What Eisenhower could teach the Tea Party

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Fifty years ago this month, on January 17, 1961, outgoing U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made one of the truly memorable presidential speeches of all time. Through his justly celebrated farewell address, Eisenhower wanted to alert his fellow Americans to two great dangers threatening public life in the Republic. For the first time in its history, the U.S. was home to a permanent arms industry. Allied with the military, this newly created military-industrial complex constituted a menace of "unwarranted influence" over U.S. decisions on momentous issues of war and peace, and for the structure of American society itself.

The phrase "military-industrial society" coined in that speech worked its way into public language as a synonym for "the-powers-that-be." Establishing a causal link between the military and industrial war-making capacity, and together influencing decisions taken by political actors on military spending and war-making, opened so many serious questions, that the second warning issued by Eisenhower was easy to overlook. Eisenhower extolled the virtues of scientific research, but was concerned that within universities, "intellectual curiosity" was being replaced as the driving force of research by "government contracts."

Before being elected U.S. president in 1952, Ike was a military man. He joined the U.S. Army in 1911 and rose to become supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe by the end of World War II. He understood the military mind and grew to fear the relationship between war, industry, and politics. In his address he referred to four wars involving major powers already in the first half of the century, (Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05, two world wars, the Korean War) and the participation of the U.S. in three of them.

After the war, Eisenhower had been president of Columbia University, so he also had direct experience with the pressures the outside world could bring to bear on the Academy. It is the capture of the supposedly independent, objective minds of the American scientific establishment by the military-industrial complex that warrants greater consideration today.

Mainstream social science mostly neglected analysis of the horrendous implications a growing military-industrial-university complex had for U.S. and world politics, leaving the useful work to distinguished dissidents such as Seymour Melman, who wrote about the permanent war economy. Many social scientists joined the Cold War party being organized by the Rand Institute and other Cold War idea factories. 

Renowned economists argued decisions were made by markets outside the influence of any industrial entity, however large and influential; high-profile political scientists concentrated on voter "behavior," as if the citizenry ruled. The ever present pressure to conform ruled the career aspirations of ambitious new entrants to academic life. In the U.S., it was mainly radical sociologists working in the tradition of C. Wright Mills who went on to explore the issues raised in Eisenhower's farewell address.

The most celebrated of all American dissenters, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, once described Eisenhower's views as "appropriate" but limited. The military-industrial complex is the core of the American economy, said Chomsky, whose perspective on American society, like that brought forward by Eisenhower, highlights economic influence over politics.

Chomsky sees American capitalists dominating political decision making, and calls "state" capitalism that which his MIT colleagues help develop in their laboratories on government contracts and which giant corporations then turn into monopoly profits. In his landmark contribution (with Edward S. Herman) Chomsky explained how media "manufacture consent" for the contemporary military industrial complex.

Notably, Eisenhower left out of his address the American overthrow of the democratic governments of Iran (1953), and Guatemala (1954) -- events that occurred when he was president. The invasion of Cuba, authorized by his successor, John F. Kennedy, was being planned by his government as he spoke. The invasion of Vietnam, the assassination of President Allende of Chile and the overthrow of his democratic government, the invasion of Grenada, the two invasions of Iraq, and the invasion of Afghanistan were to follow the address.

As well as writing and speaking about, and protesting of all the above, Chomsky ably documented the atrocities committed by the American military in East Timor, the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. In The Radical Intellectual he reflects back on how his youthful encounter with critical thought inspired and motivated his subsequent work.

Notwithstanding the gap between deeds and words, Eisenhower's farewell address is worth reading today. In its invocation of noble American goals, the contrast with current Republican discourse could not be more evident. It is hard to imagine a Tea Party candidate citing Ike to the effect the world: "must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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