My old White House boss Jim Fallows thinks very highly of President Obama’s West Point speech, but even more highly of President Eisenhower’s thematically similar farewell address in 1961 — the military-industrial complex one.
Nonetheless, I thought the argument and emphases of the speech made it important and wise, though for a different reason from what immediate press accounts have stressed. The short-term point about the speech is how different it is from George W. Bush’s argument for “preemptive war” at the same site eight years ago. The more significant point, to me, is how consistent Obama’s argument was with one of the statements of U.S. interest and strategy that holds up best over time: Dwight Eisenhower’s extraordinary “farewell address” to the nation nearly 50 years ago.
Well, okay, but Jim was in grade school nearly 50 years ago whereas I had spent the Eisenhower years as a college student, an army draftee, and a Washington newspaperman. Thus I have trouble getting too misty-eyed about that farewell address, although it was certainly extraordinary in one way.
Who had been president for the previous eight years? Who had sent White Star special forces teams to Northern Thailand only months before? Who had just told the incoming president that the greatest threat to world peace facing him was Laos?
Who made the unspeakable Dulles secretary of state and kept him in the job? Who sent thousands of “advisers” and billions in military aid to Diem after he violated the terms reached at Geneva by refusing to hold the national elections that he (and we) knew Ho Chi Minh would win?
Who blew the very real possibility of ending the Cold War when he continued the U-2 flights, thereby making it impossible for Khrushchev to pursue the detente the Soviet leader had plainly been seeking? Who let the other unspeakable Dulles gin up a CIA invasion of Cuba and who then left the whole mess on Kennedy’s plate?
Finally, who was the only president of my lifetime who had the military credibility, popularity and heroic stature to actually do something about that whole military industrial complexy thingy that upset him so?
But I agree with Jim — it was a swell speech.