The 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous farewell address to the nation has prompted much discussion about the prescience of his message. Has Eisenhower's vision of an America dominated by a military-industrial complex come to fruition? What would he think about our current military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has Eisenhower's address been wrongly interpreted, misapplied, or misunderstood over the decades? Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan, offered her perspective on the address in an op-ed for The Washington Post:
"While the farewell address may be remembered primarily for the passages about the military-industrial complex, Ike was rising above the issues of the day to appeal to his countrymen to put the nation and its future first. 'We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.'"
The lessons that Susan Eisenhower takes away from her grandfather's speech prompted me – as I'm sure it has many others – to read President Eisenhower's address for myself. And like Susan, what I found most insightful and inspirational about Ike's words were his emphasis on the importance of balance in our approach to and expectations of government, the obligations of national identity and intergenerational bonds, and the need to remember and preserve the spirit of faith and democratic values that undergird the American experiment:
"Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. . . . But 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."
Unfortunately, it seems that in the half century that has elapsed since Eisenhower's address we have forgotten – or forsaken – this critical principle of balance and are at risk of becoming the "insolvent phantom" of Eisenhower's tomorrow.
There can be no denying that America has truly become a nation of "spectacular and costly action." We have, both individually and collectively, become a society of blind consumers and reckless spenders that looks to government as the guarantor of our comfort and security. Unable to distinguish between our wants and our needs, we've driven ourselves to the very brink of financial insolvency.
A spirit of greed and a lack of concern for the long-term consequences of our actions was the root of the huge Wall Street/mortgage/banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bailouts. Those same attitudes are at work in the funding crises involving entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. They are evidenced by the reigning influence of a "global corporate" complex that is aided and abetted by Washington, insulated from accountability for wrongdoing, and singularly focused on profits to the exclusion of all other concerns.
Were Eisenhower alive today, he might wonder what has happened to the America he knew – a land of "free and religious people" who still embraced the Judeo-Christian values of piety, thrift, personal responsibility and diligence at the heart of the American spirit. Today's America is increasingly reflecting a rigid secularism fiercely antagonistic to religion and her offspring, morality and ethics. Virtue is being rejected as an antiquated notion, and individualism reigns. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with the looming consequences of our shortsightedness, self-indulgence, and hubris, and we are willing to do just about anything to avoid accountability for our actions. For decades now, the preferred method has been to kick the can of responsibility down the road – leaving the problem for the next generation to solve – rather than do the hard work of changing how we think and how we live in the here and now.
Every election cycle, aspiring politicians ask the American people for their support and promise that they are the leaders who will, once and for all, set America back on the path towards stability, solvency, and success. But even the most honorable and hardworking politician can't do this alone. It requires the support of a nation committed to a revolution in how we think and act, from the blue collar working man to the high-powered corporate CEO. Given the trajectory we are on, unless everyone gets on board, we will inevitably slide into mediocrity and hopeless indebtedness.
Fifty years from now, when America celebrates the 100th anniversary of Eisenhower's speech, I pray that my own grandchildren will be able to rejoice in the fact that their nation was able to change course before it was too late.