by Michael Hall
What is it when you think of the Fifties? I think of an era of high ideals mirrored in every facet of American life. I think of an era full of nice cars, nice music, and just a nice and prosperous outlook on life. But things did change. The beginning of the new decade brought those prospects crashing down with the events playing out on the world stage. It was during this transitory period that the leadership of America shifted, and the future was uncertain. In his last speech to the American public on the eve of his final day in office, President Dwight E. Eisenhower delivered his Farewell Address. Seeing what was going on in the world, and having a good eye for what was likely to happen in the future, the exiting President used his speech as a platform to warn and, at the same time, comfort the Nation. We will examine this speech in terms of purpose, authorship, audience, agency, and context to develop a greater understanding of why this is one of the most memorable speeches in history.
On the surface, the national address may appear to simply be a farewell speech; however, upon deeper analysis it becomes clear that the purpose is much more complex. After thanking the media, and giving Congress his gratitude for their close relationship over the years, Eisenhower uses the remainder of his speech to warn his viewers of the dangers he sees in the present system. He specifically identifies two key points. First, he discusses the tremendous growth and sizeable budget of the “military establishment.” He states that the United States “can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense,” and because of this, the country was “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” In response to this change in the American structure, he warns the audience that it is vital to “comprehend its grave implications,” and to guard against such foreseeable disasters such as the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex,” and the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” He further warns:
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.
After this word of caution, Eisenhower begins his second key point: that his audience adopt a wider perspective by not simply dwelling in the present, but to plan for the future. There are three sub-points that compose this second key point: the wise use of resources, the image of the American nation, and the continued effort to disarm nuclear weapons. The resources sub-point is summarized when Eisenhower says: “We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” The image sub-point is overviewed when the President states: “[We] must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” Eisenhower summarizes the disarmament sub-point when he states: “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” So the key points of the dangers of the growing military-industrial complex and the harm of not looking out for the future was the main purpose of Eisenhower’s Farewell address.