Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

To prophesy against one’s country

How courage and cowardice can coexist in one personality

It reads like the introduction to a novel of the fantastic: While cleaning out his boathouse, the son of a presidential speechwriter unearths boxes that prove to contain early drafts of the most controversial speech the former president ever gave: the one in which he dared denounce, near the end of his last term in office, the dominant power of his country, and the author of his fortunes. For Dwight David Eisenhower was the US’ commanding general in World War II, and it was his military record that propelled him into office.

Pres. Dwight David Eisenhower

Pres. Dwight David Eisenhower: the second coming of Cassandra?
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But in a novel, the president would have mysteriously died before he could deliver the speech, and what was found in it would shake the world. In reality, Eisenhower did deliver the speech, but vacillated afterward and permitted it to fade more or less into obscurity.

Why did this happen? Why did Eisenhower wait until his farewell address to tell the country of the deadly dangers in store for it from the military-industrial complex? And why did he not follow up the speech with concrete actions, or at least consistently defend and amplify upon it?

To be a prophet is not easy; it is said that a prophet is never honored in his own country and his own time. And surely the experience of those who have testified against their own people has been daunting. Great courage is required to sustain the role, and real people are compounded of a complex blend of courage and cowardice, and will waver when they ought to stand fast.

In Eisenhower we find a man who was better able than almost anyone of his day to apprehend the threat posed by the ascendance of the military precisely because he was a career soldier before he ran for president: He knew the military-industrial complex as a senior insider who had observed it from within for a lifetime as it grew and drained ever more of America’s resources. But he didn’t merely observe: He was an active part of it, and among his closest friends and confidants were many businessmen and soldiers whose livelihoods depended upon it.

It is therefore unsurprising that Ike was a reluctant prophet. Indeed, he cultivated a reputation for speaking vaguely and inarticulately, although a few chroniclers did perceive that he could turn “the fog machine,” as one historian phrased it, off and on at will. As long as he had something to lose, as long as his political effectiveness depended on the support of such confidants, he therefore remained prudently — or cravenly — silent about what he had come to recognize; thus, his public pronouncements until the end of his career were mostly euphonious verbal fog.

But that a prophet hesitates to deliver his warning need not vitiate the warning, and does not relieve those who hear it of the obligation to heed it. In this case, a prophet has stood forth and warned us, however belatedly, and if we as a nation fail to change our course and come to grief because of it, the fault will not be Ike’s but ours.

Originally published as a review of a article on Dwight David Eisenhower’s best-remembered speech.

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