High Priests of Woodrow Wilson's Covenant

It is one of the oddest facts in American history that the two most important American political speeches in the twentieth century were delivered about 70 hours apart.

The most prophetic Presidential speech in American history ever delivered by a sitting President was made by a man who possessed, at least until the arrival of George W. Bush, the reputation for being the least competent verbal communicator in modern Presidential history. The other speech laid the rhetorical foundations for a foreign policy that has culminated in the worst military disaster in American history.

The first speech is Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. We call it the Farewell Address in honor of George Washington’s Farewell Address. These are the only two departing Presidents’ speeches that anyone remembers. Yet Eisenhower’s was the only true address. Washington’s was never spoken. It was a speech printed in a newspaper.

The two farewell addresses are remembered for two phrases relating to the same theme: American foreign policy. The phrase of Washington’s that has rung out down through the centuries is this: “no entangling alliances.” The phrase of Eisenhower’s that is remembered is this: “the military-industrial complex.”

The concept of no entangling alliances has become the hallmark of Washington’s recommended legacy to the nation. It has served as a guiding star to American defenders of a non-interventionist foreign policy. It is a therefore a shame that he never said it. What he said was this:

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; . . . Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

This does not have the same ring to it, does it? Then who said “no entangling alliances”? Jefferson, in his First Inaugural.

The second speech of the century was delivered a little under 70 hours after Eisenhower’s: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. We recall its ringing phrase: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

And so, my fellow Americans, let us review these two speeches.


This speech was as accurate an assessment of what faced the nation as any public address ever delivered by a sitting President. Given what has happened since the evening when he delivered the speech, we can call it near-prophetic. The only document that I can think of that matches it for the accuracy of both its assessment and its predictive accuracy is Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). That document was a lot longer and reached a much smaller audience.

Eisenhower began with an assessment of what he had pulled off during the previous six years. He did it graciously. I can think of no one who has ever publicly denied the accuracy of his assessment. Instead, pundits and historians have preferred to ignore it. Eisenhower had faced a Congress controlled by the Democrats for the final six years of his two terms. Yet he had got what he asked for most of the time.

In this final relationship, the Congress and the Administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the nation good, rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward. So, my official relationship with the Congress ends in a feeling — on my part — of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together.

Eisenhower had avoided what could have been six years of confrontation with a hostile Congress. He and they went along to get along.

Then he got to the point of his rhetorical legacy to the nation: America’s military and economic power.

We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches, and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

That was the crucial political issue in 1961, and it remains so today.

Eisenhower had bought into the Wilsonian Party Line, which Franklin Roosevelt had also adopted and Truman had extended.

Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

He then referred to the Soviet menace, though not by name. He referred to “the conflict now engulfing the world.”

Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Here was Woodrow Wilson’s vision of American foreign policy: “our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.” It declares a comprehensive, messianic worldview. But Eisenhower, unlike his successors and his predecessors, had counted the cost and then issued a warning. Do not put your faith in miracles at the Federal level, he said.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.

Then the retired general made an assessment of what had happened during his term in office. A profound transition had occurred.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. . . .

Now 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 Statehouse, 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 a man who had the reputation within the media of a verbal fumbler and golf-playing time-server, this was potent rhetoric. It was not just potent rhetoric. It was a profound insight into the nature of American society. I can think of no greater profundity in any President’s speech. Then he escalated his rhetoric.

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. We should take nothing for granted. 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, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Next, he referred to the growing influence of the Federal government over scientific and technological research. He used highly effective imagery.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

Five years later, Robert Nisbet wrote “Project Camelot and the Science of Man.” He drew a bead on one military research project out of tens of thousands as the archetype of what too much money, too much arrogance, and too much Federal power can produce. But he added nothing of substance to what Eisenhower said in his Farewell Address.

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, too, was then and remains a powerful elite. It is a well-funded elite. The Federal government is the primary source of its funding.

Then he moved to economics. Specifically, he described the present-orientation of government spending, which is accompanied by unstoppable and irreversible debt.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. 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. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Then he called for international disarmament. Consider the context. John F. Kennedy had barely defeated Richard Nixon. He had offered only one substantive issue: an alleged missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was no such gap, and Kennedy did not again refer to it. He had played the “weapons of mass destruction” card. He bluffed. It had worked. Eisenhower called for the elimination of such a weapons gap, not by accumulating more weapons of mass destruction but fewer.

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. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

Eisenhower was trapped between Woodrow Wilson’s messianic vision for America and the costs of implementing it. Wilson’s vision was a systematic and self-conscious secularization of the Presbyterian postmillennialism that his father, Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, the Stated Clerk of the Southern Presbyterian Church, had held dear. Eisenhower waxed uncharacteristically eloquent in his praise of the younger Wilson’s vision.

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America’s prayerful and continuing aspiration: We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its few spiritual blessings. Those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibility; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; and that the sources — scourges of poverty, disease, and ignorance will be made [to] disappear from the earth; and that in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

Three days later, his successor waxed even more eloquent in the defense of this vision.


Kennedy began with a declaration: this coronation event was strictly nonpartisan. This could easily be dismissed as political business as usual, yet it was an accurate assessment. Eisenhower three days before had articulated a similarly nonpartisan declaration of dedication to Wilson’s vision.

We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning — signifying renewal, as well as change.

This is covenantal language — the language of covenant renewal. Every covenant has five sections: a declaration of sovereignty, a doctrine of institutional representation, a system of law, a system of institutional sanctions — positive and negative — and a system of succession.

