Lessons from the Past

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his desk, 1957.

©Bettmann/Corbis U1345271INP by Arnold Sachs

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his desk, 1957.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961 ~ an Analysis of Competing Truth Claims and its Relevance Today

by Garrett Lawless and A.G. Dizboni

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Major Garrett Lawless, CD, is an Air Mobility pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and is currently a Military Assistant to the Minister of National Defence. He has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering, and a Master of Arts degree in Security and Defence Management and Policy from the Royal Military College of Canada, as well as a Master of Defence Studies from the Canadian Forces College.

Ali Ghanbarpour Dizboni, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is also a Research Fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.


Eisenhower’s farewell address is a polarizing work that finds promoters and detractors throughout the political spectrum. Although its contents cover much more than the one topic for which the speech is most famous, most analyses of this speech focus primarily upon the public-private defence relationship he dubbed the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Eisenhower’s own handling of this subject within the address is superficial, and on the surface, his warning also appears contradictory to many of the defence related decisions that he made throughout his two terms as president. So it is, then, that over the last half-century, both ‘doves and hawks’ alike have been able to call upon the ghost of Eisenhower to support their opposing defence theses. That the speech is really a protracted call for balance is too often missed or ignored; and when it is discussed, this balance call is frequently only examined as a footnote to the greater MIC debate. This is disappointing. Within the address, what Eisenhower calls for in the specific is a continued balance of cooperation and partisanship within Congress, a renewed balance in national programs (to include the MIC as one among many), and a better balance between the wants of today and the needs of tomorrow. However, what Eisenhower calls for in the general is an alert and knowledgeable citizenry that will be capable of affecting this balance; and this, above all else, is the aspect of the speech most worthy of analysis. Indeed, the fruitfulness of this address for today’s audience lies in the high task of developing our own understanding of what divergent truths led to this call for balance in the first place, so that we may be alert to just how tenuous our knowledge of these great subjects are today, and then perhaps, move us a little bit closer to becoming the ideal citizen Eisenhower envisioned.


As a preliminary exercise, it is worth exploring how something like truth can be divergent in the first place. Is not truth by definition singular? Indeed, this is the key that unlocks the rest. What is truth? If asked, most citizens would probably be hard pressed to give anything more than circular definitions of the word; and as we will see, it is this lack of understanding about truth in general that is the high obstacle for meaningful debate. For starters, many of us only understand the concept of truth scientifically. Undoubtedly, science is a powerful tool that has yielded many great results, and the emotional impact of witnessing significant scientific advances has, within the western cultural psyche, led many people to believe that objective truth is not only possible, but common. The problem with this is that such a belief can quickly stalemate public policy debates, because each side will feel that they are categorically right in their assertions, and so close their mind to the opposite view. This will occur honestly enough, because each side of the debate will have genuinely come to believe in certain truths that support their own position and other truths that defeat the opposite view. In this way, if one believes that there can only be one truth, then neither side of the debate will be capable of being sufficiently open towards the other to possibly accept it; and therefore, strong emotional and polarizing divides will be born, meaningful debate will die, and in the void, only empty rhetoric will remain.

The deeper understanding of truth is that it is simply any proposition that can be honestly held, consistently within the totality of those other beliefs experienced by an individual.1 In this manner, truth really is existential, and so, by approaching the opponents and proponents of Eisenhower’s balance calls existentially, we can better position ourselves to understand, discuss, and assess the relative merits of all sides. Thankfully, doing this is easier than it at first appears. Without delving (for the moment) into a nuanced philosophical discussion about something called a hermeneutic horizon, all which really matters is that one open one’s mind a little bit and recognize that no side of any argument speaks without a very real conviction that their position is true. Within this framework, let us now turn our attention to the issues of Congressional cooperation, the balance of national programs, and the balancing of the wants of today with the needs of tomorrow. By examining the divergent truth-claims surrounding these issues within the context of Eisenhower’s farewell address, the overriding importance and difficulty of generating an alert and knowledgeable citizenry should be made clear.

