A Chance for Peace, 1953

On April 16, 1953, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin, the U.S. government made a peace initiative outlined in a speech now recognized as one of the two most significant and memorable speeches of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. Historians continue to debate whether this initiative was a sincere effort to end the Cold War or a propaganda stroke best seen as an element in the conduct of that great conflict. In any event, the president’s “Chance for Peace” speech contained a clear recognition of the prospects the world faced in 1953 and of the costs associated with even the best outcome possible, if a general peace were not achieved.

The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.

The worst is atomic war.

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

As James Ledbetter writes in his recently published book Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex (Yale University Press, 2011), “Never before, and rarely afterward, did a U.S. president so passionately and prominently lay out a vision for ending tensions with the Soviet Union or so frankly criticize the social costs of military spending” (p. 69).

We know, of course, that this peace initiative was stillborn. The Soviets did not bite, and the U.S. government did little or nothing to pursue the matter, opting instead to build an ever more imposing and frightful national insecurity state. We may all rejoice that the more horrible of the two possible consequences of this course of action, atomic war, did not occur (especially when we consider how narrowly such war was averted on several occasions).

Yet, if the world escaped the apocalypse of atomic war, it did not and could not avoid the costs of waging the Cold War and its successor, the War on Terrorism. Nor have these costs been merely sacrifices of food, clothing, homes, highways, schools, and hospitals, as Eisenhower illustrated in his speech. In a deeper sense, the costs have taken the form of lost confidence in humanity and its future, of lost hope for a world of secure peace and true prosperity.

Eisenhower declared that his proposals “conform to our firm faith that God created men to enjoy, not destroy, the fruits of the earth and of their own toil. They aspire to this: the lifting, from the backs and from the hearts of men, of their burden of arms and of fears, so that they may find before them a golden age of freedom and of peace.” If only that fleeting chance for peace had been seized before it disappeared into the abyss of hatred, fear, and waste.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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