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Riding the Tiger > Category: The Military

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

How Will Hagel Tackle the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower Warned of?

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower's farewell address, showing the phrase:

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower’s farewell address, showing the phrase the address made famous: “military-industrial complex”; the speech was delivered on January 17, 1961. PD

The year was 1961. America’s General was stepping down. In his place, a King readied for coronation. President Eisenhower’s years in the spotlight were at an end.

The composition of JFK’s inaugural was filled with speechwriting lore. The words are immortal. Thus, it comes as no surprise that President Eisenhower’s farewell address, given three days earlier, went largely overlooked.

However, what began as a historical footnote has seen a renaissance.  With each passing year, his words become increasingly prescient. The 29 drafts put in were apparently well worth the effort. Eisenhower began:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

There is certainly nothing surprising in this opening passage, but the tone changes. Eisenhower pivoted to the nexus of his address: military spending. More specifically, he was concerned with a new status quo that had emerged, including under his own leadership, following World War II. Specifically, spending on arms had become entrenched as an economic norm.

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. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

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.”

Presidential Power and the Nuclear State

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. August 1, 1946. Photo Courtesy DOE, PD.

Sixty-seven years ago this week, the United States was the first country (and the only since) to use nuclear weapons in war. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped “Little Boy,” a uranium atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima instantly killing 80,000 to 140,000 people and seriously injuring 100,000 more. Three day laters, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second plutonium atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing over 75,000 people. Although the bombings have been credited with ensuring Japanese surrender and American victory in World War II, the development of the nuclear weapons was also politically significant domestically because it increased the power of the presidency and set a precedent for government secrecy on national security matters. Nuclear weapons development has also been consequential for the rise of the national security state. Finally, the nuclear era raises important Constitutional questions regarding checks and balances of power and compatibility of nuclear weapons in democracy. As we remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, it also worth considering how the development nuclear weapons have altered governing relations in the American state. Given the alterations of Constitutional powers, secrecy and costs borne by citizens, are nuclear weapons compatible with democracy?

Honoring Troops at the White House

Nixon hosts a White House dinner for U.S. troops in 1973.

President Obama’s Leap Day gala for 200 veterans of the Iraq War has invited comparisons to one held nearly 40 years ago at the end of what used to be America’s longest war. 

The black tie dinner Richard Nixon gave 600 newly freed prisoners of North Vietnam remains the biggest one held in White House history. Technically, it was outside the White House beneath an enormous red and gold tent within whose folds glowed chandeliers. The White House had to borrow two refrigerator vans from the army to keep the first course (Supreme of Seafood Neptune) and dessert (strawberry mousse) at precisely 36 degrees. Nixon also served the POWs the biggest names in entertainment. Jimmy Stewart. Bob Hope. John Wayne. 

Nothing was too good for the men he had used so cruelly.