The U.S. Capitol Building.

Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) 857134 by NASA/Bill Ingalls

The U.S. Capitol Building.

That Eisenhower opens his address by thanking Congress for their propensity towards cooperation over partisanship is enough to ignite strong feelings of nostalgia even in those not old enough to recall such heady times of efficient governance. Is it true that this government cooperated? By all accounts it is. The record of agreement between the President and Congress during Eisenhower’s tenure is remarkable,2 but what was so special about this particular moment in history that this level of cooperation does not seem to appear at most other points in history? Within the broader context of this nascent nuclear age in America, there are perhaps two important markers that can be distilled out as making this period unique: fear and economics.

Today, it is common to recall the Eisenhower presidential era as one of high ideals, nice cars, happy music, and a prosperous outlook on life.3 Similarly, today, many defence planners openly pine for the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War, wherein the enemy was clear, and strategies were simple. It is interesting how quickly we forget that despite these niceties, the 1950s were also a period of tremendous fear of a man-made nuclear apocalypse. On one side, the US actively promoted a particularly positive view of itself, and on the other side of the iron curtain, the Soviet Union was demonized for its political philosophies and practices. This dichotomy was so extreme, and the fear that it produced was so intense that prominent US citizens would be publicly tried if even rumoured to hold any socialist philosophies.4 Eisenhower himself proclaimed that “he would rather be atomized than communized.”5 He had even developed a robust if not suicidal strategy for how to actually fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, which included how to train the citizenry through public reaction campaigns intended to regiment their response to a nuclear attack.6 This would (hopefully) ensure that no one would get ‘too hysterical’ after the predicted 25-30 American cities got ‘shellacked,’ thus giving the nation its best hope to rebuild itself from the ashes of a nuclear attack.7

A Boeing B-47 Stratojet bomber, a stalwart of Strategic Air Command during the early years of the Cold War.

DVIDS 837402 by NASA

A Boeing B-47 Stratojet bomber, a stalwart of Strategic Air Command during the early years of the Cold War.

Is it any wonder that, within this context, the president enjoyed overwhelming cooperation from Congress? In a similar way, the 9-11 attacks on the US also removed many of the usual obstacles that normally impede presidential authority. In the wake of that nightmare, Congress overwhelmingly supported President Bush, and the Democratic opposition gave him a nearly free hand to act.8 The difference between these two periods and most others is that intense fear has a way of raising common ground among otherwise divergent ideas, and thankfully, for the present moment, no such fear exists. Issues of health care, deficit spending, and the tone of US foreign policy are all important matters, but none of them alone or in concert represent any kind of clear and present danger around which the US population will rally. Instead, the population feels largely secure, and therefore, they remain content to pursue divergent agendas, based upon their own personal truth-claims. Specifically, there is less Congressional cooperation today because there is no emotionally intense focus upon any particular thing, which can then draw our personal notions of truth towards some common understanding.

May Day parade in Red Square, Moscow, 1 May 1956.

©Bettmann/Corbis BE037035

May Day parade in Red Square, Moscow, 1 May 1956.

The issue of economics is a bit more complicated. Despite great pretense to the contrary, economics is not a science in the strict sense of the word. Where the physical sciences postulate hypotheses and then rigorously test their validity within emotionally detached, controlled, and repeatable experiments, economics attempts to describe a system that is not controllable, and is subject to many emotional variables. In this way, economics tends to propose models that can accurately describe past events, but which often fail miserably in predicting the future. This in itself is fine, but where things tend to go awry is that this field of study also likes to wrap itself in the nomenclature of calculus. This then gives economics the appearance of mathematics, and this can lead to great and undeserved faith in its often contradictory and polarizing conclusions. Specific to the era of Eisenhower, the ‘economic theory du jour’ that went a long way towards fostering accidental Congressional cooperation was Keynesian economics.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), by John Michael Wright.

