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The Burdens of Democracy by President Eisenhower


In a recent Blog I tried to point out the need to show prudence in pursuing all the goals of any political party or advocacy group. The response was underwhelming. Perhaps a comment from someone much better informed then I would help. Many of us know of the warning by President Eisenhower against the “Military Industrial Complex”. What follows is a much lesser known warning but one I believe very germane to our present time with our daily and frequently misleading “talking points”. It is in the form of a letter response to a veteran who had communicated with him. I might also note that apparently our times are not much different from earlier times.

“Dear Mr. Biggs: I was much moved by your recent letter to me, and can well appreciate from it the serious thought and reflection you are giving to problems affecting our country. The points you raised (some not entirely clear to me) included three that especially impressed me. Some of them clearly have significance to our free society and form of government.

I refer to your comments that normal confidence and feeling of security can be easily shaken in these times; your implied request that I undertake to stabilize the spirit of our population, and your conviction that if the government and its leaders know the nation’s goals and missions and state the way they should be achieved, those leaders could be sure of the backing of our people.

Concerning these comments I have several observations.

I think it is undeniably true that the activities of our government have tended to become much more complex, impersonal and remote from the individual, with consequent loss in simplicity, direct human contact and clear guidance by higher authority I believe you to be urging. In good part this situation is inherent in life in the mid-twentieth century--in a highly developed economy and a highly complex society such as our own. The complexity is reflected in the need to qualify (to "hedge" is the term you use) many of our policies, which means simply to give careful thought to the possibility that what we do in one field may have unacceptable impact in another. To reduce complexity I believe it essential to keep governmental activities as close as possible to the people concerned. I have frequently stressed the need for these functions to be performed at local and state level rather than at the Federal. Incidentally, I assure you that I have tried always to avoid creating any doubt in anyone’s mind as to my own goals and convictions. If I have failed in this respect, it has been purely an error of an expression and not one of purpose.

Another part of the difficulty undoubtedly comes from the high degree of confusion and uncertainty on major national problems that seems to exist today. As you know, for four years our government has been a divided government, with the Administration confronted by a Congress controlled by the opposition--and the two working, if not in opposition, at least at cross purposes much of the time. An example is the sparring that seems to go on constantly over our defense situation--and specifically over our missile position. It is difficult indeed to maintain a reasoned and accurately informed understanding of our defense situation on the part of our citizenry when many prominent officials, possessing no standing or expertness except as they themselves claim it, attempt to further their own ideas or interests by resort to statements more distinguished by stridency than by accuracy.

Even if this division in the government did not exist, I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed. Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life. This is to me what Lincoln meant by government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

The mental stress and burden which this form of government imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions. It is "The True Believer," by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems--freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.

But while this responsibility is a taxing one to a free people it is their great strength as well--from millions of individual free minds come new ideas, new adjustments to emerging problems, and tremendous vigor, vitality and progress.

One of my own major aims and efforts has been to assist in every way open to me in giving our people a better understanding of the great issues that face our country today--some of them indeed issues of life and death. Through being better informed, they can best gain greater assurance regarding our nation’s situation and participate in establishing policies and programs which they think to be sound and right. The quest for certainty is at best, however, a long and arduous one. While complete success will always elude us, still it is a quest which is vital to self-government and to our way of life as free men.

May I end by saying how stimulating I found your letter and the thoughts it evoked, and how much I admire your fortitude in pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity. My best wishes are with you in your grave illness. “

From: The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Volume XIX - The Presidency: Keeping the Peace: Part VI: Setbacks; November 1958 to February 1959 Chapter 15: "Debate is the breath of life"


Satirical 8 years, 4 months ago

Great letter.

George, since this letter is about addressing the concerns of an individual, and specifically about the benefits and burdens of a representative democracy, how do you think this letter is applicable to addressing some of our Nation's our present concerns? In short, how do you think this letter applies to us today?

George Lippencott 8 years, 4 months ago

Satirical (Anonymous) says…

It warns about taking the easy road of letting others tell you what to do ("talking points") as opposed to the hard road of being skeptical and doing your homework-the burden alluded to in the letter.

Satirical 8 years, 4 months ago


It is almost impossible to get firsthand knowledge, or be an expert in all areas or concerning all issues facing our nation (i.e. one of the problems of a democratic republic). I think the key is to be selective about from whom or what we get our information and demand high journalistic standards as consumers of that information. I think a good course of action is to get the same news from a variety of sources, and then make up one's own mind.

I personally don't think there is anything wrong with listening to differing points of view (pundits) concerning the news when "making up one's own mind." However, I think too often, individuals get both their news and opinion about the news spoon-fed to them from a single source. I think some of the problems of taking the latter approach would be another interesting blog topic (or if bloggers choose, we could do it on this thread).

headdoctor 8 years, 4 months ago

The problem is everyone in politics lies all the time. Perhaps it is just because of the speed of communication that makes it seem different today from what it was years ago or just much more obvious. One side tells their lies the other tells theirs, and those seeking information, President, voters, etc must make a choice based on who the best liar was.

George Lippencott 8 years, 4 months ago

headdoctor (Anonymous) says…

I don't believe that lying has really changed much over time. It may be quicker and our options to circumvent it somewhat compressed. That said, the burden is to sort through it by seeking many opinions and applying a rationality test. If it sound too good to be true it probably isn't true.

devobrun 8 years, 4 months ago

Lying has become more sophisticated. Indeed, sophistication is a form of lying. The more one sophisticates, the more one obfuscates.

Thus, we live in a world of competing "experts". The "experts" have the information and the knowledge but no wisdom. People value the opinions of the experts and listen to one or more of the experts, then form their own opinion.

But there is a problem. The "experts" have oversold their expertise. We simply don't know as much about things as we claim. "I don't know" is a lost phrase. One that should be used more, but isn't because of fear of loosing the "expert" status.

How many news reports of "studies", research reports", "evidence shows". have you read in the past year. Thousands? And are these studies believable? I have seen far too many reports that are bogus, but funded. Blatant overwrought statements, but published in reputable news outlets.

Fancy ways of lying.

Is advertising lying? Is promoting a view lying? Is championing a cause and embellishing it a form of lying?

I think that the modern world is a huge p.r. campaign. We all engage in it. We have become so effected by advertising that we engage in it without even knowing that our lives are self-promotion campaigns.

We have lost the ability to think in simple straightforward terms. John Wayne is dead and so is Ike.

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