You will please regard this not as a political commentary, but a cultural one. Recently I had cause to read the farewell address of President Dwight Eisenhower given on January 17, 1961 shortly before the Inauguration of the new President, John Kennedy.
Looking backwards in history there seemed to be some prophetic, if you will, insights that he made and I would care to draw your attention to them and comment briefly. I have quoted various snippets of the speech, you will find a video of the full speech linked below.
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.
Do we not see the inherent link made by this president, like so many before him, between authentic freedom and religion. It has been, up until now, the undying assertion of American leadership the the authentic search for freedom is tied up in the authentic search for the Divine.
We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.
Again, only repeated in the negative sense, the clear assertion of the danger of atheistic character. Obviously he is referring to the Soviet Union with this line but, tied with the line above the opposition between the two is clear.
Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.
Here is the warning against false messianism, the notion that we can become our own savior, that something or things we can do will bring an end to all ills.
We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations. Now 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 Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.
Do we not see this in our own time, a huge and unquestioned military budget exists without comment in this nation. No one would question the need for the greatest military in the world to protect this nation. But, while the need is not questioned, does that mean that no other questions should be asked either?
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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.
Yet we take so many things for granted. The Federal government can suspend habeus corpus, a citizen can be indefinitely detained, your phone can be tapped, your correspondence monitored, why the President even has the legal authority to order the assassination of American citizens. We object so little as to be no objection at all.
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.
Witness the utter triumph of utilitarianism that serves the means of the state. Knowledge is not pursued for the sake of knowledge nor even to the mere betterment of mankind but, ultimately, to serve the ends dictated by the state.
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.
Should the NSA listen to your phone conversations? Should Google keep all of your information on file forever? Should Intel record every keystroke of your computer? Should whatever federal organization have access to your information at the drop of a hat? Who cares?! We can do it, so we should. Plus, these technological people are so much smarter and more advanced than you so quit wasting time asking these silly questions.
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.
“Insolvent phantom of tomorrow” Wow, that’s a line, if ever there was one. Does Eisenhower see something in the future? Is this a warning or merely a comment and encouragement?
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. . . Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.
Ideas, solid ideas and experience, a knowledge of the human person, of the world in which he lives and the desire for the good of all must drive our discourse. Certainly Eisenhower is talking about something different from the current political landscape but does he not address, inadvertently, the cultural and philosophical landscape of our time? How much we talk at each other and shout past each other. There is an anger in the air that leads people to combat, to fight. The fight is no holds barred and only one man left standing. Yet this puts civilization at risk. It is time for the end of this mere emotionalism that is so regnant in social discourse and philosophy. It is time for virtue to regain its foothold and the intellect to assert its rights.
Let me finish with an early line from President John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, which was given only three days after Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.
For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
The human person and the Divinity cannot be separated nor can one oppose the Other. It is only in reference to the transcendent God that the rights of man can be observed and only through a true fear of God will they be respected. Atheistic humanism is a myth, politically, economically and socially. It will always lead to a tyranny and abuse, perhaps technocratic, perhaps utilitarian, perhaps military, perhaps economic, perhaps social, usually a combination of those. This has long been asserted by the leaders of our nation and we might be reminded to assert it still.
This, of course, means that we do not give in to a militarily dominated mindset. It means we do not bend the knee to technology, much less the technocrats. We do not live our lives only for ourselves but for the other and for the future. We love all things in their place and respect all people as we should. But we do no deny the rights of God nor His Creation for if we do, we will only end up denying the rights of man as well.