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Eisenhower’s Farewell Address at 60

Absent institutional reform, Eisenhower’s appeal to supervise the scientific-technological elite has largely proven ineffective.

If you know one thing about Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, chances are it’s the phrase “military-industrial complex.” But the military-industrial complex was only part of his warning. Indeed, he saw that the massive military establishment and armaments industry were the results of a larger “technological revolution” that was still unfolding. Even if we were to radically cut defense spending, or somehow reconvert our permanent armaments industry to the production of ploughshares—which would themselves be hamfisted ways of correcting our policies—we would miss the root causes of these dysfunctions. Now, sixty years later, is as good a time as any to revisit the Farewell Address, reassess its relevance to America today, and consider how the sickness that Eisenhower saw, and only partially diagnosed, has metastasized in the intervening decades.

The military-industrial complex and its successor

In its most famous passage, Eisenhower warned that the conjunction of an “immense military establishment” with a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” though necessary to prosecute the Cold War, posed a distinct threat to American society. Already it exercised “economic, political, even spiritual” influence throughout the country; it might soon acquire “unwarranted influence” in our “councils of government”; and worst of all, it could someday “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

No doubt, one reason we have remembered the phrase “military-industrial complex” is because the political left chose to memorialize it in public education and repeat it in political commentary. Or at least it did during the Cold War and the early 2000s. Since 2015, the generals, admirals, and spooks have been judged on a partisan and situational basis. Democrats and establishment Republicans have invoked them to conjure the fear of Trumpian totalitarianism on one day, and appealed to them as the Saviors of the Republic and purveyors of infallible wisdom on the next. Trump himself reveled in every political endorsement by the brass, and staffed his administration with as many military men as he could find. Still, this warning was prescient then and remains relevant today. The Forever War on Terror would be impossible without the enduring military-industrial complex—though it also requires the intelligence services that go unmentioned by Eisenhower, growing in scope and influence in 1961, and vast, decadent, and unaccountable in 2021.

But there is a deeper corruption in our warmaking: our wars are endless, or never-ceasing, because our leaders fail to identify the proper end-goal or objective for any given conflict. It was reasonable to say, in 1961, that the danger posed by Communist ideology “promises to be of indefinite duration,” and Eisenhower was right to prepare the American people for a “prolonged and complex struggle—with liberty the stake.” But he went beyond this stern and realistic counsel by proposing “permanent peace and human betterment” on a global scale as the proper goals of national policy. Ends as elusive and unrealistic as these call for inappropriate means, both military and humanitarian, and so corrupt statecraft—especially as the years progress, and with them the enlightened view of the conditions and character of “human betterment.” It was not enough to compel the Taliban or Pakistanis to betray bin Laden to us, or to topple Saddam Hussein and install a more suitable strongman; the American way of war required that we liberate Afghanistan and Iraq, install praetors and garrisons in their capitals, and transform them into liberal democracies by rewriting their constitutions and tutoring their populations in progressive values. And with a military–foreign policy–intelligence Blob inextricable from our elected politicians in Washington, not even the commander-in-chief can bring the troops home.

Eisenhower warned that a military-industrial complex might “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Not the military-industrial complex itself, but its metastasized, 21st-century successor has done just that. The post-9/11 security and surveillance state has not only intruded on our freedoms; it has helped erode our very capacity for self-government and self-responsibility, the interdependence between liberty and responsibility that Eisenhower himself assumed in 1961. As for a threat to our “democratic processes,” members of our national security agencies, federal law enforcement, and even military have shown themselves all too willing to judge for themselves that a presidential election is illegitimate or an administration is un-American, and act accordingly—covertly in 2015–2016, and increasingly in the open, especially in recent weeks. One can only assume that this trend will continue, thanks to wokeified intelligence agencies and officer corps presided over by a Biden/Harris administration.

The scientific-technological elite and its successor

The military-industrial complex didn’t generate itself. “Akin to, and largely responsible for, the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.” Eisenhower noted the newfound importance, formality, complexity, and costliness of scientific-technological research, all of which encourage the federal government’s interest in and influence over the economy and academy. The “solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop” is outmoded, and the “free university” has experienced a “revolution in the conduct of research.” The independence and initiative of American inventors and scholars is threatened by the allure of “Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.”

