The Larger Legacy From Ike’s Farewell

<i> Author-Editor Norman Cousins is an adjunct professor of medical humanities at UCLA. </i>

Dwight D. Eisenhower became President on the basis of his vast popularity as an American military leader in World War II. Yet paradoxically, his place in American history may primarily rest on the prophetic accuracy of a warning about the growing influence of the military and the armament industry.

Eisenhower’s reference to this danger in his Farewell Address, 25 years ago this month, has given rise to two popular misconceptions. The first is that he was referring only to a “military-industrial complex.” The second is that his comment reflected views arrived at late in his presidency.

The first misconception is readily dealt with, for Eisenhower also specifically referred to the “scientific-technological elite,” as the following passage from the talk made clear:

“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 also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”


The second misconception--that Eisenhower’s deep concern about military influence in government came only at the end of his presidency--calls for testimony based on direct conversations.

In July, 1959, at Eisenhower’s suggestion, I proposed to the Soviet Peace Committee in Moscow a continuing series of meetings between leaders from the private sector of each country to explore outstanding issues between the two nations. Eisenhower believed that diplomatic negotiations sometimes bog down because each side fears a conciliatory attitude would be regarded as weakness by the other. Private discussions, however, could probe for openings without risk to either government, enabling the diplomats to begin talks at an advanced state. His judgment has since been confirmed by 26 years of meetings between citizen leaders of both countries in what has come to be known as the Dartmouth Conference series (the first meeting was held at Hanover, N.H.).

The Dartmouth Conferences have played an exploratory and helpful role in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, development of cultural exchanges, direct air connections, the hot line, widening of trade and arms-control talks.

One conversation, only a few months before the end of his term, foreshadowed the “military-industrial establishment” speech. The President had come to New York for an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly. His mood was confident, upbeat. In fact, I hadn’t remembered seeing him in such fine form since he came to office--and I said something to that effect.


The President grinned and said the appearance probably reflected the reality. He was full of anticipations, saying he looked forward to leaving the presidency so that he could devote himself to the cause of world peace.

I suppose my jaw dropped open at the implications of his remark. He smiled and said he relished the notion of being able to speak out as a citizen, free of the gauntlets that even a President has to run in the formation of foreign policy. He then referred to the multiplicity of pressures inside the government, including the departments of state and defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, special committees in Congress and more.

To be sure, most diverse pressures come together in the National Security Council, but it is not unusual for particular pressures to be urged on the President apart from meetings of the council.

The appointment of John Foster Dulles as secretary of state at the start of the Eisenhower Administration may have had the effect of relieving many multiple pressures, but it also produced a considerable amount of frustration and exasperation. There was a stark difference of style and thrust between the two men. Eisenhower favored the open, direct approach. He wanted face-to-face meetings, especially with Soviet leaders. Dulles liked to play close to the vest. Eisenhower advocated the broadcast possible sharing of information with the American public. He did not fear public opinion; he saw it as a resource. Dulles, however, regarded public opinion as an encumbrance at times rather than a natural ally. He tended to mix theology and ideology, with strongly held views about the integrated and monolithic nature of world communism.

One incident served to epitomize the difference. When we met in New York, Eisenhower recounted the story of his heart attack in 1955. White House pressures had been particularly heavy and his doctors had been urging a break. But the respite had to be deferred week after week. Finally, an opportunity for a long week-end presented itself and he took off for Denver, for a few days of clear air and open sky.

On the first day, the President started a round of golf but it took three holes to shake trailing Washington preoccupations. On the fourth tee, he felt himself relaxing and began to relish the surroundings. Just as he was addressing the ball, however, a golf cart drove up; the driver said that an urgent telephone call had just come in from the White House.

The President jumped into the cart and was driven to the clubhouse. The party at the other end had disconnected. The President checked with several White House aides. None knew anything about an “urgent” call. Out of sorts, the President drove back to the fourth tee. He resumed the game but felt uneasy. What was the telephone call all about?

It took about three more holes to get back into the flow of the game. Then the messenger drove up again. The urgent call was now ready.


When the President picked up the phone, the caller identified himself as an aide to Dulles. Something had come up in the Middle East and it was felt that the President’s advice was required. The President listened very carefully and realized that the situation could not even vaguely be classified as an emergency. Why, then, he asked, did the aide not consult Dulles? The aide said that the secretary was away on a brief holiday and left instructions not to be disturbed short of a national emergency. I still have a vivid memory of the President as he described the episode. He sat forward in his chair, his face was flushed:

“I had all I could to to keep from exploding,” he said. “The secretary was not to be disturbed except for a national emergency but it was all right to disturb the President on lesser matters. I said a few harsh words to the young man on the other end of the phone and hung up. I went back to the game but it was no use. I was churning up inside. I was angry with Foster. I was angry with myself for having spoken harshly to the young man . . . . It would probably be his only direct conversation with the President in his career.”

“I began to spray my shots over the golf course. It was no use. I put my clubs in the bag and went back to the clubhouse. I began to ache all over. I didn’t sleep very well. The next day I had my heart attack. I am not saying that Foster Dulles had his name on that heart attack but I can’t help thinking of the incident that preceded it.”

It was not so surprising that with the death of Dulles in 1959, Eisenhower came into his own as President. The pressures were no less omnipresent and difficult than before, but he discovered he had the capacity to deal with them directly.

In the early years of office, Eisenhower had felt alienated, sidelined. Now, he had new purpose and confidence, but his term was coming to an end and he knew the liabilities of being a lame duck. Even so, he was determined to make the most of the limited time remaining, despite the multiplicity of restraints.

What, I asked in 1960, were the most onerous of these restraining forces?

First of all, he said, there were those who seemed to worship complexity. They seemed to distrust anything that appeared to be open and direct. Nothing in the world was what it appeared to be. They fed on convoluted theories and had their antennae up for anything that smacked of conspiracy. They would speak about keeping presidential options open, by which they generally meant that they felt that President should take provocative initiatives just to keep the other side off balance and to demonstrate he couldn’t be taken for granted.

“I think you know that I believe we must be strong militarily,” he said, “but beyond a certain point military strength can become a national weakness. The trouble with collecting military strength beyond our needs is that it tends to become a substitute for all the other things involved in true national security. It fosters the notion that national security is automatically tied to the amount of money we spend on arms. What we overlook is that we may be spending our money on the wrong things. . . . I don’t want people who have a financial stake in crisis and tensions to have a voice in national policy.”


There are many elements in true national security, the President continued, apart from weapons production. He referred, for example, to the need for public support of efforts to create a durable peace. He was appalled at the way some government advisers would dismiss or downgrade this aspect of responsible government. The feeling seemed to be that the American people weren’t intelligent enough to understand foreign policy; therefore, government was justified in concocting cover stories. The President said he sometimes had to wonder whether he himself got the straight story. He noticed that every time there appeared a good chance that tensions could be reduced, all sorts of reasons were advanced for turning away from those opportunities.

When I later visited Eisenhower in retirement at his Gettysburg farm in 1964, he asked about the status of the Dartmouth Conferences he instigated. He seemed especially pleased at the friendly tone of the discussions. He said that anyone who knew anything about the stockpiles of nuclear weapons knew that the only security for Americans, or for anyone else, was in bringing them under control. And there was no option except to negotiate genuinely and energetically toward that end.

The legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the American people may not be fully understood but it is still there for anyone who wants to put it to work.