A Presidential Speech

With presidential primaries occurring and the incumbent retiring, it is a good time to study a particular presidential speech, one delivered on the 17th of January.  A short speech, it took around fifteen minutes for the President to deliver.  A part commentators seem to have missed requires close attention:


[There] has been the technological revolution during recent decades.  In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly.  A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.  In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research.  Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.  For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.  The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.


The President’s concern bears careful pondering.  Just as some cynics assume every politician is bought and paid for by a couple of major campaign donors, so do others assume that scientists are in the back pocket of whoever gives them a grant.  Just as some people wonder whether the federal government manipulates scientific research, others distrust what the President called “a scientific-technological elite.”

As the President indicated, that elite resides primarily in universities.  The President effectively called out that elite, saying that he has been aware of the danger from gurus of science and technology, especially academics, forming a clique to dominate society.  Apparently the President was worrying about a kind of Gnosticism, esoteric knowledge open to only a few initiates.

If these presidential concerns and warnings do not sound familiar, it could be because that part of the speech, coming roughly ten minutes into it, got overlooked.  After all, by that point in a speech or sermon, nearly everyone’s attention wanders.  Besides, few people can remember every bit of a political speech.  Students used to have to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but committing to memory anything beyond a password seems to have gone out of vogue.

Another reason this presidential speech could be eluding anyone’s memory is that it was delivered to the nation on 17 January, 1961.  This speech is generally known as the Farewell Address of President Dwight Eisenhower.  In the paragraph before the three quoted above is what has become the most famous line of the speech:  “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

That line seems to be the only one people recall from this brief presidential speech.  Nevertheless, a few paragraphs earlier, near the beginning of the speech, President Eisenhower said:


Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations.  To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.  Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice, would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world.  It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings.  We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.


These remarks stand between Woodrow Wilson’s ideal that “the world must be made safe for democracy” and Ronald Reagan describing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as “an evil empire.”

Because of this threat to American security and freedom, President Eisenhower insisted that America’s armed forces remain strong.  “A vital element in keeping the peace,” he said, “is our military establishment.”  Therefore, he went on, “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”  Eisenhower’s caution regarding “the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex” must be read in this context.

Notice that he spoke of “unwarranted influence.”  For America to stay vigilant and militarily prepared, there must be close co-operation between the federal government and the industries making weapons for the military to use in the national defense.  Those industries benefit from the research of scientists and the inventions of experts in technology, makers of those “hundreds of new electronic computers” replacing the blackboard.

In this speech President Eisenhower used the word “balance” ten times.  Rhetorically he balanced his wariness of “unwarranted influence” acquired by “the military-industrial complex,” with uneasiness about such influence being wielded by the “scientific-technological elite.”

Eisenhower gave this final speech as President not only to the country at large, but also as public advice to his successor.  Three days after this speech, John F. Kennedy took the oath of office and was inaugurated as the next President.  Kennedy was twenty-seven years younger than Eisenhower, and necessarily he brought to the presidency that much less life experience.

In the paragraph after President Eisenhower warned that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite,” he made an observation that was the older generation speaking to the younger.  “It is the task of statesmanship,” he said, “to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system, ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

In the popular imagination Eisenhower beams as a genial, grandfatherly presence, amiable but dim.  During his eight years in office, so the mythology goes, he passively presided over Americans getting on with their lives, an era of domestic prosperity amid the tensions of the Cold War, tensions ably conjured with by his wily but grim Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  Eisenhower’s Farewell Address reminds us of his shrewd and resolute character:  Grandfather, a retired general, staring down the unruly kids.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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