Fifty years ago this month, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address as President that famously warned the nation about the “unwarranted influence…by the military industrial complex.” But history has mostly overlooked a second caution in that Jan. 17, 1961 speech that has even greater relevance today.
According to the late Milton S. Eisenhower, the President’s youngest brother and his closest political confidant, Ike was equally concerned about insolvency, the ease with which pressure for government spending can add to the accumulated national debt.
In his televised farewell address, Dwight Eisenhower made this concern clear, “As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.
“We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren,” the President said, “without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
Milton Eisenhower helped write and re-write multiple versions of that speech, as he did many of his brother’s addresses. His initials, “MSE 1 / 7 / 61”, are visible on a draft version just released by the National Archives. The two brothers conferred frequently throughout the Eisenhower Administration, meeting at the White House or at Camp David on most weekends, even using a special telephone line that connected Milton’s office as president of Pennsylvania State University with the Oval Office. One version of the farewell speech was simply titled “commencement.”
In an NPR interview in 1984, the year before he died at the age of 85, Milton recalled that final speech and said his brother was deeply concerned about deficits and debt. Milton said Ike would have been alarmed at the runaway deficits then being accumulated during the administration of his fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan.
“Do you ever take a sleeping pill? You can take one with no trouble,” Milton said. “You can take two with no trouble. You can even go up to three or four. But it you take 20 you’ll be killed. Within hours you’re dead.
“Now, I think the deficit is something like this. You can tolerate a billion. You can tolerate maybe one trillion. But there comes a time when you can’t, and it will kill you. And this is what people are just waving aside.”
Speaking 26 years ago, Milton Eisenhower said, “For the first time, I’m frightened about the fact that we are almost indifferent to some of the things I consider to be most threatening.” At the time of that recorded interview, the national debt stood at $1.5 trillion. And, Milton said he was afraid that the Reagan administration might run up a debt as large as $2.5 trillion if spending continued unchecked.
As it turned out, the Reagan administration left office with a national debt of $2.9 trillion. The George H.W. Bush administration added another $1.4 trillion in just four years and the accumulated national debt rose to $4.4 trillion, at the time a record in American red ink.
Dwight Eisenhower was a 19th Century conservative, according to his biographer, the late Stephen Ambrose. “He thought of deficit spending as almost sinful and immoral, except in wartime.” Eisenhower would almost certainly not have been pleased with the additional $10 trillion in accumulated debt that has been added since the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Clinton administration added another $1.6 trillion to the national debt over eight years, bringing the accumulated debt to $5.8 trillion. Clinton also balanced the federal budget for a year–the only other time that had been done since the Eisenhower Administration.
The George W. Bush administration then took a balanced budget and added another $4.4 trillion to the debt in eight years, a record amount in any single administration so far, bringing the total accumulated debt to $10.4 trillion when Bush left office. Eisenhower would be amazed that $7.5 trillion—more than half of the government’s total accumulated debt—has been added during the last three Republican administrations.
Now, however, the Obama administration may be on its way to setting yet another record. It has added $2.7 trillion to the debt in its first two years, According to projections from the CBO. Today, the accumulated national debt is more than $14 trillion.
Both Dwight and Milton Eisenhower seem to have understood the necessity for acting in a timely way when considering government debts and deficits. In the same paragraph about not becoming the “insolvent phantom of tomorrow,” one of the draft versions edited by Milton includes this telling phrase, “Perhaps the most difficult task in maintaining balance involves the element of time.”
Clearly, the Eisenhower warning we needed to hear even more clearly over these last 50 years is about the nation’s insolvency complex. An alert and knowledgeable citizenry, Ike said, should take nothing for granted.