The legacy and lessons of Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dedication of the official memorial to General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower occurred on Sept. 17. Relatively little media attention was devoted to this historically important event.
No surprise there. We’re preoccupied with public health, public demonstrations and violence, and the intense, nasty bitterness of the ongoing presidential campaigns.
The memorial is mammoth in concept and scale, occupying four acres of downtown Washington D.C., now transformed into a park. Two giant columns flank the site. One is devoted to Ike’s service as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II in Europe, the other to his accomplishments as the 34th President of the United States.
The park includes additional columns, statues and a giant stainless steel woven tapestry. Frank Gehry is the architect, a celebrity transcending his profession, in constant demand by people seeking immortal institutional designs or at least greater comfort through luxurious dwellings in this life.
The memorial, commissioned by Congress in 1999, consumed over two decades to complete. Disputes over design, location and other particulars caused extensive delays. Ike’s two granddaughters were initially extremely unhappy with the project. His grandson David Eisenhower, reportedly unhappy also, is politely supportive of the finished product.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was crucial to the extraordinarily complex, costly long-term effort to liberate occupied Europe and destroy the Nazi regime in Germany. The mammoth D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944, encapsulated the myriad challenges of the war overall.
Eisenhower demonstrated great executive ability in supervising an unprecedented logistical challenge, and his remarkable interpersonal skills welded and held together the most diverse military alliance in history. Related to this, Ike was able to establish overall command. This unity eluded even the American military alone in the Pacific theatre, where Army General Douglas MacArthur relentlessly pursued one strategic vision, while U.S. Navy admirals took an alternative approach.
Planners proposed extensive bombing of transport routes and supply depots in France as necessary to the enormous effort to prepare the way for invasion. Such air action would bring an estimated minimum of 60,000 civilian casualties and perhaps many more.
For that reason, American and British air commanders resisted widespread destruction and argued for a much more limited bombing effort. Ike was able to turn to General Charles de Gaulle, temperamental leader of the Free French forces, who unreservedly supported widespread bombing as essential.
Simultaneously, he was aware of the terrible human costs of war, borne primarily by the enlisted ranks. He constantly stressed the role of the combat soldier and regularly visited troops. Classic photographs include his visit with young American paratroopers about to depart early on D-Day.
Eisenhower took a similar approach to national leadership, after securing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination and the White House, with a landslide victory in the 1952 election. As president, he met regularly with Congressional leaders.
For six of eight years in office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Lyndon Johnson led the Senate majority and Sam Rayburn was Speaker of the House. Ike disliked both, but regularly invited them to the White House for consultation and socializing, at the end of the business day. Over time, partisan political lines became blurred.
When Eisenhower died, newly inaugurated President Richard M. Nixon rightly compared him to George Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Eisenhower preferred public modesty. Gehry’s monument unfortunately neglects that dimension, by design.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.