President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address is famous for its warning about the dangers of the growth of the “military-industrial complex." It was delivered on national television in January 1961; rereading it, the address is jarring in ways that have little to do with its signature phrase. Eisenhower's opening passage offered his gratitude to the national television and radio networks for giving him this opportunity to address the country.
Equally jarring to contemporary sensibilities: Ike sang the praises of Congress for putting national interest ahead of narrow sectarian interests. He expressed his belief in a broader national purpose and mission. He argued that this mission transcended partisan boundaries, sectional interests, and involved a broader search for advancing the common good.
Eisenhower admitted that while his initial “relations with Congress … began on a remote and tenuous basis,” it became “intimate during the war and immediate post-war period." During his presidency, it became “mutually interdependent ... The Congress and the administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the nation well rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward. So my official relationship with Congress ends in a feeling on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together."
Lauding Congress and the news media aren’t the only oddities (to contemporary ears) found in Eisenhower’s final presidential speech. He highlighted his unease with several broad developments in mid-century America—including a revolution in technology and growing industrial capacity, which, he feared, had brought an end to an age when individuals could become pioneers and forge inventions largely by the strength of their own ingenuity. He cited the federal government as a source of expanding social power—and worried over the declining fortunes of America’s universities as repositories of free thought. They risked becoming beholden to military, industrial, and other government agendas.
It’s a supple, thoughtful, and provocative address—a speech that belies his reputation as a president uncomfortable with complex ideas and in-depth reflection. It’s a speech, as well, that eloquently describes the horrors of modern warfare, the dread of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and the urgency of fighting global "poverty, disease, and ignorance."
Eisenhower wished “the new president ... Godspeed,” and he had a message for elected officeholders who would follow him—a message to which attention should be paid now. “Our people expect their president and the Congress to find essential agreement on questions of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation,” he said. Too often, Eisenhower’s final admonishment has been lost on elected officials in our own times.