The Granger Collection, NYC, 0020460

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), by John Michael Wright.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).

ullstein bild/ The Granger Collection, NYC 0165523

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).

If feeling particularly poetic, one could describe the essential history of Western economics by saying that Adam Smith slayed Hobbes’ Leviathan with an invisible hand and set the stage for capitalism. For those unfamiliar, Thomas Hobbes had suggested that humans needed to be ruled by an all-powerful monarch (the Leviathan), who would protect them from the wild and anarchic world around them. Adam Smith then argued that despite this anarchy, humans acting in support of their own self-interest would be guided by an ‘invisible hand’ that would then demand that they cooperate and help each other, and this cooperation is what will ultimately bring about the most prosperity for any individual. The problem with this invisible hand is that while it seems to work wonderfully in the long term, in the short game, there are sometimes hiccups that can cause devastation to free markets. This is ultimately what caused the stock market crash of 1929. In response, John Maynard Keynes proposed the adoption of a sort of ‘mini-Leviathan’ in the form of government controls to help buffer these periods, and in the Eisenhower era, this approach seemed to be working quite well. 9

Ironically, bureaucratically self-serving exaggerations of Keynesian theory made the Republicans and Democrats of this era odd bedfellows. Rather than promoting the application of simple governmental controls on the economy, many on the left took the idea much further, and instead, used it to promote bigger government in general. Included within this structure was the idea of a larger defence industry that would be subsidized and influenced by the federal government. In this way, Congressional cooperation of this era was to a certain degree accidental. Eisenhower was not a Keynesian, and he loathed the idea of big government,10 but the Democrats knew that he also had a weak spot for defence. Thus, when Congress would push for ever more spending on defence programs that were supplying great revenue and jobs within their constituencies, it was only because the President was so concerned with national security that Congress normally got what it requested (and/or demanded).11 Taken from the point of view of truth, Congressional cooperation within this period is unique in history because of the effect that tremendous security fears had in generating a common ground upon which fierce opponents could agree. For this reason, even though both left and right each ascribed to different economic philosophies with respect to government spending, it just so happened that on the issue of defence spending, both sides of the debate desired the same action.

Naturally, the expedient unity on defence programs unraveled in the greater context of national programs, and this is what caused Eisenhower to fear that national programs in general were becoming unbalanced. However, contrary to what some would believe, it is incorrect to presume that Eisenhower would have wished to achieve a better balance in this area by increasing funding to other programs. Within the text of his farewell address, it is easy to find traces of the President’s strong preference for private entrepreneurial pursuits, such as when he juxtaposes the image of a heroic solitary inventor tinkering in his garage with bleak task forces of government-sponsored scientists working to fulfill some uninspired external mandate. Certainly, given Eisenhower’s fundamental hatred of communism, it is easy to imagine how uneasy such public-private relationships must have made him. Eisenhower did not want the government involved with the economy, but within Congress, there was great hope that the government would play an aggressive role in fostering full employment for the population through greater opportunities within government sponsored programs.12 Thus, with the only programs of this nature that Eisenhower would support being those of defence-based industry, it is easy to see how this one national program grew aggressively, while virtually all the others languished.

With Respect to the Past

The situation is no different today, and Eisenhower’s call for balance in national programs has not been heeded. This year, the US government spent more money on defence than on any other program, and by some calculations, has spent more money on defence than all other government programs combined.13 However, this imbalance is easily misunderstood, and therefore, it can be used to support a broad variety of contradictory arguments, some of which were made by Eisenhower himself. During one speech, Eisenhower claimed,“… [that] every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft. The cost of one modern, heavy bomber is this: a modern, brick school in more than 30 cities.”14 The problem is that such statements oversimplify the nature of government spending, which, in the end, needs to be viewed as an investment. Beyond the simple purchase of security, investing in defence industries also creates jobs and cash flows within the economy, and these, in turn, stoke the nation’s industrial engine in an immediate way that investing in educational infrastructure does not.

