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Published: Saturday, 1/15/2011

Eisenhower, JFK speeches worth reading

This week, America marks the 50th anniversary of the greatest inaugural address of the post-World War II era: John F. Kennedy's stirring call to action, sacrifice, and conscience, a speech remembered for his exhortation that Americans "ask not what your country can do for you."

But this is also the 50th anniversary of a remarkable speech of an entirely different sort, Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address to the American people after a half century of service as a military officer and chief executive, a moment remembered for three words that have persisted in the American memory and debate: "military-industrial complex."

Today, those who toss that phrase around often do not know its provenance as the worried reflection of the man who led American forces in Europe and North Africa, oversaw the D-Day invasion, served as supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II, and later was supreme commander of NATO.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," Mr. Eisenhower said. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Mr. Eisenhower's remarks came as he was stepping away from the presidency in the wake of what seemed a growing Communist threat. Soviet forces had invaded Hungary in 1956. The Russians had placed a satellite, and then a dog, in space in 1957. Tensions had continued to build, culminating in the embarrassing downing of an American U-2 spy plane in 1960.

It was against this background that Mr. Eisenhower noted that for the first time, the United States was spending more than the total income of all American corporations on the military. This, he said, represented an important cultural shift.

"We recognize the imperative need for this development," Mr. Eisenhower said. "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. "

Mr. Eisenhower's farewell and Mr. Kennedy's inaugural address are often regarded as separate set-pieces: one the reflections of an aged statesman, the other a summons to arms and idealism from a representative of a new generation of leadership. But from the distance of a half century the two speeches make us question our historical memories, which often paint Mr. Eisenhower as the steely pragmatist and Mr. Kennedy as the dreamy romantic.

Today, the two speeches look more like two sides of a fateful argument, one suggesting that the arming of America was out of control and a threat to the domestic purity of the nation, the other suggesting that Americans would "pay any price, bear any burden" to prevail against a monstrous tyranny bent on world domination and posing a mortal threat to the very values of which Mr. Eisenhower spoke only a few days earlier.

Some time ago, Peter Canellos, the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, approached Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen and noted that perhaps the two most famous speeches of the past 50 years occurred within days of each other. Mr. Sorensen, who died in October, frowned and snapped: "That farewell address wasn't a great speech at all," adding, "Oh, it had one memorable line …"

In truth, the speeches form an incomparable pairing: insight from the old paired with idealism from the young. We could use a little bit of that right now.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com

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