Eisenhower's Farewell Warning Was Meant For Our Time

''SO, IN THIS, MY LAST good-night to you as your president, I thank you ...'' It was 40 years ago tomorrow, the farewell address of Dwight D. Eisenhower. ''... thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for public service in war and peace.'' To read the words of the retiring president is to be struck by their grace and humility. He was the greatest warrior of the century - and the last word of this speech is ''love.''

Yet what made the farewell address historic - it is the subject of a conference at the New School in New York tomorrow, one of whose organizers supplied me with the text - was its warning against the dangers of the ''military-industrial complex,'' as Eisenhower famously dubbed it. ''This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every State House, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.''

For 40 years we have been proving the truth of Eisenhower's observation. So completely has the iron triangle of a security-obsessed Pentagon, an insatiable defense industry, and its wholly owned Congress taken over the structure of our society that we hardly even notice.

When the ''imperative need'' of the Cold War ended, America might have been expected to retool its war economy, but we did not. Here is the heart of the problem of money in politics: Through campaign contributions, defense contractors control the politicians who vote on military appropriations bills. For years now those bills have been passed not because they respond to real needs of national security but because they feed the various addictions of generals and admirals (power), manufacturers (money), and politicians (reelection).

Eisenhower foresaw this. ''In the councils of government, 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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.''

As is clear from the campaign finance mess, our ''democratic processes'' are exactly what have been undermined. But that is not the worst of it. Life and death of human beings - those are the stakes of this game, and Democrats play it as much as Republicans. Last week, for example, the outgoing Clinton administration announced it will approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Chile, reversing a policy against high-tech arms sales to Latin American nations - a policy in place since the Carter administration.

Why is the United States supplying these most sophisticated weapons to a country that has no real need for them and cannot actually afford them? That such a sale might spark a regional arms race with, say, Bolivia would surely be seen as a bad outcome - except that now Bolivia, and perhaps Argentina, have a reason to buy F-16s too. In one of its final acts, the Clinton administration has opened up a whole new marketplace for Lockheed-Martin. And in one of its first acts, the incoming Bush administration will get the missile defense shield program out of the blocks.

There should be no doubt why the Pentagon wants this massively expensive system and why Congress prepares to fund it - despite the unrelenting objections from arms experts, allies, and rival nations. That chorus is all but drowned out by the ''complex'' of which Eisenhower warned. The momentum of ''the weight of this combination,'' in his phrase, seems unstoppable. Yet Eisenhower identified the only possible counterweight, and it is us, the American people. ''Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry'' can compel a turn away from this mortal danger.

Eisenhower's challenge from 40 years ago is more relevant today than ever, and he seemed to know it would be. ''Down the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.... Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.'' Such words are rare in Washington today, but tomorrow their echo can still be heard.

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