St. Basil’s cathedral in Red Square at night.

Shutterstock image 3110670 by Oleg Shipov

St. Basil’s cathedral in Red Square at night.

This is not to say that investing in education is without merit. Clearly, it is, but public debate is degraded when arguments are made for their rhetorical impact, rather than their true merit. It also presumes that if the US government were to scale back defence spending, it would instead reroute this funding to other national programs, and this is a false notion. In the final analysis, the US is a nation that embraces a free capitalist economy. The imbalance of national programs towards defence exists primarily because the fear and patriotism that this area generates within the public imagination provides a space for agreement among US politicians, and ultimately, it is this unique agreement that lubricates spending. However, because government spending in general goes against an almost primordial US resistance towards big government and bureaucratic influence in the first place, it is unlikely that any other national program will ever receive strong support, regardless of the greater or lesser support that may be given to defence in the future.

Eisenhower feared that this spending imbalance was robbing prosperity from future generations, which is an interesting fear, considering that he also felt that it was a very real possibility that there might not be any discernible future.15 Thankfully, in this regard, Eisenhower appears to have been mistaken. Not only has the world survived, but whatever ‘highs and lows’ the US economy has experienced over the last half-century, the level of prosperity enjoyed by US citizens today is far greater than what was enjoyed in his era. That said, this record of success does nothing to remove the same spending fears from entering the public debates of today, nor should it do so. No responsible society worthy of the label can conduct its affairs without an eye to the future, and this brings us to the general call of Eisenhower’s address: the need for an alert and knowledgeable citizenry. As long as meaningful political agreement can only be generated through intense fear, the future of Congressional cooperation will remain bleak. Also, as Eisenhower knew, the quality of public debate in general, which must be the arena where future national directions are charted, depends entirely upon society’s engagement, interest, and understanding of the articles debated. But, how realistic is this ambition for the ideal citizen? Can there be a common ground able to support Congressional productivity that is not rooted in fear? And how realistic is this notion of the ideal citizen? If there is to be an alternative, what is it? This brings us back to the question of truth.

The ‘hawks and doves’ who misrepresent Eisenhower on the issue of the MIC probably also fail to grasp the complexity of his position, and therefore, they should at least be considered honest in their truth claims. This in itself is not problematic. In fact, what is supposed to happen in such circumstances is that each side would bring their honest positions to the other, and in so considering the other’s positions fully and with an open mind, each would then come away with a fuller and deeper understanding of, for instance, Eisenhower’s apprehension about the MIC; that it developed incidentally within his competing national security fears and pre-Keynesian ideals. But this is not what normally happens. Instead, public policy debate too often becomes debased to a cacophony of empty rhetoric that everyone derides, yet concurrently embraces. This situation can become utterly confusing, and within contemporary political literature, no one seems able to discern a practical remedy for it. Unfortunately, this does not provide optimism for the development of an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.

It is claimed that no one can discern a practical remedy for this problem within contemporary political literature, but there is another field of study that does offer some hope because it deeply contemplates precisely this sort of issue. The field is called hermeneutics, and while it unfortunately remains little studied outside of philosophy, due to its esoteric language and methodologies, it does hold some promise for generating something close to Eisenhower’s ideal citizen. Within this philosophy is the notion of a hermeneutic horizon. This kind of horizon can be pictured as the mental field of view that one has when one looks out into the world around themselves. Specifically, it is the referential totality by which one is able to understand the world that they find themselves within. This is a difficult concept, so some further explanation may be warranted. Consider the fact that you cannot understand anything solely in terms of itself. Instead, you can only understand any object or idea in terms of its relation to some other object or idea. Take a moment to consider this. Now, if one can only understand something in terms of its relation to other things or ideas, it stands to reason that one is then only capable of understandings that are possible within the referential framework that that person has accumulated and internalized by virtue of their experiences in life. It is this that defines and limits the referential considerations of which one is capable, and the sum total of these referentials forms one’s personal hermeneutic horizon. Ultimately, it is this horizon that dictates what thoughts, ideas, and understandings are possible for any individual.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), best known for his concept of philosophical hermeneutics.

ullstein bild/The Granger Collection, NYC 0168774

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), best known for his concept of philosophical hermeneutics.

