Ike “Every Gun That is Made…Signifies…a Theft from Those Who Hunger and Are Not Fed…” Quote or No Quote?

Eisenhower, the Cold War, and Disarmament

Did President Eisenhower actually say, “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”? And what was the larger context? The Professor gets all deep, philosophical, and peace-nik-y in this show. Please listen and share! Episode 506.

It’s one of the most commonly posted quotes on social media and the internet in general. It’s also one of the longest and most substantial quotes posted on these platforms that, after all, cater mainly to very short attention spans. And it’s one of the most important peacenik quotes of the 20th century. Yet, unlike most quotes I analyze on this podcast, this one is genuine. Yes, Dwight D. Eisenhower really said it.

Of course, I’m talking about President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech, specifically the short section in the middle of that speech where he says:

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.

The speech is not as famous as Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address to the American people, with its warnings of the growth of a “military-industrial complex.” But historians often bracket the 1953 “Cross of Iron” Speech at the very beginning of Eisenhower’s presidency with that 1961 farewell address, as a way to study and analyze Ike’s aspirations for how his administration could handle the Cold War, and where he thought the United States stood at the end of his administration.

Although it’s not as famous as the “military-industrial complex” address, in many ways, I prefer the “Cross of Iron” speech. And I think you see why in this blog post.

First of all, the actual title of the speech was “The Chance for Peace,” not “The Cross of Iron.” This is more than a pedantic point. Too often, people latch on to a particular phrase in a speech and sort of re-title the whole speech. In the speech, Ike did refer to the “world in arms” of 1953 as, “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” But calling it the “cross of iron” speech tends to smother the speech’s actual main message – that is, in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953, the world had a chance for peace that shouldn’t be missed.

Ike wanted the first major speech of his administration to be about something hefty, and he wanted to say something worthwhile. The Cold War was entering its eighth year, the Korean War was in a stalemate, and the Soviet Union had been a nuclear power since 1949. And yet, with all this tension, Ike thought that Stalin’s death in 1953, and the sort of government-by-committee that took over in Moscow afterward, might mean that better approaches to peace and security could be taken by both the US and USSR.

So he crafted a speech that address the ways he thought modern powers could grab the chance for peace. And he gave that speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington DC on April 16, 1953.

While a great many people know about the “every gun that is made…” quote, they don’t realize that the vast majority of the speech is a description of how the Cold War became so frightening, and who was to blame. Eisenhower said that, although wartime cooperation between the Allies had been impressive and had prompted hope of future cooperation, that cooperation and hope didn’t last very long.

The western Allies, he said, 

…defined the way they proposed to follow, through the aftermath of war, toward true peace. This way was faithful to the spirit that inspired the United Nations — to prohibit strife, to relieve tensions, to banish fears. This way was to control and to reduce armaments. This way was to allow all nations to devote their energies and resources to the great and good tasks of healing the war’s wounds, of clothing and feeding and housing the needy, of perfecting a just political life, of enjoying the fruits of their own toil.

Under Stalin, according to Eisenhower, the Soviet Union had completely different plans and goals. Listen to Ike explain why he thought the Soviet post-war position made the Cold War so frightening: 

The Soviet government held a vastly different vision of the future. In the world of its design, security was to be found, not in mutual trust and mutual aid but in force — huge armies, subversion, rule of neighbor nations. The goal was power superiority at all costs. Security was to be sought by denying it to all others.

According to Eisenhower, this path that the Soviet Union chose, in essence, forced western Allies to react out of fear.

The result has been tragic for the world and, for the Soviet Union, it has also been ironic. The amassing of Soviet power alerted free nations to a new danger of aggression. It compelled them in self-defense to spend unprecedented money and energy for armaments. It forced them to develop weapons of war now capable of inflicting instant and terrible punishment upon any aggressor. It instilled in the free nations — and let none doubt this — the unshakable conviction that, as long as there persists a threat to freedom, they must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war. It inspired them — and let none doubt this — to attain a unity of purpose and will beyond the power of propaganda or pressure to break, now or ever.

Essentially, he argued, the Soviet Union’s relentless arms-building was why the world was constantly on the brink of destruction at the hands of Cold Warriors.

The vast majority of the speech is like this – defining the essential differences between East and West in the Cold War, and doing so in great detail.

There is a technique in academia called “content analysis.” It’s mostly in the fields of rhetoric and literature, but also is employed in other humanities and social sciences. One of the tools used in content analysis is counting words in a certain text as a way of trying to determine what the author or authors of those texts thought was most important. I don’t want to bore you with a detailed content analysis of every word Ike used and the frequency with which certain words (like “peace” and “war”) appear in the speech. But let me tell you this much.

As delivered, Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace” speech was 3,177 total words. When we take out the pleasantries and “thank you’s” at the beginning and end, we are left with 3,046 words that make up the substantive part of the speech.

