Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Voice From the Past

Just a few days before he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech (text found here: that included warnings of several dangers he saw for the United States. One of those warnings got most of the attention in the following years: his concern about the “military-industrial complex.” That term continued to reverberate for most of the years when I was growing up (I was almost eleven years old when he made that speech, no, I do not remember hearing it; but I heard a lot about that one expression for years after).

For some reason I looked up that speech lately, and read the whole thing more than once. Looking back at the last half-century, I would say that “Ike” was rather prescient, but our society missed some important things he was saying back then. In spite of Vietnam, the two Iraq wars, and Afghanistan, the “military-industrial complex” does not have anywhere near the power it once had in American affairs. But I found he spent more time in that speech talking about a different danger: the domination of research and technology by Federal money. He spoke of “the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop” being replaced by “task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.” He went on: “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity....The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present....Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”

This warning went right over people's heads, it would seem, judging by the results in recent years. A prime example has been the Global Warming debate of recent years: scientists in universities and government agencies in the US and Europe were pushing a set of policies, using government-funded research to back it up. I never was impressed by their arguments; as a lifelong student of history, I had known about the Medieval Warm Period, when wine grapes grew as far north as England, and the Little Ice Age, which ruined the Viking settlements in Greenland and nearly wiped out the Pilgrims at Plymouth, long before before the Warming controversy began. I am also old enough to remember all the articles and hoopla about the coming Ice Age we were supposed to be facing thirty years ago, in the same newspapers and magazines that later jumped on the Global Warming bandwagon! Not only was the Warming research funded by government grants, the East Anglia emails and other events have shown how these “scientists” were prepared to use rather unscientific and even unethical methods to doctor the evidence and silence dissent so they could keep the grants rolling in.

And now we face other problems, especially the financial collapse of recent years and the seemingly endless “Great Recession” and the budget deficits here and abroad. “Ike” said it well: “As we peer into society's future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”