Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother was a pacifist, a breed common in the Middle America of yore, before war became the national religion. Her son left Kansas to climb the martial ladder of the Department of War, whose motto, suggested Declaration of Independence signatory Benjamin Rush, should have been “A Widow and Orphan making office.” It was also the greatest deracinating force in American history; Dwight, unlike Dorothy and Toto, never returned to the Sunflower State.
Old men grow sentimentally pensive, and one wonders if President Eisenhower’s sober and remarkable Farewell Address counseling vigilance against the “military-industrial complex”—delivered 50 years ago over the televisions that even then were addling America—echoes, however faintly, Ida Eisenhower’s Mennonite convictions. It surely is redolent of his older brother and frequent correspondent Edgar, the Tacoma attorney who in most Eisenhower biographies gets a walk-on as the crusty reactionary pestering the moderate Ike to repeal the New Deal and support the Bricker Amendment, that last gasp of the Old Right.
The president’s son John, in his memoir Strictly Personal, writes affectionately that Uncle Ed “considered President Roosevelt a work of the devil.” No jingo chickenhawk of the sort whose squawk dominates today’s Right, Ed tried to talk John out of a career in the military: “he declared that I should forego any ideas of becoming a ‘professional killer’ and go to law school at his expense, later to join his law office.”
This language—“professional killer” —marked Edgar Eisenhower as an anachronism among the placeless technocrats who were busy engineering the Empire of Euphemism. Organization men like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy could no more understand Edgar Eisenhower than they could dig Jack Kerouac or Paul Goodman.
In his new study of Ike’s valediction, Unwarranted Influence, James Ledbetter places the Farewell Address within a thematic range that stretches from North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye’s 1930s investigation of the “merchants of death” to the power-elite analysis of C. Wright Mills and his idealistic admirers in Students for a Democratic Society. Speechwriters Malcolm Moos and Capt. Ralph Williams—perhaps younger brother Milton Eisenhower, too—crafted much of the address, but its concerns were those of the president, who later wrote in Waging Peace: “During the years of my Presidency, and especially the latter years, I began to feel more and more uneasiness about the effect on the nation of tremendous peacetime military expenditures.” (How many Republican members of the 112th Congress would nod assent: ten, at most?)
The somber dignity with which Eisenhower left office ought not to obscure his administration’s disgraceful interventions abroad (Iran, Guatemala) and at home (the Interstate Highway System, the National Defense Education Act). For those who preferred the American Republic to the American Empire, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft was the GOP choice in 1952.
Yet Ike was the last president confident enough to name, and even sometimes take on, the military-industrial complex. He lamented the “appalling costs” of the war machine and worried that a “garrison state” might arise in freedom’s erstwhile land. He was justly furious to be reproved as soft on defense by such hawkish Democrats as the Pulitzer Prize-winning PT boat hero and devoted husband John F. Kennedy.
In his twilight, my old boss, Sen. Pat Moynihan, a Kennedy loyalist, was unsettled in Eisenhower-like ways by the seeming permanence of the national-security state, enshrouded in its miasmic secrecy. The new collection Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, contains a Sept. 8, 1990, letter to Erwin N. Griswold, former dean of Harvard Law School, in which Moynihan grandiloquently—that is, characteristically—announces, “I have one purpose left in life; or at least in the Senate. It is to try to sort out what would be involved in reconstituting the American government in the aftermath of the cold war. Huge changes took place, some of which we hardly notice.”
Two months later, in a letter to constituents—which Moynihan, unlike most members of Congress this side of Tennessee’s Jimmy Duncan and my late friend Barber Conable, wrote himself—the senator “wondered…whether we any longer knew how” to be a “nation essentially at peace with the rest of the world.”
We do not. Since 1941, war has warped American life. Only the doddering and the dotards among us have lived in an America that is not armed, aggressive, and perpetually at war. If you would seek those who know what an America at peace is like, visit the nursing home. If you would hear the sounds of America at war, walk the corridors of a veterans’ hospital. Listen to the shrieks and sobs—the keening for the lost America of Ida and Edgar Eisenhower.
This article is part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and the military-industrial complex.
Read the original article at The American Conservative.
|Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.|