Short exploration of how public speakers may effectively use metaphor - commonly considered an abstraction - to lend immediacy to complex ideas.


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Rhetorical Analysis: Metaphor in President Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address



Political speeches delivered by executive office-holders can serve multiple purposes. The speaker, in this case Dwight D. Eisenhower, a President of the United States in this case, may attempt to comfort people during difficult times or to press for national action such as reducing deficits, conserving energy, or even foreign war. A farewell address, as delivered by Eisenhower on January 17, 1961, may attempt to create a legacy, impart final words of warning, or attempt to shape the context of future decisions made by forthcoming leaders and their people. It comes as no surprise that when an executive office holder leaves office, this sudden movement from great power to near-powerlessness creates anxiety about the future. Examining this farewell address, I will attempt to show how this deep concern manifests itself metaphorically. That is, I will show not only how the speaker’s concerns themselves are expressed in metaphor, but that the future (or time) itself becomes less of an abstraction, but is expressed concretely through the use of metaphor to lend immediacy or drama to the future and material substance to the abstraction of time.



Dwight David Eisenhower delivered his televised, farewell address on January 17, 1961, after having served two terms in office. A popular president, he was a five-star general and had served as Supreme Commander in the European theater of operations during World War II. His “Sputnik moment,” as coined by President Barack Obama, was literally the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union during Eisenhower’s presidency. Along with the creation of the Interstate Highway System, one of Eisenhower’s best known accomplishments as president was both the formation of NASA and his dogged persistence to retain NASA under civilian rather than military authority. These facts say a great deal about the context of the time. War had recently reached an armistice in Southeast Asia and threatened to break out in Europe with a nuclear armed Soviet Union promising the specter of mass holocaust and now dominating orbital space. The fact that Eisenhower actively pursued “civilian ownership” of NASA shows that not only was there a push for military control of the agency, but that Eisenhower saw other threats looming. His phrase “military industrial complex” will be addressed in the essay. Suffice to say for purposes of context that both science and military had become intertwined as “big business.” The single inventor had been replaced by mass teams of researchers at installations such as Las Alamos, and military hardware had skyrocketed in price and technical complexity.



In examining the President Eisenhower’s farewell address, mission statement, I will use the method of metaphor criticism as described in Sonja K. Foss’ Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Here Foss describes metaphor as “nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain or experience is applied to another domain” (267). Metaphors then consist of two parts, tenor and vehicle, where tenor is the “topic or subject being explained” and vehicle is the “mechanism or lens through which the topic is viewed” (ibid). In their book Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Hart and Daughton explain that metaphors “selectively highlight ideas” and “often mask ideas and values” (141-142). These two values strongly imply a complex – almost contradictory – intent, conscious or unconscious, on the part of the speaker. On the one hand, the metaphor is intended to highlight and idea; on the other, the metaphor is intended to mask that same idea. In fact both can be true and work in tandem. A metaphor serves to describe a thought or idea … but in a new light. Foss would seem to agree, clearly stating that “[i]n contrast to the view of metaphor as decoration, metaphor now is seen as a major means of constituting reality” (268). The metaphors in Eisenhower’s speech attempt to make abstract concepts (the tenors) more palpable and immediate through concrete terms (the vehicles). As Foss states, the coding of these metaphors, selected by frequency and/or intensity, can help “to discover what is significant about the metaphors and provide an explanation of your artifact” (274). Based on criteria of frequency and intensity, I have placed the metaphors in three categories: time, balance, and the military industrial complex.


Analysis President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address

The first metaphor to examine is “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower/Eidenmuller 3). Eisenhower used the term only once in his speech, yet the level of intensity is exemplified by how the phrase has been cemented in the popular, U.S.-American lexicon and is frequently cited by anti-war liberals as well as anti-interventionist, libertarian conservatives. Yet of the three metaphors described herein, this may be the most difficult to describe; “military-industrial complex” serves as the vehicle for a tenor of complex relationships involving corporate contractors and researchers, military demand, public policy in regard to foreign intervention or national defense, and the exchange of taxpayer dollars. Unlike most metaphors however – for instance, comparing the Internet (tenor) to a highway (vehicle), the vehicle here does not actually exist. There is no single entity to point at and say “that is the military-industrial complex.” It is an idea—a series of relationships and financial connections between corporate and government entities—that Eisenhower brought into public consciousness by creating the phrase. Furthermore, Eisenhower describes this “military-industrial complex” as a dangerous thing. Drama is heightened (making it a key term) when Eisenhower states that it is something to “guard against” and heralds “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” (Eisenhower/Eidenmuller 3). Note that “guarding against” and “potential” imply future or imminent rather than a current “disaster.” As President, Eisenhower believes he has seen something dangerous on the horizon, and it seems only natural that in leaving office, he fears his loss of ability to confront or mitigate it. Not surprisingly, references to the abstract notion of the future (and time itself) abound throughout his speech, and the speaker uses metaphor to help solidify this concept.

The future (tenor) takes physical, active properties through metaphor. It becomes something to “shape” (Eisenhower/Eidenmuller 1). The nation itself becomes its vehicle to “move forward” (ibid) and a “road to travel (2). Similarly, time takes on great significance as “the long lane of history yet to be written” (4). Nearly a dozen other references to time exist in the four-page speech, many with a clear and active vehicle. Eisenhower’s concern of the power of money in the military-industrial complex (and other forms of government contract replacing “intellectual curiosity”) take shape and clearly visible on his metaphorical “road” or “lane” of time. Such warnings might carry less weight without some proposed solution. Eisenhower’s solution is again metaphorical. It is contained in single word, repeated dramatically seven times in one short paragraph, repeated with song-like rhythm in the style of a preacher. The word is balance.


“Balance” – a physical rather than abstract property – serves as the vehicle for multiple, complex tenors. A glance at the speech shows that he is referring to the dynamic relationship between public and private spending, cost effectiveness of various programs, and potential sacrifice of what is “comfortably desirable” in favor of what is “clearly necessary” (Eisenhower/Eidenmuller 2). Rather than explain each of these relationships, the metaphor of “balance” serves as a convenient substitute. Interestingly, his last reference to balance in that paragraph brings time back into immediate focus with “time and progress” (2). Eisenhower’s complex message becomes simple: we face immediate (time) dangers (military-industrial complex) and certain public policies (balance) can thwart those dangers.


Assessment and Contribution

Executive politicians such as presidents and governors face many challenges when addressing a large public audience. The presentation of complex concepts may tend to lose some audience members. Furthermore, a common criticism of some speakers is the undue length of their speeches which again, an impatient public may find unappealing. Many of the ideas a speaker may intend to get across entail multiple entities with intricate relationships. One tactic used by politicians to reduce complexity and address brevity is the use of metaphor. I have shown that metaphor not only makes ambiguous systems take physical shape, as with the military-industrial complex, but can also lend immediacy to the subject, as with the metaphors regarding time. Some metaphors become even palpable, carrying “weight” as with the use of the word “balance” to address complex public policy, placing the matter tangibly into the audience’s hands. In this way, politicians can create the drama of immediate danger from concepts with which an audience may have little understanding or interest while at the same time offering policy solutions in the simplest, non-specific terms possible.




Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Farewell Address.” Transcribed by Michael E. Eidenmuller. American, 2010. Web. 16 March 2011.


Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, Fourth Edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2009. Print.


Hart, Roderick P. and Suzanne Daughton. Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Third Edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. Print.






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