Every year since 1981, the nonprofit White House Historical Association has released an official Christmas ornament — usually in honor of a U.S. president. For its 2019 ornament, unveiled in February, the association is celebrating Dwight D. Eisenhower with a gilded Sikorsky helicopter. The manufacturer is important here, because this year, for the first time, the official White House ornament has a corporate sponsor: Sikorsky, a division of Lockheed Martin.
The ornaments have traditionally highlighted a little-known, nonpolitical factoid: William Howard Taft’s has him sitting in the back of a car, since he was the first president to have one; Grover Cleveland’s (first) ornament shows his wedding, reminding us that he is still the only president to have married in the White House (he was 49, she was 21). The new Ike ornament fits this pattern: He was one of the first presidents to ride in a helicopter.
Yet Eisenhower also had a complicated relationship with the defense establishment. On one hand, he led the D-Day invasion as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe. On the other, he famously used his 1961 farewell address to warn Americans of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.” Because of that speech, it struck some observers as ironic that the White House Historical Association would honor Ike with an ornament sponsored by Lockheed, the world’s biggest defense contractor. Not long after the ornament was announced, William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the left-leaning Center for International Policy, wrote bluntly that Eisenhower “would be rolling over in his grave.”
To WHHA President Stewart McLaurin, however, the partnership “just seemed so natural.” When Eisenhower took his first presidential flight in one in 1957, he was immediately smitten. He once took Nikita Khrushchev on a helicopter tour of the Washington suburbs (impressing the Soviet premier enough that he asked about buying three). Eisenhower even tried his own hand at flying them. “When we were looking at it,” says McLaurin, “these helicopters have always been Sikorsky. So I thought it was important that they know about it, and they were thrilled.”
“It is fitting for Sikorsky to be associated with the ornament,” said a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin. “We believe Sikorsky’s partnership on the [presidential helicopter] program for over seven decades is a part of White House history. ... We see this as a unique opportunity for our employees to own a piece of White House and Sikorsky history.”
Indeed, as part of the sponsorship, Lockheed — in addition to organizing events and providing an undisclosed amount of money to the WHHA, which McLaurin says will fund the association’s education programs — is promoting the ornament to its 100,000 employees. The ornaments are already highly popular, selling hundreds of thousands per year (at $22.95), and Lockheed’s direct marketing to employees should boost sales further.
McLaurin says there was no hesitation about partnering with “an American company that has provided 62 years of service to the White House,” pointing out that Eisenhower “was also very responsible for building that complex he warned about.” And that’s a fair argument, says Will Hitchcock, historian and author of “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s.” Hitchcock gave the keynote lecture at the unveiling of the ornament in February, with Daniel Schultz, president of Sikorsky, in attendance. “I think we misunderstand the military-industrial complex speech if we only see it as some kind of warning,” Hitchcock told me. “The speech makes clear that we had to create the military-industrial complex knowingly to defend freedom. Now that we have it, we have to make sure it doesn’t take over our democracy. That balance is the great theme of the Eisenhower presidency.”
As is the case with many great speeches, the nuance of Ike’s address has arguably been eroded by history. People “leave out the first part” of the speech, says Louis Galambos, co-editor of the Eisenhower papers project, “which is ... that we needed a strong defense. We’re seeing it as a blunt condemnation of big business plus the military. I don’t think it is.” Instead, he says, Eisenhower’s true venom was reserved for the lobbying interests that had worked themselves into the marrow of the defense establishment. He was the first president who saw the metastatic growth of the lobbying industry as a major issue. “He was afraid,” Galambos notes, “that the military-industrial complex could mislead the president or Congress.”
He was especially worried that John F. Kennedy, to whom he was about to pass the reins, was too wet behind the ears to stand up to the service chiefs Eisenhower had fought with his whole career. And then, says Hitchcock, “the first thing that happens in the Kennedy administration is the generals talk him into the Bay of Pigs invasion.”
Today, defense spending, while still gargantuan, represents a far lower portion of the nation’s gross domestic product (about 3 percent) than it did when Eisenhower took office (about 20 percent). But the military-industrial complex is now as strong as ever. The current acting defense secretary, for instance, is a longtime Boeing executive who only joined the Pentagon in 2017.
Most likely, though, says Hitchcock, Eisenhower would have liked the ornament, which was designed and manufactured by a veteran-owned company called ChemArt in Rhode Island. It “represents innovation,” he says. “Ike was actually a huge booster of technology.” Still, he admits that it might have bothered Eisenhower a little that a military contractor was involved: “He’d have preferred it be supported by a nonprofit or the Boy Scouts or something.”
If anything, says Galambos, it’s a “tribute to two things: one, that he was right about the military-industrial complex, but that he was also right about compromise.” The White House Historical Association, he says, has “just done what Ike did: They compromised.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that helicopters were a new technology in 1957. Helicopters were used in World War II and in the Korean War. This version has been updated.
Samuel Ashworth is a writer in Washington.