Sam Eberts: Ike (not Ellie Kinnaird) was right

January 24, 2014 

I read with interest Ellie Kinnaird’s “My View” column (“Ike was Right,” Jan. 5, bit.ly/1a5GAfV). Ms. Kinnaird, my father served under General Eisenhower in World War II, was a POW in that war and throughout his life was an ardent critic of defense excess. However, he never lost sight of the critical the importance of a robust and multidimensional military defense. While I celebrate the right of everyone to express their views, Ms. Kinnaird’s interpretation of President Eisenhower simply distorts his views and then extrapolates those misinterpretations to an erroneous world view.

Let’s start with Ike. In his presidential farewell address of Jan. 17, 1961, Eisenhower was clear that a strong U.S. military was essential. Ike explained that “(u)ntil the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry,” but that the nation could not safely return to that pre-war situation: “[W]e can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

Eisenhower tempered his insistence on a powerful military with two cautions. One of his cautions was that a powerful military and related industrial machine presented “grave implications” for “the very structure of our society.” The threats he saw were to “our liberties [and] democratic processes.” In other words, Eisenhower worried about the potential for the military to impose its will on America’s citizens, effectively turning the nation into a garrison state. In this regard, the civilian control of the military decreed in the Constitution has served us well, and our citizens live their lives without fear of coups staged by generals.

Ike’s second caution was indeed about the cost of the necessary strong military. Although he only barely alluded to this issue in his speech, in other places and at other times he showed concern for military overspending. Certainly Eisenhower sought some measure of efficiency, and a sharp lookout for Pentagon bloat.

Now let’s talk about Ms. Kinnaird’s own views.

She appears to start from the premise that the U.S. would be safe with or without a strong military. This notion is completely opposite of the “vital need” for a “mighty” military espoused by Eisenhower. As Supreme Commander of allied forces in North Africa and Europe, Ike saw first-hand the dangers posed by Hitler’s and Mussolini’s military machines, as well as the Allies’ liberation – by military force – of tens of millions of people oppressed by the Axis. Later, as Supreme Commander of NATO and then President of the United States, Eisenhower witnessed the threats posed by the evils of communism. Under Eisenhower, U.S. nuclear arsenals climbed massively, meaning that Ike practiced what he preached in terms of the need for strong deterrence.

In sharp contrast to Eisenhower’s realism about the Soviet threat, Ms. Kinnaird bemoans the “hate mongering” of the Cold War – as if the Soviets were no big deal, and only haters said anything bad about the Russians. This is moral relativism of the worst kind, and it has no basis in fact. In reality, communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia (just to name a few countries) killed anywhere from millions to tens of millions of their own people

In addition to murdering many of the people under their control, the Soviets denied freedom to the citizens of Russia, Poland, and a number of other nations, and tolerated no dissent. When Czechoslovakia sought some measure of political liberation, the Warsaw Pact in 1968 attacked with 500,000 troops, and killed 2500 Hungarians in crushing their aspirations. Given the chance, the communists would have loved to expand their control over people and resources. It was the strength of NATO in general, and the U.S. in particular, that halted the spread of communism and eventually led to the liberation of many millions of people.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists in its old form, Ms. Kinnaird seems to think that the free world faces no serious threats. In reality, a newly aggressive Russia and an ascendant China possess thousands of nuclear weapons as well as large conventional armies – and these are only two of the very many possible threats.

Ms. Kinnaird blithely asserts that modern war involves “drones versus roadside bombs,” but this is nothing but wishful and uninformed thinking about the state of the world. It is correct that some recent conflicts have included battles of the low intensity, asymmetrical variety, but anyone who follows world military developments knows that there is a lot more on the threat board than drones and IEDs. Just for example, China now has an aircraft carrier, and continues to develop hypersonic weapons designed to destroy American battle groups. Moreover, in the very recent past Chinese warships have become increasingly aggressive in confronting U.S. ships navigating in international waters. The risk of conflict with other nations is nowhere near a thing of the past, and ships, planes and tanks are far from obsolete.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for reasoned argument about exactly how big our national military budget ought to be, and how it should be allocated between, say, various weapons systems on the one hand and well-trained troops on the other. Similarly, people of good conscience may disagree over the appropriate level of our foreign commitments. There also may be ways to improve military procurement, rooting out inefficiency and waste, just as Ike believed we ought to do. However, a blanket anti-defense screed of the sort Ms. Kinnaird offers does not add anything of value to discussion of the issue.

What history has taught us is that peace through weakness is a pipe dream. Shrinking our military to the point of ineffectiveness would not make potential adversaries leave us alone because we are “nice.” Instead, an absence of American defensive power would tempt rivals to adventurism at our expense – and at the expense of other free nations. The men and women of our armed forces risk their lives to protect us, and we need them to continue those efforts in this dangerous world. For the same basic reason that we need local police – to deter crime and to deal with it when it happens – we need our uniformed warriors to continue on the job.

Sam Eberts is the chief legal officer and senior vice president of Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings. He is a member of the Advisory Boards of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington D.C. and the World Policy Institute in New York City. He can be reached at fs.eberts@gmail.com

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