The full “every gun that is made…” peacenik part of the speech (which I will give to you later), consists of only 284 words. That is 9% of the speech. The other 91% is pretty hard-nosed Cold War talk, directed at what Ike saw as Soviet unwillingness to _try_ to make peace possible. Naturally, not every word in speeches is to be given equal rhetorical weight. If we did that, speeches would become very tedious indeed.

But if we were to take a strict “content analysis” view of the speech, we’d say that the overwhelming majority of the speech was made up of what Ike _really_ wanted to convey – Cold War politics at its coldest, most heartless, and most distressing. The United States and its Allies couldn’t afford even the smallest attempts at arms reduction. 

There you go again, Professor, I hear you saying. Taking a meaningful quote about disarmament and peace, and totally buzzkilling it by putting it in the full context in which it was written and delivered. 

Well, that’s what I thought when I read the full speech for the first time. That is, Ike just slipped in some peacenik talk as a feel-good interlude in an otherwise stiff warning about Soviet arms buildup. Before I did research into how this speech was crafted, that’s what I thought was his original intent.

And that’s what’s wrong with so much of the way people think and talk about history. They either grab a sound-byte quote or factoid, or they “add” a _little_ research, and come up with what they think is a deeply-studied analysis of an issue. Really understanding history, however, takes a great deal of digging and reading.

So I did that. And I found a twist in the tale that, I hope, will make us all think more deeply and carefully about this speech.

You see, grim Soviet and Cold War details and dangers were _not_ where Eisenhower started when composing this speech with his staff and speech-writers. We have good and solid evidence that can help us understand what Ike was thinking as he planned this speech. In other words, we kinda know what was going on inside baldy Ike’s chrome dome. And, despite my Buzzkill cynicism, we can see at least a glimmer of Ike’s belief that there was a “chance for peace.”

Here’s what happened.

Dwight Eisenhower was elected president on November 6, 1952. He was inaugurated on January 20, 1953. You might think that the place for the “Chance of Peace” sentiments would have been his inaugural address. But that address was a pretty standard “us against them” Cold War speech. Lots of “freedom versus tyranny,” and similar rhetorical devices. Nothing specific about disarmament.

Of course, in January 1953, big, bad Uncle Joe Stalin was very much still alive. He had been in poor health in the previous few years (after all, he had led a tremendously difficult life and he was well into his 70s), but there was little indication that he was on the way out imminently. That changed on the first of March, 1953. He had a cerebral hemorrhage and Soviet doctors tried to revive him over the next few days. (Just a quick side-note about the strange state of Soviet medical treatment at the time – it was excellent and hyper-modern in some ways, but doctors also applied leeches to him.) 

Stalin died on March 5th, and his death was announced the next day.

So here was a convergence of two things. One, Ike had been searching for a good theme for his first post-inaugural address to the American public. And, two, Stalin’s death provided an opportunity for Ike to say and do something positive to help shape post-Stalin relations with the Soviet government. 

We have excellent records and evidence of what passed between Ike, his cabinet members, and his policy people and speechwriters people during this convergence.

He held cabinet meetings on March 7th and 8th, and tried in vain to hammer out an American plan for what to do now that Stalin was dead. Surprisingly, neither the Truman administration, nor the Eisenhower presidential transition team (such as they were in late 1952 to early 1953), had come up with a plan. As Ike himself said in exasperation to the cabinet,

Ever since 1946, I know that the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies, and what we, as a nation, should do about it… Well, he’s dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out – in vain – looking for any plans laid. We have no plan.

The next few weeks saw a struggle inside the executive branch. Speech or no speech? Declare a plan or see how things develop? New Eisenhower administration people disagreed about what to do. John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, was no real help, being wedded to the idea that inaction generally provided more opportunities than quick and possibly risky action.

Finally, the decision to give a speech was reached. But what to say, and how to say it? Ike’s main speechwriter for this occasion, Emmett Hughes, and his assistant, Robert Kieve, tried to fathom what the President wanted, as well as what the cabinet wanted, out of this speech.

In mid-March, Ike and Emmett Hughes were in the Oval Office, working on the concepts of the speech.  The President was frustrated and, after a great deal of pacing around the office, he turned to Hughes and said,

Look, I am tired – and I think everyone is tired – of just plain indictments of the Soviet regime… I think it would be wrong – in fact, asinine – for me to get up before the world now to make another one of those indictments. Instead, just _one_ thing matters: what have _we_ got to offer the world?

As Eisenhower started to chew on this idea, he looked out of a window in the Oval Office. In the sky, he saw an F-86 Sabre fighter aircraft flying by. According to Hughes and Kieve, the President’s gloomy mood about the direction of the speech broke suddenly and sharply. He turned back to Hughes and said,

_Here_ is what I would like to say. That jet plane that roars over your head costs three-quarters of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning ten thousand dollars every year is going to make in his lifetime. [BTW, Buzzkillers, ten thousand dollars a year was a very good salary in 1953.] What world can afford this sort of thing for long? Where will it lead us? At worst to atomic warfare. At best, to robbing every people and nation on earth of the fruits of their own toil.

