DWIGHT EISENHOWER’S military prowess made him a war hero and a president. But on January 17, 1961, three days before he left the White House, Eisenhower told the American public, in a televised address, to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Over fifty years later, the warning still resonates, but 21 newly discovered documents suggest that the message did not come easy. The son of presidential speechwriter Malcolm Moos found the trove of speech drafts and related memos in a family cabin. The papers, many of which had been chewed by mice, reveal that Ike and his advisers worked on the themes and language of the speech over the course of 20 months. “We didn’t know that the preparation began in May 1959,” says Karl Weissenbach, director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. “And there were last-minute changes just before the president addressed the nation.”
The now-famous phrase “military industrial complex” only shows up about 18 months into the speech-writing process. While staffers had discussed the “dangers of ‘overgrown military establishments’” and the “war based industrial complex,” the exact wording first appears in a full draft of the farewell address from the fall of 1960. It counsels a “jealous precaution” against any weakening of civil control over the military. By January 7, that phrase had evolved into “jealously guard,” but the president’s brother Milton scratched out the word “jealously,” leaving the more neutral “guard.” Despite this apparent softening, the speech’s caution about the combined threat of the military and industry, coming from the man who had been the commander of Allied forces in Europe and the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, was a powerful parting shot.