‘The President’s Parting Shot’: A Reflection on Threats and Resilience

As the media & politics throws up ‘threats’ and moral panics, we really need to focus on what and where the true dangers to our liberties and lifestyle really are

Exactly sixty years ago, President Eisenhower give his ‘farewell address’ to the American nation; known today for popularising the term “military-industrial complex”. Today though this has arguably morphed into the “military-industrial-entertainment complex”, so intermeshed have those arms of modern society become.

His words were prescient; and in the context of the current exiting Republican incumbent of The Whitehouse, liberal and wise.

I wanted to highlight this great but (to our cost) seldom quoted in full speech.

His message though has gone unheeded.

The most oft-quoted section is this:

“In the councils of government, 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.”

The particular phrase which I think too many commentator’s miss is Eisenhower’s proposed check on what he fears:

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”.

I question whether the public have that well-observed readiness; or the fact that if they did the UK or US state would probably class them as a ‘security threat’ and conduct intrusive surveillance upon them – the very kind of threat to our liberties that Eisenhower alluded to.

The speech is also singularly well observed since the ‘military-industrial complex’ part was only one of the threats he outlined. It is often overlooked that he also comments in the same vein on the rise of a ‘technological elite’ – what we would now call ‘technocracy’:

“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 rise of a dominant industrial and technocratic elite was, however, only one of Eisenhower’s future fears. The other:

“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

Again, absolutely spot on. Though the media today wrestle with ecological limits like climate change, and it’s ability to upset the luxurious lifestyle they cherish, the reality is that in the background we have already squandered the resources Eisenhower was concerned about – so close are we to the peaks of production of key industrial minerals.

What the modern world has done, in its pathological (though arguably suicidal) cult of consumption is to infantilise the public, so that they don’t ask such difficult questions about the future. For me, the current warnings of ‘extreme weather’ are a perfect example of this infantilisation; one that threatens to rob society of the resilience it desperately need to deal with the trials of either climate change, or the inevitable collapse of industrial society as it “plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow”.

That’s why I cut the speech to some previously unused video I recorded of a lovely ten mile/five hour walk I had during the ‘Beast from the East’ on 1st March 2018. It was a lovely day, and not at all “extreme” – provided that you are prepared to deal with such things by keeping those skills honed when the opportunity arises.

Sixty years on, Eisenhower’s speech is a stunning example of the wise statesmanship that the “Western, Industrialised, Educated, Rich, and Democratic” (or, ‘WEIRD’) affluent states have seemingly lost. His message went unheeded. Today, if any leading academic or historian (I mean, which politician would?) were to say such a message it would in all likelihood be ignored by the media – so fickle is their ability to assimilate and explain such complex issues about the future of our society.