Insolvent Democracy—A Warning From History

David Stokes
|
Posted: Jan 16, 2011 12:01 AM

Anyone having the opportunity to interact with someone who is, say, more than eighty years old—and therefore remembers the Great Depression—knows that people back in those days thought differently about money and material things than most of us do today.

Fifty years ago this weekend, a few days before the torch of leadership would be passed to a much younger man representing a new generation of Americans, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth President of the United States, said farewell to the nation via a televised speech. It remains the most memorable such goodbye ever uttered by a chief executive, largely for a warning about the dangers inherent in what Ike called, “the military-industrial establishment.”

But something else the great man said that evening has been largely overlooked in the decades since, though hiding in plain sight. It was also a warning, one very relevant to our political situation five decades later.

Until recently, most biographies of General Eisenhower (his preferred title in retirement) have described the speech as somewhat of an afterthought prompted by a suggestion from Norman Cousins, a liberal journalist and editor of The Saturday Review. He was an out-spoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. The story goes that Cousins called the White House in mid-December 1960 with the idea that the President should deliver a televised farewell address, one that would, in Cousins’ words, be “a great, sweeping document.”

That’s how the tale has been told—until a few months ago.

Evidence surfaced in a boathouse near Hackensack, Minnesota, of all places, that debunks that myth in the form of a letter written by Eisenhower’s secretary. The correspondence said: “The idea of trying to get anyone like Norman Cousins working on it would be dreadful. How in the world do we diplomatically thank him, but say No?”

The letter was part of a discovery by a man named Grant Moos, son of the late Malcolm Moos. The elder Moos served as a speechwriter for President Eisenhower. He had donated most of his papers to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas many years ago, but six cardboard boxes were squirreled away in his boathouse. And these boxes contained—along with pinecones, acorns, and mouse droppings—interesting information about that farewell speech, one nearly as famous-for-a-phrase as Churchill’s about an “Iron Curtain” and Kennedy’s “Ask not” effort.

Eisenhower himself actually came up with the idea nearly eighteen months before his second term was over. He called it “one speech he would like very much to make…a ten-minute farewell.” He told this to Malcolm Moos who began making notes. Ultimately, the address underwent nearly thirty drafts, twenty-one of which were unknown until those boxes in the boathouse were found.

So—what else did President Eisenhower say on January 17, 1961? It is something that speaks to us today:

“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking 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.”[Emphasis added]

Most historians characterize Eisenhower’s political bent as moderate. And this is likely accurate. Certainly during the mid-1960s he was no fan of Barry Goldwater’s conservative approach, nor was he thought to lean all that far to the right when he occupied the Oval Office.

But his personal approach to life was, in fact, very conservative and traditional, especially when it came to financial frugality. He and his wife Mamie came from modest backgrounds and never even owned a home until just two years before he was elected President when they bought their beloved Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm (the property was generously deeded by the Eisenhower’s to the U.S. government upon their deaths).

When President Eisenhower began his first term as President of the United States in 1953 the national debt was around 260 billion dollars. By the time he died in 1969 it had grown by about 90 billion dollars to a little over 353 billion, this during the peak of the Vietnam War and with the bills for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society beginning to come due.

Today the national debt is well over 14 trillion dollars.

David Schwartz is the author of the children's book How Much Is a Million? To help young minds grasp the concept of large numbers he says: “One million seconds comes out to be about 11½ days. A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years.”

To put this in up to date political terms, a trillion seconds is the length of time required for elected officials to figure out how bad things are.

Certainly Mr. Eisenhower was right—even prophetic—about the whole “military-industrial-complex” thing. But the other warning he delivered that day, the one about mortgaging the material assets of our grandchildren, should have been revisited and heeded long ago.