One of the central focal points of this blog, to a degree from its origins but even more fully as it has developed over these first 230 posts, has been on the numerous and complicated interconnections of and intersections between our national history and identity and our contemporary moments and politics. I obviously believe that there’s a lot to recommend that focus, both in terms of coming to a more accurate understanding of our past and identity and in terms of helping us see our current situation’s contexts and origins and meanings more fully. But there are also potential pitfalls that must be avoided with this—as with any—approach and methodology, and one of the most central is a tendency to view the past through the lens of the present, to perceive particular historical events or figures or issues in relationship to aspects of our own moment.
That tendency is probably particularly hard to avoid when it comes to politicians, especially presidents and especially from the last century or so; of course most people have a sense that the Republican and Democratic parties of (for example) the 1880s were markedly different from those of the 21st century, but the 1950s feel close enough to our own moment that it seems as if the similarities should be stronger. Yet whatever the connections, a closer and more objective examination of the administration of a president like Dwight Eisenhower makes clear that the label “Republican” is far from sufficient to define this figure, his policies, and his legacy. For one thing, Eisenhower was perhaps the textbook definition of a taxer and spender: the top marginal tax rate (the income tax percentage paid by Americans in the top tax bracket) stood at 91% during his administration, and despite efforts by the Republican-led Congress (both Houses) to lower those rates, Eisenhower maintained them; and he did so at least in part to fund a huge spending program, one which most famously included the construction of the interstate highway system and other infrastructure projects, and which overall increased domestic spending from 31% of the budget in 1953 to 49% in 1961. There is of course much more that could be said about both taxes and spending during the era, but certainly neither of those trends match our 21st-century narratives about a Republican presidency.
Even more contrary to many of our political narratives, and perhaps even more salient in its complex way to our current moment and debates, is Eisenhower’s striking and sustained critique of the military-industrial complex (a phrase he coined). He began articulating that critique (at least as President) in 1953’s “Chance for Peace” speech, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors just after Stalin’s death; in that speech he most famously (although perhaps not famously enough) argued 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.” And he concluded his presidency by focusing even more fully on this problem, as it was a central topic of his brief 1961 “Farewell Address”; by this time, as he noted, the US “annually spen[t] on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations,” and Eisenhower expressed the very explicit worry that this military-industrial “combination” could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” One could of course argue that Eisenhower could have done more during his two terms as President to counter that trend, but the fundamental reality was, as it remains, that this military-industrial spending already far outstretched any individual or even governmental ability to reign it in.
At this moment, as our national political leaders continue to debate if and how the debt ceiling should be raised, acknowledging and engaging with these Eisenhower-era details helps us see more clearly on at least three levels. First, despite the Republican’s incessant insistence on drastically cutting spending without raising taxes in the slightest, there is significant and recent precedent for much higher taxes to offset needed federal needing. Second, the one area of the budget that has been consistently ignored by all parties, our military/defense spending, remains an area of deep concern, and one that at least should be included in the conversations. And third, we can and should seek such historical lessons outside of our contemporary visions of politics or party—in at least these particular areas, that is, we on the left can and should strive to be like Ike. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1) A graph charting the top marginal tax rate from the 1920s to the present: http://politics.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977623449
2) The “Chance for Peace” speech: http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3357
3) The “Farewell Address”: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm
4) OPEN: What do you think?
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