President Dwight D. Eisenhower was prescient not only about the “military-industrial complex” but also about what was edited out of his farewell address: his concerns about a divided, paralyzed government.
Both are warnings that Congress and President Obama should heed.
Eisenhower gave his farewell address 50 years ago next month. It is considered one of the 20th century’s most important speeches because of its bold warning about the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”
The former army general from Kansas said that the country must “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” and that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
That remains a concern today. One reason the Pentagon budget keeps increasing is that military bases and defense contracts are deliberately spread among the states in order to garner support from members of Congress — just as Eisenhower warned.
But newly discovered drafts of the farewell speech indicate that Eisenhower also was concerned about a polarized, impotent government. The drafts were found in a cabin of Eisenhower’s former speechwriter and were sent to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, which released them last week.
The original speech noted that Eisenhower, a Republican, had faced Democratic control of Congress for six of his eight years as president. Yet “we did not fall out into bitter, unreconcilable factions which in other nations have paralyzed the democratic process.”
The text went on to note that “despite our differences, we worked together, and the business of the nation went forward, and the fact that it did so is in large measure a credit to the wisdom, forbearance and sense of duty displayed by the Congress.”
These passages ended up being cut from the speech, and the message toned down, because Eisenhower did not want to do “anything that was partisan in character,” as he told his brother Milton, who helped edit the speech. Yet his concern about not letting partisanship stymie governance is especially relevant today.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that his top priority was to defeat Obama in 2012. Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told “60 Minutes” last weekend that he rejects the word “compromise.” And Obama is under fire from Democrats who think he is too quick to strike deals with Republicans, such as on tax cuts.
Such rhetoric is a recipe for more inaction on the pressing problems facing our nation.
Divided houses of Congress or split party control of the executive and legislative branches can be a healthy check on power. But such divisions shouldn’t keep political leaders from working together.
The final version of Eisenhower’s speech did say that he and Congress “cooperated well, to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship.” That’s what today’s leaders need to do, too.