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Eisenhower’s Warning Ignored, Presidential Power Has Risen to Sinister Level

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Posted on Jun 20, 2012
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris

By Bill Boyarsky

By following a warlike path—and getting a free pass from too many progressives—President Barack Obama is making sure that foreign policy will remain in the hands of the military-industrial complex.

Hardly discussed in the presidential campaign is how Obama personally picks targets on a kill list, hugely has increased drone attacks, and wages cyberwarfare against Iran. If these actions had occurred under Bush-Cheney, liberals would have taken to the streets. Instead, the practices are accepted as facts of life, barely worth comment.

The truth is that in the last half century, this kind of presidential power, backed by the military and the arms industry, has been enshrined as permanent policy. And it will continue no matter who wins in November or in future elections. Whoever is in charge, the military, the intelligence spooks and the war industries always seem to co-opt the president.

Jim Newton, an editor at large and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, takes us back to a time when a president wasn’t so easily conned. His excellent book “Eisenhower: The White House Years” should be a handbook for today’s policymakers, who are seduced by the tough talk, intricate communications devices and utter confidence of people who are often wrong.

For me and many others of a certain age, it’s hard to say anything pleasant about the time when Dwight David Eisenhower was president, from 1953 to 1961. Those bland and repressive Cold War years, the time of the Organization Man, were intolerable to anyone who harbored even a bit of rebellion.

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Newton’s view of Eisenhower himself is generally more positive. “He was a good man, one of integrity and decency. But he was not always right. He was too enamored of covert action, and he did not fully appreciate the moral imperatives of civil rights, where his belief in measured progress, the middle way, impeded his sympathy for those who demanded their constitutional rights immediately.” 

Among those covert actions were the Central Intelligence Agency’s overthrowing of the elected governments of Iran and Guatemala. Ike loved such moves. He figured that a war between the United States and the Soviet Union could be prevented through covert operations and the doctrine of massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction, which was based on the theory that the simple existence of huge stores of nuclear weapons, delivery systems and missile defense would stop a conflict. As a result, Americans—and Soviets—lived in constant fear of being destroyed by nuclear missiles.

What makes Newton’s book important reading for the present day is his revealing picture of another side of Eisenhower, the World War II supreme commander in Europe who as president thwarted the constant demand of the generals and the rest of the defense establishment to develop and use battlefield nuclear weapons. “He would not, then or ever, reorient American forces so they might more easily fight a nuclear war,” Newton writes.

With the French losing in Vietnam, Eisenhower’s top military and diplomatic advisers urged him to declare war on China and hit Chinese mainland targets with “new weapons,” obviously of the nuclear kind. Although under fierce political attack from the Republican right, Eisenhower rejected the idea, as he did a military proposal to bomb China over two small islands, Quemoy and Matsu. Trying to pressure China into ending the Korean War, Eisenhower had administration officials tell India that the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons to end the conflict. China quickly got the message and negotiated a truce.

The Eisenhower portrayed by Newton is more of a devotee of brinkmanship than a peacemaker. But because of a long military career, particularly his wartime experience, he could see danger posed by the generals, admirals and intelligence community and their allies in the arms industry. He saw through them.

In his farewell address, Eisenhower warned that this combination reached into “every city, every statehouse, and every office of the federal government.” Then in the most memorable passage of the speech, he said, “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 liberty 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.”

Even in the face of this warning, we have become complacent. A small, insular group of security advisers and State and Defense Department officials, working out of public view and supervised by President Obama, are waging cyberwar in Iran and drone war in other countries. Behind them is a huge commercial apparatus of arms manufacturers, private security and logistics contractors and others who have an economic interest in war. Oversight is impossible; stiff penalties await leakers or whistle-blowers. With the president’s war powers so great, author Newton has done us a good turn by reminding us of Eisenhower’s warning of a threat to liberty and democracy. Like me, a lot of readers have bad memories of the Eisenhower era. This book about the old days should be read for a fresh perspective on American policy today.


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