Opinion

Opinion

Noted speeches held insight, idealism

January 17, 2011

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This week, Americans will mark the 50th anniversary of the greatest inaugural address of the post-World War II period: John F. Kennedy’s stirring call to action, sacrifice and conscience, a speech remembered for his exhortation that Americans “ask not what your country can do for you.”

But this is also the week of the 50th anniversary of a remarkable presidential speech of an entirely different sort, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the American people after a half century of service as a military officer and chief executive, a moment remembered for three words that have persisted in the American memory and American debate: “military-industrial complex.”

Today that phrase is a commonplace of opprobrium, and those who toss it around often do not know its provenance as the worried reflection of one of the nation’s premier military figures, a man who led American forces in Europe and North Africa, oversaw the D-Day invasion, served as supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II and later was supreme commander of NATO.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. “

Eisenhower’s remarks came as he was stepping away from the presidency in the wake of what seemed a growing Communist threat. Soviet forces had brutally invaded Hungary in 1956, the Russians had placed a satellite, and then a dog, in space in 1957, and tensions had continued to build throughout the period, culminating in the embarrassing downing of an American U-2 spy plane only months before the 1960 election.

It was against this background that Eisenhower noted that for the first time the United States was spending more than the total income of all American corporations on the military. This, the president said, represented an important cultural shift.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Eisenhower said. “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.”

Eisenhower asked Malcolm Moos, a speechwriter recruited from the Johns Hopkins faculty, to draft the speech after Norman Cousins, a figure forgotten today but a major intellectual and political force during his 30 years as editor of Saturday Review, suggested a presidential farewell. Cousins had in mind a “great sweeping document,” and Moos, a former newspaperman who later became president of the University of Minnesota, took up his challenge, producing a speech on broad themes of American culture and important questions of war and peace.

These issues evidently weighed heavily on Eisenhower as he prepared to step away from public life. He met with Kennedy a day after his farewell, wishing him “Godspeed” in his presidency, and he offered a public critique of the advertisements in American magazines, wondering out loud why they carried so many ads setting out the capacities of the Atlas and Titan rockets, as if, one of his biographers, Michael Korda, wrote, “they were the only things Americans knew how to make.”

A day later, he met again with the president-elect, telling Kennedy that throughout his presidency “an unobtrusive man” would shadow him with a briefcase carrying the nation’s nuclear codes.

Eisenhower’s farewell and Kennedy’s inaugural address are often regarded as separate set pieces, two discrete events, one the wise reflections of an aged statesman, the other the inspiring summons to arms and idealism from a glittery representative of a new generation of leadership — a generation “born in this century,” as Kennedy put it at the East Front of the Capitol that cold January morning, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

But from the distance of a half century the two speeches challenge our stereotypes and make us question our historical memories, which often paint Eisenhower as the steely pragmatist and Kennedy as the dreamy romantic.

Instead, it was Eisenhower who said he was praying for a world where “in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love,” and it was Kennedy who argued that “only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

Today the two speeches look more like two sides of a fateful argument, one suggesting that the arming of America was out of control and a threat to the domestic purity of the nation, the other suggesting that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden” in a “long twilight struggle, year in and year out,” to prevail against a monstrous tyranny bent on world domination and posing a mortal threat to the very values of which Eisenhower spoke only a few days earlier.

Some time ago my friend Peter Canellos, the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe, approached Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen and noted that perhaps the two most famous speeches of the last 50 years occurred within days of each other. Sorensen, who died in October, lit up, agreeing heartily. He thought Canellos was speaking of Kennedy’s American University address of June 10, 1963, when JFK set out his vision of a world of peace and security, and his remarks a day later on civil rights, when he told Americans they faced “a moral crisis as a country and a people.”

No, Canellos said, he was speaking of Eisenhower’s farewell and Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Sorensen frowned and snapped, “That farewell address wasn’t a great speech at all,” adding, “Oh, it had one memorable line ... .”

But in truth the two speeches form a set of American bookends, an incomparable pairing: insight from the old paired with idealism from the young. We could use a little bit of that right now.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Comments

cato_the_elder 4 years, 6 months ago

Outstanding column. Sorensen's narrow-minded, knee-jerk response, while entirely predictable, also provides a healthy dose of humor.

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