With the Republicans making off with the Democratic Hall of Fame, with Ronald Reagan quoting John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Jackson and even taking Harry Truman's old train across Ohio, maybe it's time Walter Mondale tried the same trick. There is much wisdom in the speeches of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Of course, Ike is not the perfect icon. Even historians who sing his praises consider his position on both school integration and McCarthyism inexcusable. But no one, as they say, is perfect -- and that includes Truman, Roosevelt and even Scoop Jackson. So bearing that in mind, let us now praise Eisenhower for what he said in the area in which he was both unquestionably wise and knowledgable -- the arms race and its cost.
Eisenhower is best known for his famous warning about the "military-industrial complex." Way before that address, though, Ike made an even more eloquent speech for arms reduction. The date was April 16, 1953, and the audience was the American Society of Newspaper Editors, meeting here. It was then that Ike delivered what his biographer, Stephen Ambrose, calls "the finest speech of his presidency."
After detailing a bit of Cold War history, and calling upon the Soviets to do what he knew they would never do (unify Germany, for instance), Ike got to his point: The arms race was folly. "The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated," he said. "The worst is atomic war. The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all people. 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 not clothed."
And then, in the manner of Reagan himself in which everything has to be reduced to an easily understood example, Ike cited the real cost of the arms race: "The cost of one heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of more than 60,000 population. It is two, fine, fully-equipped hospitals. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, this is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
With the exception of the modest numbers (a bomber with the proper coffee maker must now cost 60 schools), Ike's speech could be given today. Not only has the arms race continued, not only has it gotten more and more expensive, but there is every indication that the rationale behind the Reagan administration's defense spending is simply to prove we are willing to spend the money. It's for that reason that the administration first concocted a figure for Pentagon spending -- and then tried to figure out how to spend the money. The idea was not to intimidate the Soviets with weaponry, but instead with cash. We won't bury them; we'll bankrupt them.
But for all the spending, the nation is no more secure -- stronger, maybe, but secure, no. And the nation's infrastructure -- bridges, highways, sewer systems -- is, like the schools and hospitals of Ike's day, crumbling.
This, more or less, is the message of Mondale and the warning of Dwight David Eisenhower -- one that Reagan chooses to ignore. Ike was a Republican, but the historical presidency, as Reagan has proved, is a nonpartisan office. Its lessons, like Truman's train or FDR's phrases, are available to anyone. Reagan could look to Ike for wisdom. For obvious reasons he chooses not to do so. He knows he would find only rebuke.