Setting the record straight on Eisenhower, civil rights, and the “military-industrial” complex

Eisenhower with civil rights leaders

This photo believed to date between 1953-1955 shows Eisenhower at the White House with civil rights leaders of the day. From left to right: Channing Tobias, Arthur Spingarn, Eisenhower, Clarence Mitchell, Walter White, and Theodore Spaulding. (Library of Congress digital collection)

Americans may not know much about their own history, or how the government actually works, but many know a phrase from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address.

How many times have you heard the phrase, the “military-industrial complex”? And how many times have you heard claims that Lyndon Baines Johnson was the first president to act on civil rights?

What you have heard is skewed.

I see myriad statements on social media, just as some I saw yesterday, that create false impressions, usually for simple purposes of partisan politics. I see major newspapers create false impressions as well, such as when The L.A. Times praised Democrats like Johnson for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, celebrating that year as the benchmark for future anniversaries of civil rights in general.

Eisenhower happens to be one of my favorite presidents. So this is my attempt to set the record straight on some important things he said and did.

By the time he delivered his farewell address to America on January 17, 1961, Eisenhower had capably steered the U.S. through a time of technological and cultural change as well as statehood for Hawaii and Alaska.

Although most American schoolchildren probably aren’t taught about it, Eisenhower had also steered the United States towards civil rights in a continuation of the Republican Party’s commitment to emancipation. LBJ, whom historians and media often praise today, had obstructed civil rights.

The Republican National Committee directly chastised Johnson for that obstruction in a letter dated August 6, 1957. The letter cited the House of Representatives and the president for “formulating a decent and fair Civil Rights Bill.” Val J. Washington, Director of Minorities for the GOP, wrote about how Democrats in the Senate dealt with the bill:

“This bill, which was meant to protect the voting rights of many millions of Negroes in Southern states and to guarantee their rights under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, was emasculated by the adroit handling of you with the other Democrat leaders.”

Johnson did eventually come around to civil rights, evidenced by passage of the 1964 Act. He didn’t become a champion of rights because of clarity of conscience. He did so purely because of politics.

The 1964 Act would probably not have come to fruition had it not been for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such Act since the Civil War era. Documents about the act are featured online in government archives via the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Eisenhower wanted a stronger Act, but politics held it up:

“In 1957, President Eisenhower sent Congress a proposal for civil rights legislation. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The new act established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote. It also established a federal Civil Rights Commission with authority to investigate discriminatory conditions and recommend corrective measures. The final act was weakened by Congress due to lack of support among the Democrats.”

If you want to celebrate an anniversary for civil rights action in the government, start with 1957. That year was the first step towards subsequent bills.

Eisenhower wasn’t just concerned about the freedom of one particular group of Americans. He had serious concerns about freedom for all of us. Parts of his famous Farewell Speech echo what many libertarian leaning Republicans like me believe.

Eisenhower did caution about the familiar “military-industrial complex.” But he didn’t stop there. The speech is so dense you almost cannot truncate it.

The president cautioned about communism—“a hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” He offered a visionary warning—the danger “promises to be of indefinite duration.”

The president who had served the country he loved for half a century in various capacities also had a tea party moment. He spoke in that farewell about:

“[T]need to maintain balance in and among national programs—balance between the private and public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage—balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

Eisenhower also cautioned on government-indoctrinated research.

He acknowledged the reason the government had assumed so much of the responsibility for research involved the “huge costs.” He noted that “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

Again, he warned about the potential in that complex—“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.” How prescient, considering the government-created corporate global warming complex of today.

Eisenhower didn’t stop with that. He cautioned us to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” He said we shouldn’t “mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

Eisenhower covered much ground in a compact speech, but he foresaw many of the problems we confront today.

By the time he left office, Eisenhower’s approval rating was at 65 percent. That is second only to President John F. Kennedy’s rating.

Despite his successes, Eisenhower criticized himself for something he hoped to achieve but could not. He was happy that another war was at present being avoided, but he also said, “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

Eisenhower closed by saying this:

“You and I—my fellow citizens—need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice.”

By the time he walked away from the podium, most Americans still admired Eisenhower. Little did Americans know that his departure marked the beginning of times that would gradually grow tumultuous and significantly worsen during the misguided regime of LBJ after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Eisenhower’s speech was about far more than warning Americans about the military-industrial buildup, and his cautions, had they been heeded, might have saved us a great deal of treasure and might have prevented the significant losses of personal freedom we are experiencing today.

(Commentary by Kay B. Day/July 11, 2014)

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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.

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2 Responses to Setting the record straight on Eisenhower, civil rights, and the “military-industrial” complex

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