What a stunning clash of messages: President Dwight David Eisenhower's farewell address and President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address! The clash was little-noticed 50 years ago, and is still much underappreciated today. The straightforward words of the departing leader were drowned out by the electric vocabulary of the nation's new Sir Galahad.
The old general who had seen it all in war and peace warned the nation against the growing power of the military-industrial complex, decried excessive governmental spending and debt, and emphasized the need to preserve a sound economy as the basis for American power in the world. The young and glamorous intellectual politician called upon his fellow Americans to lift their gaze beyond their borders to the challenges of the world, new threats, and the promise of global power. Ike urged Americans to pay attention to America; JFK said it was time for new American leadership in the world. Ike's rhetoric was plain and simple, studded with common sense and references to “balance.” JFK's rhetoric was soaring, captivating, and inspirational to the new generation just coming to power, a generation seeking new international mountains to climb. JFK was about to lead his country into new, greater, more trying and expensive levels of involvement in the world; Ike was telling the country not to forget about the American economy and democracy that underpinned all else. With 50 years' perspective, including countless wars and no shortage of mindless governmental spending to look back upon, Ike's words serve us better than JFK's.
It's not that I wasn't inspired by JFK's clarion call: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” I was inspired. And I was ready to sign up for government service when he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” But these and other JFK rhetorical banners took me and my generation far away from America in our careers and thoughts—and into the cauldron of Soviet-American confrontations. The international arena held the action and excitement. And so many of my generation, in effect, turned away from our own country or paid only casual attention to it, and instead followed JFK and his team of intellectual pied pipers into the glamorous global arena.