How–and why–Ike’s farewell was written.

By Robert Schlesinger

A farewell message was on Dwight Eisenhower’s mind well before the end of his term. Chatting with chief speechwriter Malcolm Moos in the Oval Office in May 1959, the president mentioned as an aside that there was one speech he particularly wanted to deliver. “I want to have something to say when I leave here,” Ike said. “I’m not interested in capturing headlines, but I want to have a message and I want you to be thinking about it well in advance.”

The president hoped Congress would extend an invitation for the speech, which should run 10 minutes. “We should be dropping ideas into a bin, to get ready for this,” Moos wrote later that day in a memo for the record.

Moos started rooting around that bin in earnest in the fall of 1960. He had been struck by the sheer number of companies connected to the burgeoning defense industry and by the volume of mid-career officers who were leaving the military for contractor jobs. On Oct. 31, he had a brainstorming session for the 1961 State of the Union address with his two assistants, a former student of his named Stephen Hess and a naval officer named Ralph Williams. “Conversation with Dr. Moos this morning produced following preliminary guidelines,” Williams wrote in a memo for file. “1. The problem of militarism—for the first time in its history, the United States has a permanent war-based industry. & This creates a danger that what the Communists have always said about us may become true. We must be careful to insure that the ‘merchants of death do not come to dictate national policy’.”

The danger of growing militarism was one Eisenhower had been considering since the start of his White House tenure. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he said in April 1953. “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.” The following month he warned that the search for “maximum security” would “compel us to imitate the methods of the dictator.”

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At the end of his term, as Eisenhower and his team sought words to give final voice to these fears, the critical phrase went through different variations, starting with the “war-based industry” from the Oct. 31 brainstorming session. By early December, Moos gave Ike a draft warning against a “military-industrial-scientific complex,” but the president’s science adviser counseled him to drop “scientific.” A later iteration identified a “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but the president, still envisioning an address to Congress, decided that haranguing his hosts would be inappropriate (a positively quaint view half a century later).

It’s interesting to contemplate whether certain phrases would live in memory in their earlier iterations. Would we remember Franklin Roosevelt describing Dec. 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in world history”? Would Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech have such staying power if he had mixed German—Herr Gorbachev, machen Sie diesses Tor auf!—into the key phrase, as was the case in some drafts?

Eisenhower cut through draft after draft of the speech, writing or rewriting whole sections by hand. When an early version said that “we must jealously guard against the unwarranted acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex,” for example, Ike scratched out “jealously.”

He addressed the nation—from the White House, the notion of a congressional speech having faded—on Jan. 17 at 8:30 pm. Twenty months earlier he had told Moos that he wasn’t looking for headlines, and in that he was successful. For the most part the speech was unremarked upon. “Red Peril to Linger, Eisenhower Warns U.S. in Valedictory,” the Washington Post reported the next day. Instead the nation was focused on the main event three days hence when the rhetorical torch would be passed to a new generation.

But snap judgments of presidential speeches are often incorrect in the 20-20 sight of history. Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech—in which he never uttered the word “malaise”—was deemed a success as his poll numbers shot up 11 points overnight. So too was George W. Bush’s 2003 “mission accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses were frequently derided by the political cognoscenti as too long, even as they were embraced by voters.

But Ike’s final message didn’t go entirely unnoticed. The columnist Walter Lippmann was one of the few to grasp its significance immediately, noting that it would “be remembered and quoted in the days to come.” In March, Eisenhower aide Bryce Harlow wrote his former boss. “There is an interesting development, Mr. President, involving your ‘Farewell Address’,” he said. “At least two vigorous young Republicans in the House (Bob Michel of Illinois and Brad Morse of Massachusetts) have interested themselves in your warning to America against excessive power being accumulated by the military-industrial complex and are girding their loins to raise a rum pus through the Congressional investigations route. & The point is, this part of the Address turns out to be curiously yeasty.”

Yeasty indeed—especially as the Cold War stretched on for three more decades and the national sense of purpose which would be captured by JFK’s sounding trumpet gave way to the cynicism and disillusionment of the late ’60s and ’70s and later to the unceasing conflict of the early 21st century.

Robert Schlesinger, the opinion editor at U.S. News & World Report, is author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.

This article is part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and the military-industrial complex.


Science of Tyranny
Patrick J. Deneen
Eisenhower identified more than one threat to the republic.The Other Eisenhowers
Bill Kauffman
Ike’s anti-militarist roots.

Read Eisenhower’s Address >

Watch a Video >

. The Liberal Complex
Michael C. Desch
Idealism, not economics, drives U.S. militarism.
I Don’t Like Ike
Lew Rockwell
He vastly expanded the garrison state.

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