Fifty years ago, on January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous Farewell Address. The speech ranks, as Eisenhower intended it to, with Washington’s Farewell Address as a masterpiece of American rhetoric, of balance, and of prudent, far-seeing counsel. It is the fate of such masterpieces to be much quoted but seldom read. On this anniversary, therefore, before you read further, we encourage you to read the speech.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the popular myth, which still lingers, of Ike as casual president, more interest in the golf course than affairs of state. Like Reagan – it is curious how this myth is applied only to conservative presidents – Eisenhower had prepared long and well for the Oval Office. Like Reagan – and Washington – Ike was supported by great speechwriters but the words he spoke expressed his own thoughts.

Eisenhower’s guiding vision in his Address, indeed in his presidency, was the need for balance. Deeply aware of the threat posed by Communism, and the Soviet Union, he wanted not only to meet the danger, but to ensure that the victory did not come at the cost of American liberty. He was concerned that the trend of the modern age – not simply because of the demands of the Cold War – was for the federal state to expand ceaselessly, and he regarded this as a danger to America’s ideals, as much as to its chances of victory in the Cold War.

It was easy, Eisenhower warned, to fall prey to “the recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” That was true in the realms of both foreign and domestic policy. But, he reminded us, “each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

There were many potential sources of imbalance. Not all of them related directly to the dangers of big government, though most did. Rather, Eisenhower’s guiding theme was the threats posed by top-down direction to freedom and self-government. One such danger was becoming “the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Another was “mortgaging the materials assets of our grandchildren” and thus “risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage” to “insolvent phantoms[s].” Yet another was the domination of scientific scholarship by government contracts. It was in this context of examining the many potential dangers that Eisenhower referred to another possible imbalance: the “acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex.”

Rarely has a sober warning of a possible danger been so quoted out of context. Having spent most of his life serving his nation, and the world, in the Army, and having just stated that the U.S. armed forces were “a vital element in keeping the peace . . . [which reflected an] imperative need,” Eisenhower was clearly not making a despairing confession of the power of sinister forces against which he had struggled in vain. He was reflecting that, in the face of threats and stress, the government needed to respond in balanced ways. As he noted, “the record of many decades stands as proof that our people and their Government have, in the main, understood these truths.”

This was a noble speech, and the mature reflection of a great national servant. It harkened back, deliberately, to Washington’s Address, not just as a final words of a general who served in the Oval Office, but to Washington’s thought. Washington, too, called on Americans to recognize that “the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing.”

What Washington called prudence, Eisenhower described as balance, but the spirit behind the thought was the same. Washington’s policy, like Eisenhower’s, rested on a firm commitment to American liberties and sovereignty, and a mature recognition that the federal government itself was at once the means to preserve these liberties, and a possible threat to them. As Marion Smith states in his essay on American leadership in Heritage’s Understanding America series:

Washington recognized that there are no easy answers to the hard questions of foreign policy. A policy based only on interests would do violence to America’s ideals, while a policy based only on ideals would ignore the realities of the world. Therefore, the Founders sought to apply America’s principles, which define its sense of justice, to the circumstances of the day. This prudent approach is essential to securing the blessings of liberty for the American people in a complex and sometimes hostile world.

As my colleague James Carafano points out, Eisenhower was both right and wrong. The U.S. today spends far less, either as a share of GDP or as a proportion of the federal budget, on defense than it did in 1961. The largest corporation that is primarily a defense contractor checks in at number 44 on the Fortune list. In 1961, Eisenhower noted that the U.S. had 3.5 million men and women (in a nation of 189 million) under arms; today, it has about 1.5 million, in a nation of over 300 million. The U.S. now has many fewer bases, at home and abroad, than it did in 1961, and many of the large countries that the U.S. was responsible for garrisoning – including all of Western Europe – in Eisenhower’s day now have few U.S. troops and are far down the list of U.S. security concerns. By any measure, the “military-industrial complex” is vastly smaller today than it was in 1961.

This is mostly because of the one development Eisenhower did not anticipate. He believed that “Unhappily, the danger [Communism] poses promises to be of indefinite duration.” It would have astonished Ike to have been told that the Soviet Union would collapse only thirty years after his speech. That victory had many results, but one of them was the “military-industrial complex,” already much diminished from 1961, shrunk radically in the 1990s.

That, of course, does not stop the Left from banging on about its dangers. Too bad they don’t read the speech. For the case Eisenhower was making was not that defense spending is dangerous. Indeed, he said it was vitally necessary – and today, he would point out that cuts in defense spending are unbalanced, and pose dangers of their own. He was arguing that undemocratic direction from above, especially if directed by big and bureaucratic government, is dangerous. It was top-down control – not the possession and funding of armed forces that reflect the needs and threats of the day – that Eisenhower found threatening. He was concerned partly it poses the danger of national insolvency – a danger that is all too real today – but fundamentally because it threatened the “the supreme goals of our free society.” And that is a risk that the Left is absolutely uninterested in acknowledging.

Amidst other similarities, both Eisenhower and Washington spoke of the need to avoid “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Taking inspiration from that thought, perhaps liberals and conservatives can find agreement in Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech. Conservatives can recognize, as they already do, that “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.” For their part, liberals can acknowledge that, as a “free and religious people,” Americans must seek “balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between our essential national requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation on the individual.”

In an era when the Federal Government is vastly larger and more intrusive than it was in Eisenhower’s day, such an acknowledgement would move us far towards the conservative vision for American leadership, strength, and liberty that Eisenhower’s Address embodied.