Eisenhower urged nation to seek balance

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President Dwight Eisenhower at a 1957 news conference. A recent poll rated him the fifth-best president.

Three Days in January, Fox News anchor Bret Baier's account of the Eisenhower administration's endgame, turns out to be unusually timely, given the rumbling in many quarters regarding President Trump's proposed increase in military spending. The book's focus is on Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, delivered on Jan. 17, 1961, three days before the 34th president left office.

Eisenhower's two terms were bookended by complementary speeches.

The first, delivered before the American Society of News Editors not long after he took office in 1953, reminded his fellow citizens that "we pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children . . . under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Ike's farewell address, of course, has been indelibly linked to the phrase military-industrial complex. Baier usefully points out that Eisenhower was not saying that our military was too large. His concern had to do with how pervasive the military economy had become. Here is how Eisenhower put it:

"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 state house, 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."

He worried over what he called "a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties."

But the military was not his only concern. In an early draft of the speech, the phrase was military-industrial-scientific complex. Eisenhower dropped scientific at the suggestion of his science adviser. But he didn't drop the subject:

"Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

"In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the federal government."

In respect to the military-industrial complex, he warned that "we must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes." As for science, he warned that "the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money . . . is gravely to be regarded. . . . [I]n holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

It is worth noting that in 1947, Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, sent a letter to the Atlantic Monthly warning about what seemed to him to be the increasing militarization of science. Wiener subsequently refused to accept any government funding for his research.

Eisenhower would probably not have been surprised at an NPR story in September about an article in JAMA Internal Medicine detailing how in the 1960s the sugar industry underwrote a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine playing down the role of sugar in heart disease while emphasizing, instead, the dangers of fat. Nor would he have been surprised that these findings made their way into the federal government's dietary guidelines.

His proposed remedy was balance. The word occurs nine times in his farewell address, seven times in one key paragraph:

". . . each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs - balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages - balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration."

One final detail of Eisenhower's address bears thinking about. During six of his years in office, Congress was controlled by the opposition party. But he was able to say in that final speech that "the Congress and the administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward. So, my official relationship with the Congress ends in a feeling, on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together."

Baier notes that the year after Eisenhower left office, a poll of presidential scholars ranked him "a dismal 22 out of 34." But this year, in a similar poll, he was ranked fifth. It is increasingly easy to see why.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor who blogs at Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. PresterFrank@gmail.com