Eisenhower prepares for his farewell address, 1961
Today, a holiday and an anniversary collided. The holiday is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The anniversary is somewhat less well known: 50 years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address.
There, on national television, the President, the former Supreme Allied Commander and a staunch conservative by the standards of the day, said the following:
We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Now, look at this section from King's searing A Time to Break Silence:
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Two very different men are speaking in two very different voices, but the overlap is impossible to miss. By the time King spoke, many of Eisenhower's fears had proven true.
As an exercise in contrast, try to imagine the backlash a president today would face if, as Eisenhower did, they declared "permanent peace" a key goal. Going further, what if they added that, instead of trampling enemies abroad, they wanted "a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."
Keep in mind too, this was a time when, rather than dispersed insurgents, America faced the very real possibility of another world war, with an actual industrial power as an enemy. The justification for massive military spending was far better then than now, yet far fewer challenge it.
"The very structure of our society" indeed.
It was not the address' only prophetic moment, look at these particular observations:
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.
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. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
Hard not to cringe at that last line.
Eisenhower framed his speech around "maintaining balance" as the way to navigate the competing demands of the rapidly modernizing world. Balance here is strength without the worship of raw force. It is brilliance paired with humility.
Forgotten in King's elevation to secular sainthood is the fact that he too advocated balance, "the need for blending opposites." Nonviolent did not mean powerless, and peaceful did not mean an aversion to necessary conflict. King had his rules, but his movement was out to win specific rights; and fought like hell to get them. Forgetting that lesson is a major reason today's would-be reformers fail to compel balance.
To that end, here's a King quote that doesn't receive the attention it should:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.
To balance, because it's still the best way forward.