It is an often-repeated theme of mine that while mankind gets smarter with each passing year, we don’t seem to learn much. We make remarkable progress in the battle against disease, while developing weapons to more efficiently kill enemies real or perceived.
It was 60 years ago — on April 16, 1953 — that then-U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower touched on the dilemma in his first major speech since assuming the presidency three months earlier, and shook the conscience of the world. But without lasting effect.
In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Eisenhower urged the men and women who controlled the printing presses of North America to understand their power and use it wisely. “You are,” he said, “in such a vital way, both representatives of and responsible to the people of our country. In great part upon you — upon your intelligence, your integrity, your devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice themselves — depend the understanding and the knowledge with which our people must meet the facts of the 20th century.”
He suggested editors should focus their energies, as he intended to focus his, on the one great issue that “most urgently challenges and summons the wisdom and courage of our whole people. This issue is peace.”
It was a courageous speech given just eight short years after cataclysmic nuclear blasts had demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War and touch off the great arms race between Russia and the U.S. He admitted that the chilling rhetoric of the times had seen his dream of peace “grow dim and almost die.” He warned that unless the world could, with newspapers cultivating understanding and knowledge, find the way to peace, the worst outcome would be atomic war. “[And] the best would be this; a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labour of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this Earth.”
We can be thankful we missed the worst option — even as we confirm the accuracy of Eisenhower’s vision of “perpetual fear and tension” in today’s world, which still lacks the will to find peace.
The editors of 1953 listened respectfully to the president, but didn’t do much to change their ways. The world heard his words, even praised them, but preferred to be entertained by media rather than informed, and editors usually give readers what they want. A few old-timers may remember what Eisenhower said 60 years ago, and a few more might like to hear them spoken again by more presidents and prime ministers.
Eisenhower, 1953: “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.
“The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities; it is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.… We pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat … we pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people.”
Not much has changed since the son of pacifist Mennonite parents broke traditional family beliefs, joined the army, became a general and overall military commander of the Allied forces in the Second World War and then U.S. president. Having seen war at its bloodiest, and maybe with memories of childhood in a home governed by peace and love and the security both can bring, he said the world of 1953 was not a pleasant place as it raced for bigger and better arms.
“This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that comes with this spring of 1953.”
Eight years later, on Jan. 17, 1961, in his farewell speech from the White House, he warned that while it was vital for the U.S. to maintain a military establishment, “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.”
I wonder what the old soldier would say today. Would he still have “faith that God created man to enjoy, not destroy?” And still hold firm his belief that one day the world would see lifted “from the backs of men and from the hearts of men, their burden of arms and of fears, so that they may find before them a golden age of freedom and peace”?
© Copyright 2013