In World War II, he tamed America’s allies and conquered its adversaries. As a conservative college president, he defended liberal professors caught in a virulent red scare. As NATO commander, he projected strength without projecting force. In the White House, he presided over the sort of peace and prosperity that today’s presidential candidates can’t plausibly promise.
Now, Dwight David Eisenhower, seldom the center of contention, is at the nexus of a controversy that raises vital questions about the character of capital memorials, the nature of historical remembrance and the relationship between a national figure’s origins and destiny.
All because the design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington includes a statue of him as a barefoot boy from Kansas.
Nobody contests that Eisenhower rose from humble Abilene at a time when its unpaved streets retained a whiff of the Chisholm Trail cow drives, though the saloons and dance halls were sufficiently in the past to allow the town of 3,500 to employ only one police officer. Eisenhower seldom thought of himself as a barefoot boy, perhaps because there actually was, in Ike’s time, a Republican known as the barefoot boy. He was Wendell Willkie, the GOP’s 1940 presidential nominee from Wall Street by way of Elwood, Ind.
Westerns or West Point?
Though the Eisenhowers spent White House evenings in front of tray tables watching Westerns on television, the truth is that the president was shaped more by West Point than by the town that helped make Wild Bill Hickok famous. Even so, part of the Eisenhower elan was his irresistible mix of the common and the uncommon, so much so that Stephen E. Ambrose opened his two-volume Eisenhower biography this way in 1983:
“His heritage was ordinary, his parents were humble folk, his childhood was typical of thousands of other youngsters growing up around the turn of the century, and most of his career was humdrum and unrewarded. On the surface, everything about him appeared to be average.”
This may be why the barefoot-boy image has resonance in some quarters, including among art professionals weary of the sterile style of Washington monuments, particularly the World War II memorial, whose granite pillars and bas-relief panels are a special target of criticism.
It is true that Eisenhower was like so many others of his time and place. But that’s ultimately why the barefoot-boy motif seems so discordant, so at odds with our notions of decorum in civic statuary.
Eisenhower was, after that boyhood, not at all like so many others, or any other American of his time or any other time. The reason we celebrate him nearly a century after he left West Point is not that he was unremarkable. We celebrate him because of what he did with that ordinary heritage, with the lessons of his humble parents and the childhood that was so typical.
David Eisenhower, a University of Pennsylvania historian and biographer, said the family is proud of his grandfather’s heartland roots. “There are 3,000 ways you can do an Eisenhower memorial,” he said of the controversy in a phone conversation the other afternoon. “Combining a military career of that stature and a two-term presidency is no easy task.”
But Eisenhower, his sister Anne (a professional designer), his sister Susan (an expert on Russian-American relations), and his father John (the president’s son) are united in arguing that the memorial should reflect Eisenhower’s extraordinary record more than his ordinary roots.
More than meets the eye
Because, along with all his accomplishments, there was always more to Eisenhower than met the eye — especially the eyes of historians.
“Although Eisenhower, with his big grin, looked like a gregarious soul,” Michael Korda wrote in his 2007 biography, “this was in part a facade, or a protective mechanism, like a lot of things about him.”
After all, here was a man at the center of American and world politics in the center of the American Century — the personification first of our innocence and ingenuity and then of our power and prerogatives from World War II through the first third of the Cold War.
In Eisenhower’s time, and in part at his bidding, the United States moved from a peripheral to a principal role in big-power politics, even as it harnessed its industrial might to produce a consumer economy and confronted its past to reconcile its soaring ideals with its sordid racial reality.
Through it all, Eisenhower possessed an alluring self-confidence that his countrymen came to share, a carefree air that pervaded the nation at home even as tensions simmered abroad, a managerial mien that suited the times or, just as likely, shaped the times.
“He appeared to be performing less work than he did because he knew instinctively which matters required his attention and which could be delegated to subordinates,” Jean Edward Smith wrote in a new biography to be published later this month. “His experience as supreme commander taught him to use experts without being intimidated by them. He structured matters so that he always had the last word. ... The lines of authority were clear, the national interest was broadly defined and there was no buck passing.”
For a long time — even in his own time — Eisenhower was the subject of ridicule. The consensus, especially among the opinion-makers who preferred the sometimes serious and sometimes sardonic Adlai Stevenson, who lost two elections to Eisenhower, was that the 34th president’s speech was plain, his vision uninspiring, his style unengaged, his personality lacking flash and finesse.
Stevenson was pate de foie gras to Eisenhower’s Salisbury steak with a side of mixed peas, corn and carrots — and in truth Swanson came out with the TV dinner, a special favorite of the Eisenhowers, the very year he became president.
But for all that, Eisenhower now is regarded as a successful chief executive and his record is admired by his successors and historians alike. He helped to win World War II and helped to preserve the peace, and a career without peer deserves a memorial that matches the man and his achievements.
“We’re not speaking to ourselves right now,” Susan Eisenhower said. “We’re speaking to future generations. So we need to think about what Eisenhower meant to this country.”
He lived his past as a barefoot boy in Abilene. But with his signature American confidence, in both flip-flops and wingtips, he helped create the future we now tread.