Historians and journalists quite frequently invoke President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation, which he delivered on Jan. 17, 1961, but seldom do we hear anyone invoke Eisenhower’s later “Afterthoughts,” which he set forth at the end of the second volume of his memoirs, Waging Peace, published in 1965. There are gems of wisdom in both.
In his farewell address, Eisenhower famously warned about the growing influence in the United States of the “military-industrial complex.” Less known is that the former president also warned in that address about the growing influence of the “scientific-technological elite.” During the last 20 years, the United States has suffered from the inordinate influence of both the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite. Their influence and power in Washington were never more evident than during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump years were worst of what Eisenhower feared
During the Trump years, the military-industrial complex resisted the president’s efforts to end the “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the scientific-technological elite assumed enormous powers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread use of social media platforms. Eisenhower would have been astonished at our armed forces fighting two-decade long wars and endeavoring to transform other cultures and civilizations into Western-style democracies. He would have been equally astonished at the outsized role of of medical/scientific bureaucracies and bureaucrats in determining restrictions on citizens’ travel and assembly, as well as imposing vaccine mandates and passports during the pandemic. And he would have been astounded at the ability of the country’s technological elites to censor views they deem “untruthful” or “harmful” to society, including censoring the President of the United States in the weeks leading up to an election.
In his farewell address, Eisenhower stated that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex.” He expressed concern that the “weight of this combination” could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” “Security and liberty,” Eisenhower believed, must “prosper together.” Equally dangerous, Eisenhower said, was that our “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” So it has come to pass.
But Eisenhower’s brief farewell address was not his last word of advice to Americans. He concluded the second volume of his presidential memoirs with a 38-page chapter entitled “Afterthoughts.” There he indulged in what he called “the luxury of hindsight” to “discuss at random a few ideological, political, and organizational subjects in the hope that some may deem them worthy of consideration.”
On communists: Trust deeds, not words
In waging the Cold War, Eisenhower recommended a combination of military sufficiency and prudence. And he set forth clearly his views on the communist threat (in his time led by the Soviet Union) in terms that still apply today to our adversaries in Beijing. “Communists,” he wrote, “embrace every kind of tactic to gain their fundamental objective . . .” The communists will use “force, the threat of force, economic pressure and penetration, deceit, blackmail, distortion, propaganda, bribery, and lies to attain their ends.” Don’t trust their words, he warned, instead “by their deeds you must know them.” He envisioned a future where “dissatisfaction, unrest, and smoldering resentment” of the captive peoples under communist rule would bring about “either reforms in the governmental structure or violent destruction of Communist dictatorships.” The ingredients of ultimate success against the communists, Eisenhower explained, included “[l]ong-sustained military power, economic health, moral and intellectual vitality, dependable Free World cooperation, eternal vigilance, and informed and resolute leadership.”
Eisenhower had to deal with his own crises in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-to-late 1950s, as the Chinese communists attacked Quemoy and Matsu, islands near Taiwan. He skilfully used our nuclear superiority to satisfactorily defuse those crises.
Eisenhower’s ideas still relevant
When he turned in “Afterthoughts” to domestic governance, Eisenhower suggested term limits for members of Congress, an “item veto” for the president, and 20-year terms (or until age 72) for members of the U.S. Supreme Court -- all measures that still have their proponents today.
Interestingly, Eisenhower wrote that his principal political disappointment was Richard Nixon’s defeat in the 1960 election for president. “I cannot ascribe any rational cause for the outcome” of the 1960 election, he wrote. “I still believe, as I did then,” Eisenhower continued, “that any objective comparison of the relative capacities and qualifications of the two opposing candidates would have resulted in an overwhelming judgment in Nixon’s favor.” Amen to that.
Eisenhower concluded his “Afterthoughts” by posing a question that still resonates: “Will a great self-governing people such as ours . . . continue to practice, in affluence, the pioneering virtues and be guided by the moral values that in leaner times brought us, by the middle of the twentieth century, to an unparalleled pinnacle of power?” He worried then that there were signs that “point to a weakening among our people of the qualities of moral courage, determination, self-reliance, venturesomeness, and ambitions to excel.” He hoped that the “great ideas of the West” would continue to be spread around the globe.
Eisenhower might find U.S. culture unrecognizable
Given what has transpired since then, it is likely that Eisenhower would be disappointed. So many of our students are now taught that there is nothing special about Western civilization -- indeed our “paper of record” promotes the idea that our country was founded on slavery. A recent president of the United States repeatedly apologized for America’s sins while in foreign lands. A more distant president conducted a sexual dalliance in the White House with a young intern. It is doubtful that Eisenhower would recognize what today passes for American culture, though he got a little taste of it in his final years during the turbulent 1960s.
At a time when this country is facing perhaps its greatest challenge since the Civil War -- with deep divisions at home and a powerful adversary abroad, we need leaders like Eisenhower, one of our country’s great soldier-statesmen. Where are they?