Eisenhower’s farewell address and the demise of prudentialism

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s farewell address. At the time, it didn’t draw nearly as much attention as John Kennedy’s inaugural address delivered three days later. These days, however, Eisenhower’s speech is probably considered about as noteworthy. That’s mainly because the left loves to quote Ike’s warning about dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”
There’s much more to the speech than just that passage, however. Ted Bromund finds in Eisenhower’s address a classic expression of “prudentialistm” – the elevation of prudence and balance in governance to core political virtues.
John Kennedy’s speech three days later is a rejection of prudentialism. His rhetoric about paying any price and bearing any burden is the antithesis of prudence. So too is his most quoted statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In a prudential world, both questions are asked.
“The 60s” are typically said to have commenced several years into the decade, for example with the Kennedy assassination in 1963, or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, or the Berkeley “free speech movement” in 1964-65. However, as Bromund observes, “the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it” sums up well the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s.
Bromund links to two other worthwhile pieces about Eisenhower’s address, by Will Inboden and James Carfano. Inboden notes that Eisenhower’s fear that defense spending might push the nation towards becoming a military republic proved unfounded. According to Inboden, defense spending at the end of the Eisenhower administration was 52.2 percent of federal outlays and 9.3 percent of GDP; today it is 19 percent of total federal outlays and 4.7 percent of GDP.
But, as Carfano points out, Eisenhower’s concern about a “military-industrial complex” was rooted in his distrust of big government, and his dismay at excessive federal spending and the systematic loss of state and local autonomy. This concern, expressed in his farewell address seems prescient today:

We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

JOHN adds: These observations are very interesting. To the extent that Eisenhower was expressing concern about an unholy alliance between Big Government and Big Business, he was prescient. Today, we can add Big Labor to that alliance. It is easy to imagine that Eisenhower’s experience with national socialism may have contributed to his understanding of the proper roles of the public and private sectors.


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