Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation at the end of his second term in 1961 is famously remembered for its warning about the ‘military industrial complex’ and the influence – ‘economic, political, even spiritual’ – it could have on the ability of future generations to govern themselves.
But buried in this eloquent, heartfelt speech are also what I see as relevant, important warnings about caring for our national manufacturing and innovation capabilities.
Before I share those overlooked gems, it’s important to understand the unique perspectives Eisenhower brought to the presidency, and his motivations for delivering such a poignant, sober farewell before hittin’ the bricks. It’s also important to suspend both our individual opinions on the value of military service to the office of the President and our opinions of Eisenhower’s politics.
- Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. The fact is, Ike witnessed first-hand a brand of war, mass destruction, and inhumanity on scales the world had not seen before nor has seen since. (And please consider he also served during WWI, although he saw no combat.)
- He oversaw the dismantling of the German (Nazi) war machine – an extraordinarily effective but insidious political, military, and public relations organism – including the liberation of the mechanism of the Holocaust.
- He not only witnessed an extraordinary ramp-up of technology and the infrastructure to create it, but also utilized those technologies through the course of his career.
- As President, he spear-headed the development of our national highway & interstate system, and presided over the creation of DARPA (which, in turn, begat the Internet).
- He was the only former military general elected US president in the 20th century.
The man had seen and known what ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ really meant, from the ground up to the highest levels of government. Up close. And he saw the good that we are capable of.
At the end of nearly 50 years of service, Ike felt the need to give this parting message – through a prism of experience that few others ever had.
In his address, just after the call to beware the military industrial complex, is a series of 3 paragraphs that warn of the hoarding and control of our national innovation engine (emphasis mine):
“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. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.
“Yet, in 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 the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to 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.”
If there is a common theme in Eisenhower’s address, it’s ‘balance’ – balance between these emerging powers and the populace, to maintain equilibrium and sustain the components of a wholesome, thriving economy. He spends a great deal of time warning of the consequences if that balance is allowed to shift too far to either side.
Today, we see an imbalance that favors those with influence to offshore our innovation engine, establish seemingly ludicrous trade & economic policies, and place inordinate burdens on small & medium sized manufacturers. We see distinct advantages to those that have the wherewithal to consume and deploy technology over those with limited access.
As I’ve said may times, I’m an unapologetic capitalist. I believe in free (and fair) markets. But take a drive through Detroit or Youngstown with the top down, and tell me free markets did that.
Watch Eisenhower’s complete address below. Listen for these 3 paragraphs in it, and consider the context of the time and his perspectives as a witness & participant to history.
While his call to be wary of the military industrial complex has seized the attention over the years, I find his warning to protect ‘the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop’ to be just as compelling. And just as important.
(For the text to Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, go here.)