Today marks the 55th anniversary of a world-historical speech by the last victorious military commander to occupy the White House: President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower. His last speech while in office holds crucial implications for the U.S. today, as well as the history we celebrate tomorrow, on Martin Luther King Day.
President Eisenhower's prescient warning appears poignant as we celebrate the memory of a hero targeted by the military-industrial complex that Ike helped create and grew to fear.
Ike served in World War II as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe before becoming President. He helped encourage an industrial mobilization that enabled the U.S. to liberate Europe and defend democracy from the global threat of fascism, but he expressed concerns about its future consequences.
In his departing address to the American people before leaving the White House, President Eisenhower described the necessity of creating a defense industry intertwined with secret government agencies, while predicting—in no uncertain terms—that they would together come to present a threat to democracy in America. Ike said:
[W]e can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions….
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 State house, every office of the Federal government….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.
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. (emphasis added)
With the benefit of 55 years of hindsight, Ike appears more prescient than Nostradamus.
Few issues better embody the threat to democracy posed by the military-industrial complex than mass NSA surveillance, which continues despite widespread criticism and protest.
We continue to challenge unconstitutional domestic spying in the courts. But years after we filed our first challenge, however, we are still seeking crucial rulings. Some legal decisions have vindicated widespread concerns about the emergence of “almost Orwellian” systems of domestic spying, but others have unfortunately allowed those programs to continue.
Mass surveillance has also forced attention from the executive branch. President Obama promised surveillance reform when running for the White House, writing a campaign pledge in 2008 to support “any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.” Once in office, he commissioned a review group to issue recommendations, but the administration then declined to adopt most of those recommendations, falling short of the president’s campaign promise.
Meanwhile, Congress last year imposed the first restrictions in two generations on U.S. intelligence agencies, but just months later embraced new surveillance measures. And it enacted both sets of laws before ever conducting an independent investigation to uncover crucial facts such as how many Americans have been monitored by the NSA, or how many times the system has been abused by people using the government’s powerful tools for their disturbing personal purposes.
This last point is important, because on the few occasions that it has examined the intelligence agencies, Congress has discovered recurring violations of constitutional rights. Shining a light on such violations has led to essential limits on the agencies’ powers.
Historically, the most significant congressional investigation was in the 1970s, when ad hoc committees convened in the Senate under Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and the House under Rep. Otis Pike (D-NY) revealed what the U.S. Senate in 1976 described as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the legitimate exercise the First Amendment rights of speech and association…."
What Congress had uncovered was known within U.S. intelligence agencies as the Counter-Intelligence Programs, or COINTELPRO. It was a well-kept secret until a group of antiwar activists in Philadelphia literally broke into an FBI office to take and copy files that had long remained secret.
The most prolific target of unconstitutional surveillance during this era was a figure whose memory we celebrate with a national holiday tomorrow, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His example, involving not only surveillance, but also a character assassination campaign and a coordinated attempt to drive him to suicide, should serve as a stark reminder to anyone today who thinks that because they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about.
The Snowden revelations should have sparked the same outrage that drove the Church and Pike committees to investigate and reveal COINTELPRO. They still could, if Congress finally does its job and investigates the issues that Snowden and other whistleblowers have raised.
In 2016, a decade and a half since the beginning of the mass surveillance regime, a robust congressional investigation still has yet to happen.
We have a great deal to learn from President Eisenhower's prescient warning. His final speech as President appears increasingly poignant, particularly as we celebrate the memory of an international hero who was targeted by parts of the military-industrial complex that Ike helped create and grew to fear.