Worse still, “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” If nothing else, the response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that our public life is enchanted by just such an elite, or at least by an imagined version of “experts” who never err in their heads or their hearts. The figure of “the expert” in our imagination has debilitated our deliberations, in part because we tend to look to credentials as the signifier of expertise, in part because we have been taught that an incredibly broad swath of human life can be known and managed by “expertise.” Eisenhower didn’t say why expert rule would be a bad thing, perhaps assuming that rule by experts was repugnant to a generation of Americans who still knew, at least roughly, the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Americans today might add that the rising influence of the scientific-technological elite during the last sixty years is bad because the experts aren’t very good at their professed expertise—at conducting wars on foreign enemies, wars on poverty, wars on drugs, wars on “invisible enemies.” Doubtless we will soon see how adept our experts are at securing victory in the war on systemic racism, structural inequality, and domestic terrorism.

Eisenhower failed to see the breadth and depth of the “expert” threat. The threat was broader than he suspected: not only the scientists, but also the humanists—or rather, academic humanitarians—threatened to escape the university and dominate our political life. We don’t normally associate the early Sixties with academic rot. Eisenhower, though he spent several years as president of Columbia University, likely could not see the crisis of the humanities in 1961, though careful observers of the academy knew that the social sciences had been corrupted, on their own terms and in the ways they might benefit a free society. The truth is that both the sciences and the humanities, then and now, operate according to a larger vision of the purposes of the university in particular and human society in general. The modern research university, unlike the classical liberal arts colleges that educated our Founders, exists to remake the human condition and humanity itself. Call it the conquest of nature (via the hard sciences) and of human nature (via the soft sciences and humanitarian humanities) for the relief of man’s estate. In 2021, we are reminded of the success of the left in capturing the humanities and social science faculties, and from their perch transforming the mainstream of American society, on a daily basis. Eisenhower’s singling out of the sciences is useful today, when so many on the right and the anti-woke left confine their critiques of academia to the politicization of the liberal arts or its intrusion into the hard sciences. It is sobering to realize that the dysfunctions of our dominant institutions of higher education arise from their philosophic foundations, not their insufficiently-non-political administration.

Eisenhower’s solution and its failure

Eisenhower’s solution to this problem was prudent political leadership: “It is the task of statesmanship to mold, balance, and integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system—ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.” This is good as far as it goes. Eisenhower states what used to be common sense: the public has an interest in how science and technology are allowed and encouraged to develop, and in point of right as well as unavoidable fact, somebody—not the free market or the progress of history, but an actual person or set of people—independent of and above the sciences must do something to direct science and technology toward the common good. 

But without a corrected, or countervailing, educational and cultural establishment, Eisenhower’s appeal to “statesmanship” to supervise the scientific-technological elite is a bit like trusting the wolves to guard the sheep. Where will these statesmen come from, if not from the best universities and the parts of society under their sway? The success of the Sixties’s “best and brightest” in the conduct of the Vietnam War and the creation of the Great Society speaks for itself.

And so long as our politicians are elected, having the right person in office at the right time depends on the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” invoked by Eisenhower. Such a citizenry is less and less in evidence, thanks in no small part to the left’s nationwide domination of K-12 education, which the Republican Party has occasionally complained about and never succeeded in slowing down, much less reversing. When Ronald Reagan recalled how he learned “what it means to be an America, […] a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions,” he described a country in which a young person could learn these things from family, neighborhood, school, and popular culture. But when he called for a revival of this “informed patriotism,” he could only appeal to “the dinner table.” Neither Reagan nor any of his successors—with the exception of some eleventh-hour efforts by Donald Trump—has spent any political capital on confronting the leftist domination of our most formative public institutions.

In the past year, we have seen that the influence of the scientific-technological elite and their successors is stronger than ever: acutely, such as the big tech platforms’s actions against a sitting president and other wrongthinkers; chronically, such as their celebrity status in debates about foreign policy, national security, and coronavirus policymaking; and culturally, in memes and mantras such as “trust the experts” and “believe the science.” This, despite their repeated and widespread failures as experts; 2020 was the year that experts “failed upwards.” And so we have also seen increasing resistance to expert authority—not “science,” but the scientists themselves—which manifests in a range of more and less credible objections to their edicts. It is far from clear how this crisis will be resolved. To take one example: the overreach of our tech elites may be corrected by their chastening or ours—they may restrain themselves (why they would do so now is hard to say), or be brought to heel (how and by whom it is hard to say), or succeed in consolidating their dominance and restraining any remaining dissenters. The other option, that the conflict continues, may be most likely. Expert authority is already a partisan issue, and will not cease to be one anytime soon. At least some ambitious Republicans realize this. They would do well, for themselves and the American people, not to forget it.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.