age. Throughout the process the president was always in control. “The business of writing speeches,” Bryce Harlow once observed, “is not the most enjoyable work in the world, normally, particularly if the person for whom you’re writing is a skilled writer himself.” This was the case with Ike. Milton had once joked that his drafts were like waving a red flag at a bull— an invitation to attack and tear apart. In fact, Milton wrote, “when he had finished [editing], one would have thought that a dozen chickens with dirty feet had found delight in scratching on every page.” Ike always rewrote the speeches, infusing them with his plainspoken manner, deleting the highbrow phrases that writers liked so much. He recalled an occasion when he was invited to give a talk to some group or other and they said, “Don’t worry. All you have to do is show up. We’ll give you a speech. Just change it to your own words.” After he finished giving the talk, the speechwriter came up to him. “I want to thank you for keeping in a few words of what I wrote,” he said.

Ike smiled, a little surprised. “What were they?”

“Ladies and gentlemen.”

Once, bristling at a charge he never wrote a word of his own speeches—and would, in fact, be incapable of doing so—Ike said, “You know that General MacArthur got quite a reputation as a silver-tongued speaker when he was in the Philippines. Who do you think wrote his speeches? I did.” He was such a good writer that his war memoir, Crusade in Europe, was rumored to have been written by the bestselling novelist James Michener, although every word was Ike’s own.

Indeed, one of the running jokes about Ike was his tendency to garble syntax. The reporter James “Scotty” Reston once wrote a whole column about it following a press conference. Hagerty called him up. “Scotty,” he said, “I read your column with a great deal of interest. May I read back to you the question you asked the president, and ask you to parse it?” He did, and Reston was shocked. “My God,” he said, “did I put it that way?”

“This is the text,” Hagerty responded coolly.

But Robert S. Kieve, one of Ike’s speechwriters during his first two years in office, said Ike appreciated the problem he had speaking extemporaneously, once saying, “I have a capacity for starting a sentence on something that’s happened in my backyard, and before I put a period on the sentence I’m talking about the Normandy landing.”

Reflecting on the matter in 1969, Howard K. Smith de- fended Ike on the question of syntax. “I think it’s hard to hold syntax against a president ad-libbing. He’s really walking on eggs. If he says the wrong thing, the stock market’s going to go to hell, Guatemala’s going to break relations, Nasser’s going to seize the Suez Canal, and I think you’ve got to grant him a little weaving with his syntax.” Smith noted that JFK, whom he had also covered, could do a bit of weaving, too, and when he faced a rough question, “it’s pretty hard to find the verb sometimes.”

Whatever his flaws in speaking, Ike was rigorous about speechwriting—“Absolute pedant with the English language,” Kieve said. “Insufferable.” If he didn’t think it hit the right tone, he’d display his infamous temper. “When those explosions came, I always felt like I was being court-martialed,” Moos said.

The farewell address had been rewritten almost thirty times since 1959, with Milton taking the whole thing apart and put- ting it back together more than once. Milton had a confidential phone line set up in his office that bypassed the Secret Service switchboard and went straight to Ike’s desk, and they’d often discuss the speech. In the end Ike rewrote the opening passages in his own hand.

Finally, in early December 1960, Moos took a rough draft into the Oval Office. On such occasions, he never quite knew what to expect. Sometimes Ike would seem to like a speech but ultimately reject it, or he’d think about a subject more and change his viewpoint. In this case, Ike read it right away and said, “I think you’ve got something here.” He slid it in his drawer to review further.

The next day he summoned Moos. “Call Milton, tell him to come over.” And so a rigorous final crafting began.

In December, Ike had been mildly amused to get a call from Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review and an outspoken peace advocate, offering his services in helping to write a farewell speech. Ike’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman, normally so unflappable, was aghast at the thought. “The idea of trying to get anyone like Norman Cousins working on it would be dreadful,” she wrote to Moos. “How in the world do we diplomatically thank him, but say no?” They found a way. Later it would annoy Ike no end when he’d occasionally be asked, “Didn’t Norman Cousins write that speech?”

What people expected from the farewell speech was a simple message from a retiring elder performing a traditional ritual. Sentimental farewells, heavy on bragging about accomplishments, were the standard for these addresses. Truman’s goodbye was almost entirely devoted to a replay of his achievements sprinkled with homespun sentiments—“So, as I empty the drawers of this desk, and as Mrs. Truman and I leave the White House, we have no regret. We feel we have done our best in the public service.”

