Twenty-five years later they are still analyzing and assessing it, which may be just exactly what Dwight D. Eisenhower intended.
"My grandfather hoped he'd say something important on the night of January 17, 1961," Eisenhower's grandson David told a black-tie crowd last night at a salute to the late president on the anniversary of his farewell speech.
Today it's called his "military-industrial complex speech," an address he made from the Oval Office over nationwide television that has spurred debate among professional and amateur historians ever since.
It took Ike only 17 minutes to deliver his talk, but last night, to his followers in a three-year-old organization called Business Executives for National Security Education Fund Inc. (BENS), what it lacked in length it more than made up for in prophecy.
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," Eisenhower said from a giant screen in a replay of the old TV footage. "The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society."
He went on to warn that "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."
So it was, then, that much of last night's tribute was devoted to explaining just what Ike meant. The dinner's keynoter, Thomas J. Watson Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, said he wasn't condemning the military-industrial complex.
"Ike liked and respected businessmen; thoroughly valued their contributions to the country; and recognized the necessity -- for the first time in our history -- of a large and efficient national arms industry," IBM's chairman emeritus told the crowd of 500 dining in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Stanley A. Weiss, president of BENS, said Ike wasn't trying to "score ideological points . . . any more than George Washington was in his farewell address . . . He noted that we were 'compelled to create' the military-industrial complex but, characteristically, he called on us to keep its enormous latent power in balance."
Ike's challenge, as Weiss saw it, was that "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry . . . compel the proper meshing" of industrial-military machinery of defense with peaceful methods and goals.
Weiss said during cocktails that he pondered that "challenge" of seeking checks and balances, and the result was the formation of BENS. "We want to redefine national security, the way Ike did 30 years ago." Of the Reagan administration's defense spending, he said, "We have a feeling that more is not necessarily better. We feel we should freeze it for a year while we take a look at how the Pentagon is managing. We have a three-year program, and we hope the questions we are going to raise will be used in the campaign this year and three years from now."
David Eisenhower, talking earlier about his grandfather's speech, said he thought the theme was "not antiprogress or that we're going to stop all these things or panacea ideas, panaceas to the effect that to permit this complex to function is to surrender liberties.
"I think what he was saying was this is here and the adventure, the American experiment, has to adapt and take all of this into account, recognizing that American democracy is functioning under new circumstances."
Actually, David Eisenhower continued, the early versions of that speech -- "you can see the drafts on file in Abilene" at the Eisenhower Museum -- had a much harder line. He said the emphasis shifted away from getting into an argument with his successor, John Kennedy, to something more reflective.
David Eisenhower found those drafts, including Ike's handwritten corrections, while researching the first of a projected three volumes on his grandfather, "Eisenhower at War," to be published later this year by Random House.
Julie Nixon Eisenhower, David's wife, took the train yesterday afternoon from Philadelphia so she could join him at the tribute. From Union Station, she went to the hospital bedside of Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon's former secretary, who is recovering from lung surgery.
"She's doing great," reported Julie. She also brought progress reports on her parents, both of whom were hospitalized briefly in Florida with flu but have since returned home to New Jersey.
Milling in the bipartisan crowd around the Eisenhowers and his sister Susan were Sens. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and John Warner (R-Va.), Reps. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.) and Denny Smith (R-Ore.), former CIA director Stansfield Turner and veteran presidential candidate Harold Stassen.
"If we can have another 100 years without blowing the world up, I think history will look increasingly at the 1955 summit meeting in Geneva as the turning point," said Stassen. "Eisenhower's the one who proposed opening up the skies. He talked plainly about what a nuclear war would mean."
"If this administration was smart," said Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.), "they'd hire Harold Stassen for just one month."
Dale Bumpers said he has a speech in which Eisenhower figures prominently. The Arkansas senator said there is a whole group of people who were willing to level with the public when they left office. "What a great thing it would have been for this country if Eisenhower had made that speech at his first inaugural."
Susan Eisenhower presented the Eisenhower Tribute awards to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), shipping executive J. Peter Grace and The Atlantic Editor James Fallows. Master of ceremonies was CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.