This week, we had the annual rite known as the State of the Union. Less a statement of our union, it’s really a speech that highlights a president’s objectives. State of the Union speeches like those at an inaugural ceremony are examined by historians for decades. I began to understand how these speeches are the basis for a presidency from a great book I recently read on President Dwight D. Eisenhower by Jean Edward Smith, “Eisenhower in War and Peace.” It is a largely a positive book about Eisenhower. Smith cites many speeches Eisenhower made during his presidency and examines his follow-through actions.
The speeches were amazing. If President Barack Obama had made these declarations in speeches, the Republicans would have had apoplexy. We all have heard about Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” remarks during his farewell speech, but few have heard many of his remarks before that speech. Smith supplies us with the speeches he made, and they are shocking coming from a president and general who was a Republican.
In his first State of the Union speech, he brought up the defense budget and discussed the need prevent the country from going into more debt. Eisenhower said “to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.” That same year he gave another speech saying defense policy “cannot consist of sudden, blind responses to a series of fire alarm emergencies.” He was not afraid to overrule his joint chiefs, and he also said, “If we demand too much in taxes in order to build planes and ships, we will tend to dry up the accumulations of capital that are necessary to provide jobs for the millions of workers we must absorb each year.” Can you imagine the reaction if any of these remarks had been uttered by President Obama or even President Clinton?
Outgoing President Eisenhower made his famous remark about the military industrial complex during his farewell speech. It is the context he made it in that is even more jarring. His famous remark was, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” What has been overlooked in that same speech is what he said about the related military industries: “Three-and-a-half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development.” I can’t even imagine the 24-hour news cycle if Obama dared to utter these words.
Those of us who grew up mid-century will not give much of the civil rights credit to Dwight Eisenhower. But according to Smith, he was tough as nails about making sure that the law was filed and that he could end discrimination where he could. Perhaps, he did not use as much political capital as he could have or should have, but his record stands given the test of time.
In his first State of the Union speech shortly after he took office in 1953, he said, “I propose to use whatever authority exists in the office of the president to end segregation in the District of Columbia, including the federal government and segregation in the armed forces.”
The weeks later at a press conference on March 19, he said, “Wherever federal funds are expended, I do not see how any American can justify a discrimination in the expenditure of those funds.” He then desegregated the schools on military bases 15 months before Brown v. Board of Education. He desegregated hospitals run by the Veterans Administration and appointed federal judges who opposed segregation.
Perhaps one of the best decisions he made with regard to ending segregation happened after he met with Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas. Eisenhower requested the meeting concerning Faubus using the Arkansas National Guard at Central High School of Brown v Board of Education fame. He felt Gov. Faubus did not keep his personal promise to him. Then President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne, sending in 500 troops to let the black students into school. As if this is not enough, he addresses the nation that night and said, “Our enemies are gloating over this incident.” It was a brilliant move to put segregation into an international context.
Eisenhower was far from perfect. The CIA led him down a path of dumping two elected governments, Guatemala and also Iran. We are still suffering from what happened in Iran. No one is perfect for sure, but if President Obama attempted to do what President Eisenhower did while he was president, the right wing would call for his impeachment. People would do well to pay attention to history. It might help unite us and stop the crazy rancor and predictable partisan behavior we saw at this year’s State of the Union.