President Dwight David Eisenhower faced a myriad of daunting tasks during his professional life.
As Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, he faced the task of building a coalition of forces to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese. There were many times when the outcome of that war was uncertain.
After the war, he contributed not to the punishment of Germany or Japan, but to the rebuilding and reforming these former enemies into democracies. He, and others like him, saw the folly of the post-World War I decimations of the defeated countries that led to the inevitable rise of militant nationalism.
As president, he faced the rise of the Iron Curtain, a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, and the collapse of Nationalist China. He faced the war in Korea and the initial involvement of the US in Vietnam.
He was a lifelong Republican and strong military leader who saw that the world of combat was changing. Our weapons technology was reducing our opportunity to resolve conflicts peacefully. He recognized the quest for security through military superiority alone as the biggest risk to our democracy.
He saw the rise of the internal threat of the military-industrial complex as more ominous than any external enemy.
Several days before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, Eisenhower shared some prescient words with the nation. Words that we need to consider. This was a man who understood the nature of evil, the horrors of war, and the risks of letting fear drive national policy.
Do yourself a favor and take a moment to read these words from a man who understood the office of the Presidency, the power of the American military, and the risk of losing sight of our democratic principles.
“In the council of governments, 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.”
He went on to bemoan the rise of the government control, through federal grants, of research and scientific experiment.
“In this revolution research has become central. It has also become more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of the federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists, in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”
His vision continued with a warning on our responsibility to the health and welfare of the planet.
“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. 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.
Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as we do, protected as we are by our moral economic and military strength. The table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.”
And this, his most telling line.
“Together we must learn how to compose differences–not with arms but with intellect and decent purpose.”
Today, we have a president who calls the flu vaccine a scam, seeks to run roughshod over the environment by executive fiat, and excludes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director National Intelligence from his National Security council.
Perhaps Eisenhower saw the future and left us a moral compass to follow.