Every covenant rests on a public oath before God. Covenant renewal is an aspect of the covenantal oath: point four of the covenant model. For a church, covenant renewal is the Lord’s Supper. For a civil government, it is voting. In the United States, the Inaugural Address of a President is the supreme act of national covenant renewal. It is the celebration of succession. Kennedy’s speech writers fully understood this, just as Franklin Roosevelt’s speech writers had in 1933. But Kennedy’s language was far more self-conscious than even Roosevelt’s had been.

For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

This oath has always been exclusively secular. Its legal foundation is the United States Constitution.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all the executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States (Article VI, Section 3).

From the day that George Washington put his hand on a Bible supplied by the Freemasons of New York City — the very same Bible used by Harding, Eisenhower, Carter, and George H. W. Bush at their inaugurations — a national deception has gone on every four years. At the inauguration of a new President, the imagery of biblical covenantalism is invoked for the sake of easily deceived voters. A man puts one hand on a Bible, which is not required by the Constitution, raises his other hand toward the heavens, from where no alleged Dweller is allowed to impose a political test oath to Himself, and swears allegiance to the Constitution. That event is the last time that he pays any attention to the Constitution unless he is re-elected four years later.

Kennedy then celebrated the sovereignty of man. This was the continuing theme in his address. He began with an assertion of the existence of a technological new world order — one very different from 1789.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

So, his speech began with two mutually conflicting affirmations: the sovereignty of mankind and the sovereignty of God. He affirmed that supreme earthly power is lodged in the hands of mankind. Every covenant invokes sanctions, both positive and negative. Man has the power of eliminating poverty or destroying himself as a species. However, the rights of man — legal immunities from the state — come from God. This was powerful rhetoric. It rested on theological schizophrenia. It is the supreme schizophrenia in American political history since 1788.

Every covenant has a system of inheritance. Kennedy’s next words invoked inheritance.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

This is Woodrow Wilson’s covenant. It is all-encompassing.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge — and more.

More? How much more? A lot more. As much as Congress, the President, and the Federal Reserve System can fund by extracting wealth from the American electorate.

He referred obliquely to the entangling alliances that had been created under Truman, beginning in 1949 with NATO. American textbooks never mention this inconvenient fact: after the Treaty with France of 1778 lapsed with the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution in 1788, the United States did not enter into a military defensive treaty until NATO.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

Then he announced his commitment to a system of international relations that officially renounces colonialism. It is a system that today involves at least 737 American military bases inside foreign nations.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom — and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

The media today delight in roasting George W. Bush’s less felicitous verbal commitment to this same vision. But Bush has what Kennedy lacked after the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961 was followed by the October Crisis in 1962 over the use of weapons of mass destruction: a willingness to back up his rhetoric, however garbled, with concentrated military force. Bush has said nothing in defense of his foreign policy that Kennedy did not say in defense of his. He has acted decisively to enforce Wilson’s covenant. Kennedy called the nation to make this same commitment.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

He then affirmed his commitment to the United Nations Organization.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support — to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

That a brand-new President could publicly affirm with a straight face his faith in that toothless institution of tax-free lifetime employment indicates just how universal the Wilsonian covenant was inside the Beltway in 1961.

In contrast to Eisenhower’s call for disarmament, Kennedy called for an escalation of the arms race.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But then he offered an olive branch of peace. He did so with a rhetorical flourish that reminds me of Rev. Jesse Jackson.

So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

He called for a specific form of disarmament: the disarmament of nations. But in order to accomplish this, the covenant’s authority to impose sanctions had to be transferred. To what? To a new world government.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

This was Woodrow Wilson’s covenant. And, like former Ruling Elder Wilson, Kennedy invoked the language of the prophets.

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah — to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.”

Every new covenant requires a new legal system. As the New Testament says, “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Hebrews 7:12). Kennedy proposed a change in the law, as befits a new priesthood.

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor — not a new balance of power, but a new world of law — where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.

Once again, he invoked the language of covenant renewal.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

This was a new national covenant. It broke with the old one of 1788 as surely as the new covenant of 1788 had broken with the old covenant of 1781.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

The liberal media today ridicule George W. Bush, which they did not do from September 12, 2001 through late 2003. But President Bush is merely the latest bearer of the torch which Kennedy said must be passed down through the ages.

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

This is truly fire in the minds of men.

This brings us to the capper.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.


Americans live today under a new covenant. While there is constant jostling for access into the priesthood within the tribe of political Levites, this covenant guides the policy-makers who establish the terms of public discourse. There are insiders and outsiders. There are backbenchers, to use an analogy from the House of Commons. There are ranking committee members of Congress and committee chairmen. But there is a single national civil covenant. There are two great teams. I do not mean the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. I mean Council on Foreign Relations Team A and Council on Foreign Relations Team B. On both teams, there are varsity players — neoconservatives — who are trying mightily to keep from being consigned once again to the junior varsity. But all of the players have invoked an oath of allegiance — not to the Constitution of the United States but to Woodrow Wilson’s covenant.

Afghanistan in 1984 was not Charlie Wilson’s war. It was Woodrow Wilson’s war. It has been one long war since 1917. We need a better covenant.

“Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore” (Ezekiel 37:26).

Until that day, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask instead what your country has been doing to you and is likely to keep doing to you for as long as it can buy with fiat money the votes of a majority.

May 31, 2008

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2008 LewRockwell.com

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