The mistake that people tend to make is that they presume that because an idea does not make sense within their personal hermeneutic horizon, that this idea then does not make sense in the universal. This can have very polarizing effects, because people will then come to believe that others, who hold ideas that do not fit within this horizon, simply hold nonsensical ideas. Clearly, this is not productive. Coupling this with the incredible pace of modern life, and the fact that somehow we now tend to believe that it is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything,16 and one may begin to understand the source of the bombastic and empty rhetoric that both guides and limits the polarizing public policy debates of today. This need not be so. While it is unreasonable, counter-productive even, to expect citizens to become alert and knowledgeable on the incredibly broad and complicated discussions which take place within the public sphere, it should not be too much to ask that they understand how it is that they understand at all. The openness to opposing ideas, and the humility in one’s own thoughts that would result from this knowledge, is surely worth more than any specific understanding of a particular public policy.


Eisenhower’s farewell address will continue to resonate with those who look to understand the psyche of a nation grappling to cope concurrently with a surging economy and a near-infinite security threat. Controversial as the speech may at times appear, the ideas expressed therein are consistent within the broad context of the man and his era. Concerns with respect to national programs, public-private partnerships, and economic philosophies are interesting and worthy of real consideration, but it is the call for an alert and knowledgeable citizenry that demands the most consideration. From the wrong perspective, this appears to be an impossible wish. Even those who exist professionally within the public sphere can only hope to have deep understanding of certain specific subsets of the greater whole. But this is the wrong perspective. Instead of hoping for the impossible, what should be sought instead is a more common understanding of how it is that we understand anything at all. Armed with this, public debate should become more meaningful, nuanced, humble, and productive.


  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer. Truth and Method, John Cumming, Garrett Berden (eds.), [Wahrheit und Methode]. Translated by W. Glen Doepel. Second Edition. (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2005), p.xxiii.
  2. James S Wagenen, A review of congressional oversight, in Central Intelligence Agency Archives, at https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/97unclass/wagenen.html. Accessed 31 October 2012.
  3. Michael Hall, “Eisenhower’s Farewell Address: A Textual Analysis,” in Generation Cobweb: A Radical Forum for Waking Minds.
  4. Jason Gottlieb, “Ignominious Defeat: The Rise and Fall Surrounding the Army-McCarthy Hearings,” at http://www.umich.edu/~historyj/pages_folder/articles/Ignominious_Defeat.pdf. Accessed 31 October 2012.
  5. Ira Chernus, “How One Paragraph in a Single Speech has Skewed the Eisenhower Record,” in Truthout News Analysis, 2011.
  6. Ira Chernus, “The Real Eisenhower,” in George Mason University’s History News Network, 2008.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Michael A. Genovese, 2010. “Transformations of the Bush Presidency: 9/11 and Beyond,” in Loyola Marymount University Press, 2010, p. 8.
  9. John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics in Perspective, A Critical History. (Boston: Houghton Miflin Company, 1987), p. 132.
  10. “Eisenhower’s Military-Industry Complex Warning, 50 Years Later,” in National News and Public Radio USA, 2011.
  11. Michael Ledbetter, “What Caused Ike to Criticize the “Military Industrial Complex”?” Reuters, 2011.
  12. Christopher Preble, “Ike Reconsidered: How Conservatives Ignored, and Liberals Misconstrued, Eisenhower’s Warnings about Military Spending,” in Washington Monthly, 31 October 2011.
  13. http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/us_military_spending_30.html. Accessed on 31 October 2012.
  14. Speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1953.
  15. Ira Chernus, “The Real Eisenhower.”
  16. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 64.