Ike wasn’t interested in bragging about his achievements, although he could have because they were substantial: an end to the Korean War, eight years of peace, the ambitious Interstate Highway System, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, several balanced budgets. What his critics charged was a molasses pace was the careful administration of a serious leader who had kept America safe in a nuclear era.

The 1950s had been a time of prosperity in America, characterized by growth, stability, and promise. The economy grew by nearly 40 percent and unemployment was low. The GI Bill, giving millions of World War II veterans access to higher edu- cation and better jobs, helped create a stable middle class. It’s worth recalling the context: the double stunner of the Depression followed by a second world war had left the population weary, and Ike could credibly claim he’d helped usher in a very different era. Those who complained about how dull the Eisenhower years were (especially given the more showy 1960s) had short memories, or none at all, of the unemployment lines, military funerals, rationing, and hardships of the 1930s and 1940s.

For Ike the farewell address was a moment of opportunity to quell the sense of alarm, ramped up in the recent election, and cool the notion that the nation was slipping off its pedestal as the greatest country in the world. In three days John Kennedy would stand before the American people and offer his own vision to the nation. Before that day, Ike wanted to impress upon his countrymen in his own words a closing prophecy. The fact it had taken a year and a half to craft his words was indicative of the gravity of his message.

EISENHOWER’S MODEL IN SAYING goodbye was another old general, George Washington, whose 1797 final address set a standard. Ike must have seen in Washington a kindred spirit. Both were celebrated war heroes who had commanded their nation’s armies to victory in an existential conflict, then embraced political power only reluctantly. Washington, like Ike, proved to be an underappreciated politician, whose greatest contribution to his country may have come while presiding over the Constitutional Convention, using the “hidden hand” approach to unite the fractious states behind the scenes, while Alexander Hamilton and James Madison received much of the credit for the finished Constitution. Washington’s exit was particularly meaningful because before he stepped down it was unproven whether a democratic transfer of power—this election of civilian leadership and the ritual of torch passing—would work. Further, the cautions Washington expressed in his farewell address resonated with Eisenhower’s own thinking—in particular the way the first president spoke of taking care to protect the precious freedom Americans had gained, using intellect, time, and a conservative frame of mind toward the Constitution:

Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country.

Washington understood modernity was always beckoning— the desire for change both a blessing and a threat. He also dedicated a substantial portion of his speech, as Ike would, to the conduct of the nation toward the world at large.

As with Washington before him, Eisenhower knew war intimately and was concerned with how America used its power in the world; he was mindful that its primary obligation was to its own citizenry. Balance and good judgment were required now as then. As the careful shepherd in the fraught years after a global war—and in the first years of an unprecedented nuclear arms race—Ike was now passing the torch to a young man whose rhetoric was more bullish and whose understanding of the delicate balance of global politics was untried. The speech would become a solemn moment, offering sober warnings for a nation giddy with newfound prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly, it seemed, for the easy life.

Early on, a theme that would eventually become the center- piece of Eisenhower’s speech was the idea that for the first time in its history the United States of America had a permanent war-based industry.

Ike’s intent was to plead for balance—to avoid the tempta- tion to feel a spectacular and costly action could solve all of our problems. The nation was in an impatient mood. But patience was a virtue worth cherishing.

Ike believed it was possibly a warning only he—the World War II tactician, the mastermind of Hitler’s defeat—could make with any level of credibility. In the nuclear age, it was unfortunately necessary to maintain a potent military apparatus as a protection against ever having to use it. But the domestic indus- trial partners in this endeavor were enthralled by their bombs and in service to their bottom lines, and the country must be on guard to keep the national interest first, not that of these powerful interests.

In one draft this danger was characterized as the “military- industrial-scientific complex,” but Ike agreed to drop “scientific” on the advice of his science advisor. In another draft the danger was the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but Ike deleted “congressional,” not wanting to seem as if his last address was a partisan harangue. In the end, the “military- industrial complex” remained; the scientists and Congress got a pass.

AS HE PICKED OVER his speech in the late afternoon light, readying it at last for the teleprompter, an overwhelming feeling fell over him. His watch was ending. He could hear the bustle of final preparations, the movers taking box after box of priate belongings to the moving truck parked outside, the furious activity of his staff in a busy countdown of leave-taking. The Eisenhowers’ only personal pieces of furniture—a hi-fi set and Mamie’s electric organ—had already been moved. A third item was Ike’s Cabinet Room chair, which had been purchased for him from the government by cabinet members as a parting gift. Everything else would remain behind, the property of the U.S. government.

