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Eisenhower's Farewell Speech

I still remember, as a child, listening to the only American president I had ever known for all of my then short life give his farewell speech to his fellow countrymen, delivered to what is left of an aging baby boom generation just recovering from the McCarthy era through millions upon millions of black and white televisions. It left me with an impression that has lasted ever since, for my entire life: what has now become decades, indeed half a century, which how long the memory has persisted.

Surprisingly, the president’s speech was no so much a goodbye, but a warning, surely intended as much for the young who were listening as for the adult public who were, about science, and its application to the industrialization and consequential albeit unspoken institutionalization of modern warfare. Eisenhower put this idea in much simpler terms.

Before becoming president, Eisenhower was an army general during the Second World War. He commanded the successful Allied forces in the Normandy invasion of 1944, a calculated risk the Allied forces took that could have resulted in disaster instead of victory, changing history dramatically.

The year 2011 marked the fiftieth anniversary of that speech. 2011 has ended, but what he had to say in his farewell speech should be remembered, now and for as long as there is war, and for as long as it threatens civil coexistence on this planet (i.e. the peace of civilization). We face a very important election, one that will test the peace of civilization that we so take for granted. What follows are excerpts from Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation, indeed, the world. What he said then applies now.

(The reader is advised not to confuse Eisenhower with the McCarthy era and the disgrace upon our cultural heritage that was any more than it should be confused that this article, by choosing Eisenhower, is any kind of endorsement of the modern republican party. To be clear, it flatly is not. Joseph McCarthy was long gone by the time this speech was made, victim of acute alcoholism, and the only war hero that the modern republican party has fielded since then was not a general, in command of all western allied forces.)

January 17, 1961

President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the American people (excerpts):

“We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars, among great nations. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords, as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense.

“We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Add to this three and a half million men and women directly engaged in the defense establishment.

“Now, this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American [historical] experience. The total influence, economic, political, and even spiritual, is felt in every city, every state house, [and] every office of the federal government.

“We recognize the imperative need for this development, yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

“Akin to and widely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central. It also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of the federal government.

“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 nations scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present, and gravely to be regarded.“

(end of excerpt from Eisenhower’s address)

Over fifty years have now elapsed since these words were uttered. In my opinion, they have clearly proven themselves to be prophetic. Most significantly, now, again, fifty years later, science understands nature better than it ever has ever understood it. Sadly, the reverse of what is true for science seems true for individual Americans themselves. That is to say, that although “science” (meaning, at its heart, the group empowered with and benefiting materially from a formalized description and understanding of nature), now understands nature better than it has ever been understood, individual Americans, in general, understand science and hence understand nature less well than they did fifty years ago, at the time when this speech was made by the then president of our nation.

Yet in stark contrast to how things were then, Americans in general, themselves now, seem to have less of an understanding of science, and correspondingly, less of an understanding of the natural world in which they live, than they did fifty years ago – yes, that is now over half a century ago – in a world where information has never been easier to obtain. There was no public internet access then, yet the public was, in general, more educated; and education in science better appreciated by the public then as well. It is this final fact that most threatens our individual security and liberty in the face of environmental realities that individual security and liberty must soon inescapably confront during the upcoming century. A public educated in science will be required to escape the very thing of which Eisenhower warned us, again, over half a century ago.

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