In more or less an instant, Eisenhower hit upon what would become the crux of the eventual speech. 

“Now, there could be another road before us…,” he continued,

…the road of disarmament. What does this mean? It means for everybody in the world: bread, butter, clothes, homes, schools – all the good and necessary things for decent living. So let _this_ be the choice we offer. If we take this second road, all of us can produce more of these good things for life – and we, the United States, will help them still more… 

This is what I want to say. And if we don’t really _have_ anything to _offer_, I’m not going to make a speech about it.

So that’s how the speech was planned and written. The peacenik stuff (“every gun that is made…”) was the idea that started it all. In fact, Eisenhower insisted that he wouldn’t make a speech at all unless he had these peacenik ideas to offer. Slapping the hard facts of the cost of the Cold War arms down in front of his listeners, and then following up with his hopes for better uses of the money, was the central point, and then the other Cold War stuff was bracketed around it.

I mentioned earlier that there’s more peacenik stuff in the speech than just the “every gun that is made…” sentence. And I’d like to give that to you now. Eisenhower detailed what Cold War arms money _could_ be spent on instead. It was the classic dilemma about spending priorities faced by all governments – guns or butter. Here, Ike lays out the “guns or butter” difference in value to actual human beings, and societies as a whole. And that difference is astounding (even in 1950s dollars). In the speech he delivered, the cost of that fighter jet that Ike saw out of the Oval Office window is given its value in actual food.

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 fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane 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 is, I repeat, 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. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that comes with this spring of 1953.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: Is there no other way the world may live?

Many Cold War historians have argued that Ike’s disarmament rhetoric was mostly for show. Partly this was because genuine disarmament is purely aspirational. It’s pie-in-the-sky stuff. As long as groups of humans continue to be greedy and hate other groups of humans, they are going to acquire weapons and try to hurt each other. So, I think there’s a good deal of truth to this argument about Eisenhower’s rhetorical strategy. There were precious few military leaders and politicians who were as hard-nosed in their realism as Ike was. 

Then again, there’s the undeniable fact of that scene in the Oval Office, when Ike stares out the window and sees the military jet, and suddenly his thoughts and plans for the post-Stalin world coalesce. And he took the time to explain to his speech writers the cost of that plane both in terms of dollars and in terms of how the money could be better used. By building armaments in enormous numbers, Ike told the speechwriters, we were “robbing every people and nation on earth of the fruits of their own toil.” There’s more than rhetorical strategy at work here; more than a plan of how to explain how Cold War priorities were so out of whack with human needs. I think Eisenhower genuinely believed in spending money on butter and not guns, no matter how much he may have known that it was aspirational, and that bitter political and military realism stood in the way of attaining it within his lifetime.

And let me end up with stressing the following as strongly as I can. 

There’s another reason I lean towards Ike being a kind of peacenik in this speech – that’s the word “theft.” Remember his first sentence of that section of the speech. Here it is again,

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.

“Theft” is a very strong word. About as direct and accusatory as you can find. 

It’s too difficult to tell from the archival records at the Eisenhower Presidential Library how much Ike might have insisted on certain wording in various passages of the speech. But I do know this. Ike could have chosen another word. If one of his speechwriters had written it, he could have changed it to something else. But he kept it in, _and_ he underlined it.

He underlined “theft” in the typed copy that he read from when addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953. He underlined other words on the speech text, but not many. The only two things he underlined in the disarmament/peacenik section of the speech were “theft” and then, slightly later, “is there no other way the world may live”?

The Oval Office scene of seeing the jet and knowing the true cost of it, that underlining of “theft” and “is there no other way…,” and the emphasis that Eisenhower gave those words you heard earlier in the delivered speech give me “historical hope” (if such a thing exists). That is, there was a time when at least one military and political leader believed deeply in arms reduction and the peace dividends that might follow from it, and tried to convince the rest of us of this moral necessity.

Why didn’t we listen to him?

Sources and further reading:

Timothy Weld, The Speeches of President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Jim Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years

Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President

Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters

Text of the “Chance for Peace” Speech: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/dwighteisenhowercrossofiron.htm

The actual “Chance for Peace” Speech script (underlining):


Best Audio of the “Chance for Peace” Speech:


Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Timothy Weld, The Speeches of President Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Speeches of President Dwight D. Eisenhower includes the President’s inaugural addresses, State of the union addresses, his famous 1953 Atoms for Peace speech, and more. Explore one of America’s greatest presidents by reading his most important speeches. This curated collection also serves a useful reference & citation source.

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