Ike wasn’t an especially sentimental man. But it was hard not to reflect on the dizzying transition from commander in chief to private citizen. Undoubtedly, no president in his or her final days can be fully prepared for not being president. Relief surely mingled with regret for what remained undone, and melancholy over the end of a grand adventure.

As he prepared to leave, Eisenhower hosted a dinner party in the State Dining Room at the White House for some sixty reporters and photographers who had covered him during his presidency. He’d always received mixed reviews from the press. As the first “television president,” he opened up greater access to the public, but he tended to go over and around the White House press corps when it served his purpose. And, of course, he didn’t have the riveting glamour of JFK, which seduced many in the media. Most reporters respected Hagerty, though, and acknowledged that he did a masterful job of keeping them in the loop.

At the party, James E. Warner of the New York Herald- Tribune mentioned to Ike he’d been assigned to cover him on his trip back to Gettysburg after Kennedy’s inauguration.

Ike was surprised. “Why in the world would anybody want to cover an old ex-president?” he asked.

Warner demurred. “That’s my assignment, sir.”

Ike laughed and pumped Warner’s hand. “Well, welcome to the Old Frontier,” he said, playing off JFK’s famous campaign slogan.

He might also have told Warner to pack his clubs. Golf was certainly on the schedule for Ike’s postpresidency. During his presidency golf had been his regular stress reliever. He’d often worn cleats in the Oval Office, so he could quickly pop outside and hit a few balls, and a trail of cleat marks scarred the floor. He’d received a lot of ribbing for his love of golf, and his harshest critics would claim he let his aides run the place while he hit the links. During the 1956 campaign, the Democrats had produced a bumper sticker: “Ben Hogan for President: If we’re going to have a golfer, let’s have a good one.”

But golf wasn’t, as his critics suggested, a sign of a retiring man’s inattention to his office. To the contrary, golf energized him. He could be dragging with pure exhaustion and he’d grab Jim Hagerty or one of the other guys and go out to Burning Tree Golf Club, just outside Washington, play a round, and re- turn fully restored and ready to tackle anything.

Golf was also a way to grease the political wheels. “I suppose one of the greatest things in Washington, for many presidents,” said Hagerty, “is for a member of the Senate or Congress to say, ‘Gee, I can’t accept your appointment this afternoon. I have to play a round of golf at Burning Tree with the President of the United States.’”

What he’d miss most in retirement was the camaraderie of his staff. He could not thank them enough. A few months ear- lier he’d said to his long-suffering chief of staff, Jerry Persons, “You’ve done so much for me. I’d like to do something for you, too. What would you like?”

Jerry was delighted. “Easy,” he said. “I’d like a portrait.”

That could be done, Ike assured him. “Just choose the pose and who you’d like to do it.”

“Well, that’s not so easy,” Jerry said. “I want it of you, by you.”

Ike’s hobby as a painter stayed under the radar. He’d picked it up on the advice of Churchill, and he enjoyed painting country scenes of farms, barns, and even the house in England where they’d planned D-Day. In the White House, his “studio” was a room in the family quarters on the third floor, and he never kidded himself that his paintings were particularly good. But painting was a way to release tension and it gave him pleasure. After his heart attack, Ike’s doctor had urged him to paint more. He enjoyed his hobby so much that one year he gave paint- by-numbers sets to all of his staff.

Jerry’s request was completely unexpected. “You’re crazy as hell,” Ike said laughing, and Persons let the matter drop. But in secret Ike decided to paint the portrait, depicting himself in a relaxed posture. Persons was shocked when Ike presented it to him a few months later.

His closest advisors had become like friends, and in December he’d sent them a letter:

During my entire life until I came back from World War II as something of a VIP, I was known by my con- temporaries as Ike. Whether or not the deep friendships I enjoy have had their beginnings in the anti or postwar period, I now demand as my right that you, starting January 21, 1961, address me by that nickname. No longer do I propose to be excluded from the privileges that other friends enjoy. With warm regard, as ever—Ike

SHORTLY AFTER 8 p.m., Ike, after dining with Mamie and changing into a fresh suit, walked into the Oval Office, which had been transformed into a TV studio. The room was packed with people in busy preparations. He stepped over the tangle of electric cords, submitted to the makeup brush, straightened his tie, adjusted his suit jacket, and chatted with his aides before finally taking his place behind the desk and pulling his chair into position. The spotlight was on him, the teleprompter in front, but his notes close at hand. He looked at the page and then into the camera. The floor director counted down, “five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .” and then motioned his hand toward the president. Ike began to speak.

“Good evening, my fellow Americans . . .”

Excerpted from Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission. Copyright © 2017 by William Morrow. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow.