A former general’s general warning

On January 17, 1961, then president Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his last address to America.

It was televised, but I doubt if I watched it. It’s even less likely that any of today’s readers did.

Eisenhower, not known for emotional or stimulating speeches, employed his usual understated style and calm demeanor to warn us. America, he said, had never been in the armaments business, only producing them when wars demanded it. He knew that such a philosophy was ending, that the stockpiling of weapons had, by Cold-War necessity, begun.. But he was uneasy about it and gave this oft-quoted warning:

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 should never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberty or democratic processes. (The italics are mine.)

Eisenhower was not a lifelong politician with a distrust for the military: he was a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II, and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe—two accomplishments that hardly make a dent in his résumé. He is still regarded as one of our most brilliant tactical minds. The warning he offered that night has often been restated, and I thought of it Monday as our new president read his teleprompter speech to a gathering of troops at Fort Myer, Virginia.

We now have that leadership vacuum that Eisenhower presaged, and subsequently, the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.

Most Americans felt a sense of relief when the seemingly sane General John Kelly became White House Chief of Staff. We were able to exhale a little even with North Korea’s threats because we knew that General James Mattis was our Secretary of Defense. And with General James McMaster as our National Security Advisor…well, you get the general picture.

But lest we forget…in 1975 Three Days of the Condor showed moviegoers what a military takeover looked like. It was subtle, clandestine, internecine, murderous. Yes it was fiction, as was the novel it was based upon; but here in 2017 the leadership vacuum that Trump has engendered in the White House leaves us open to real conspiracies. What’s more, we’re even more vulnerable because we have a president entirely ignorant of the possibility. I don’t doubt that Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster are good men and fine Americans, but this country was never intended to be run by the military. That’s why we have elections and vote into office men and women who have studied government, statesmanship, and diplomacy—people who understand those intricacies.

Last year though we elected a president who shows no knowledge of intricacies and doesn’t seem capable of ever grasping them. And that fact has opened the door for exactly what Eisenhower worried about fifty-six years ago. Let’s hope that the men to whom our political leadership has abdicated its authority are worthy of steering the country in some reasonable direction, one that doesn’t involve tanks, planes, and soldiers.

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