Why I Still Like IkeHistorians/History
William Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2005, having taught at the Air Force Academy as well as the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and History News Network. This piece originally appeared at the Huffington Post.
The ongoing controversy over the national memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower provides us with an opportunity to recall Ike's legacy and his deeper meaning to America. Ike was of course a national hero, the supreme allied commander who led the assault at D-Day on June 6, 1944 and who later served as president during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His legacies are many and profound, from ending the Korean War to the interstate highway system that bears his name to advancing civil rights to creating the space program to the establishment of the department of health, education and welfare.
As important as Ike's deeds were to our country, in some way his words were (and are) even more important, especially in this time of constant war and bloated budgets for "defense" and our burgeoning trade in deadly weaponry.
Ike was a citizen-soldier first and foremost, not a warrior or warfighter, and like the citizen-soldiers of World War II he came to hate war. This is not to say that Ike was a pacifist. He believed in a strong defense and intervened in countries such as Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, Formosa, and South Vietnam, in order in his words to prevent "communist efforts to dominate" these countries. And we may certainly question the legality as well as the wisdom of these "wars in the shadows," especially with respect to Iran and Vietnam.
But let us focus on Ike's words—his lessons to America. Grossly underestimated by intellectuals who were deceived by his amiable public demeanor and his love of golf (with its country-club associations), Ike was a fine writer and a deep thinker who thoroughly understood the American heartland—and the American heart.
Any memorial to Ike should seek to capture the wisdom of his words and how they struck to the very core of the American (and human) experience. It should confront us with his words and encourage us to contemplate their meaning in a setting conducive to reflection and reconsideration.
First, let's consider what Ike said about war. In a speech at the Canada Club in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 1946, Ike stated:
"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
Let all Americans pause and reflect on the hard-earned wisdom of that statement before plotting our next military intervention.
Second, let's consider what Ike said about the true cost of spending on military weaponry. In remarks prepared for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953, Ike declared that:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Third, let's consider Ike's final warning upon leaving office in 1961 about the dangers of a growing "military-industrial complex" to democracy and freedom in America. In his words:
The 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.
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. 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.
Ike's tersely prophetic words are rarely heard in American political discourse today. Indeed, his avowed hatred of war, his condemnation of the deadly weapons trade as contrary to human values, his warning about an emergent military-industrial complex with the power to threaten our liberties, would likely be dismissed in this year's election season, whether by mainstream Democrats or Republicans, as the ravings of a left-wing, weak-kneed, liberal.
All the more reason why these words need to be enshrined in a national memorial to Eisenhower.
One more lesson Ike can impart to us: the virtue of humility. In spite of his immense accomplishments, Ike remained a humble man. Doubtless this humility stemmed from his upbringing, but so too did it come from his military service. As he himself wrote, "Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends."
In this age of American exceptionalism, in which our nation touts its "generation of heroes" and boasts of its unrivaled military power, Ike's words remind us that humility is far more becoming a man and a nation.
Even the most powerful nation may fall if it loses itself in its own celebratory braggadocio. Ike knew this, and if despite his efforts such a fate had happened on his watch, he doubtless would have taken full responsibility. Consider here the words Ike prepared in case the D-Day attack had failed on June 6, 1944. This was what Ike was prepared to say:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Fortunately for history, Ike never had to say those words. Left unsaid, they nevertheless live on as an example of Ike's willingness to bear unselfishly the burden of defeat, even as he humbly bore the laurels of victory.
Whatever final form the national memorial to Ike eventually assumes, I sincerely and fervently hope it enshrines the wisdom, the courage, the humility, the humanity of Ike's words, so desperately do we need these qualities today.
For Ike knew that America's true strength resides not in the size of our arsenals but in the generosity of our spirit.
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