I’m sorry about the lack of posts this week. I have been concentrating on my talk for the New York History conference in Cooperstown later this spring. Next week at my college I’ll be giving something of a preliminary talk during our annual faculty research program. It is an opportunity to run through some ideas before I give the “real” talk come June. I will be talking about Theodore Roosevelt Sr., William E. Dodge Jr. and what they did for the Union war effort. The basics are pretty much in place but I have more to do before it is there. I am fascinated by New York’s role in the war, and how that role played out in the ensuing decades as well. It is something I think we don’t fully understand.
Today I was actually holed up with a minor ailment, fighting off a cold and minor fever. On the Hayfoot’s instructions I have been drinking warm milk spiked with turmeric. It is a great elixir for staving off illness and infection. I have taken the opportunity to get a quarter of the way through David Eisenhower’s Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969. I read memoirs with the caveat that they are–by definition–self-serving but I must say Ike’s grandson does an excellent job of recounting the president’s time after he left the Oval Office. David is a very learned and thoughtful individual who knows his history.
I have been t the Eisenhower Farm several times over the years, but the book fills in significant gaps in my knowledge. In the Eisenhower house one sees a fair amount of Civil War memorabilia, and obviously his ties to Gettysburg go back to his years as a West Point cadet, but I had never quite put two and two together that his retirement in January 1961 coincided with the Centennial. I cannot help but wonder what he thought, if anything, about the way it all unraveled. He did create the Centennial Commission in 1957 after all. The book goes well with Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff, which I finished a few weeks back.
Since 2008 and my first trip to Gettysburg I have been focusing so intently on the Civil War. It has been good because I feel I know much more than I did even just half a decade ago. Still, I feel I’ve lost some edge and my well-roundedness. It is important to focus on other areas to achieve greater wisdom. I am trying to do that this spring.
Going Home is actually the second memoir I have read in the past few days. Last week I downloaded Cynthia Helms’s An Intriguing Life to my Kindle from the library. Ms. Helms was married to CIA director Richard Helms and has certainly led a, well, intriguing life. Born in England in 1923 she served in the WRENS during the war before moving to America and raising a family. In her memoir she recounts transporting Queen Elizabeth ( i.e. later the Queen Mum) in her craft out to a waiting ship for a royal inspection. She also mentions seeing the Supreme Allied Commander, one Dwight Eisenhower, in the lead-up to the D-Day invasion. She was in her late teens and early twenties, understand. Now 90, Ms. Helms lives still lives in Washington and is still going strong; she seems to have known everyone who lived and served in the capitol going back decades. It is a witty and chatty look at the nation’s recent history as s told by someone who saw it. I feel I know Washington a little better than I did before. The best thing you can say about a book is that it brings you to a different level when you are done with it.
About a year ago I was chatting with a friend when we got on the subject of the Cold War era. I suggested that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we returned to some of the style and substance of President Dwight Eisenhower. Her response was worse than disagreement; it was dismissiveness. She literally rolled her eyes in derision. Though I didn’t like it, I understood. My friend grew up in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s. She is of the generation for whom Eisenhower is an adjective–Eisenhower Era, Eisenhower Years, Eisenhower Conformity. You get the idea.
Some will probably never overcome such notions, but in recent years there has been a renaissance in the Eisenhower literature rehabilitating the reputation of the 34th president. The sharpest historians acknowledge his mistakes while recognizing the extraordinary pressures Eisenhower faced, and give him credit where it is due. Far from being the placid period caricatured in our popular culture, the Fifties and early Sixties were an extraordinarily complicated time both home and abroad. The Cold War, Third World independence movements, rehabilitation of the still recovering Europe and Japan, rapid scientific & technological change, and the Civil Rights movement right here in America were creating fear, hope, and cynicism in equal measure. What I was trying to explain to my friend was that Eisenhower was part of what we now call the Cold War Consensus. Briefly put, this is the notion that all of the presidents from 1945-1990, regardless of their party, shared common goals, insights, and assumptions about the world we were living in. Eisenhower fit neatly into this consensus. On the world stage, he was an internationalist trying to work within the frameworks of the UN, NATO, SEATO, and other coalitions. On the home front, he believed in tinkering with, not dismantling, the remnants of the New Deal that Americans had come to accept and rely upon. I would suggest that if he came back today he would be upset with the shabbiness of our discourse, not least that which is coming from within his own party. It is revealing–and tragic, on so many levels–that he is not held in higher esteem today within the Party of Lincoln. Just don’t blame him for it.
This Thursday and Friday, March 7th and 8th, there is going to be a conference reexamining the Eisenhower presidency at Hunter College’s Public Policy Institute. (The Institute is based in the Upper East Side townhouse once owned by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.) Yours truly is especially excited about the public program on Thursday evening. Scheduled to appear are David Eisenhower, Evan Thomas (Ike’s Bluff), Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace), Philip Zelikow, and others. Jim Newton (Eisenhower: The White House Years) will be the moderator. Tickets for Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century are free, but rsvp is required. It will be worth braving the rain for this one.
I hope the powers-that-be eventually reach the conclusion that the current proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall is the wrong one, historically, aesthetically, and even technically. It is difficult to imagine the Gehry design withstanding decades of humid District of Columbia summers and windy, cold winters. There have been structural problems with other Gehry projects. On Tuesday the National Capital Planning Commission issued its newest technical report for the proposed monument. Time will tell.
I remember having coffee with a friend from work in 2002 just a few days after the death of Stephen Ambrose. Specifically I was defending Ambrose against the plagiarism charges that had been leveled against him in the later years of his life. Like many I was using the Fame Defense, the notion that when Ambrose evolved from an academic to a popular historian he became careless. The plagiarism, in this argument, was a product of this carelessness. I had taken his post-1994 output (the year his D-Day oral history was released) with a grain of salt anyway. I never thought much of the Greatest Generation tribute books and films; Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan, etc. were and are roughly akin to the regimental monuments Civil War veterans built in their own later years: celebrations and tributes to a cohort rapidly moving on. I never thought there was anything wrong with such tributes; it is just that one must see them for what they are. And Ambrose for good and ill was the dean of the genre.
Well, the Fame Defense just became considerably more difficult to mount after reading David Frum’s indictment of Ambrose and his scholarship, including his work prior to the fame and fortune he later acquired. Rule # 1: Don’t fabricate interactions with a sitting or retired President of the United States. People are keeping track–and record–of where they are every day. Ambrose is ultimately hoisted on his own petard. Not a happy story, but one that cannot be ignored.
(image by Jim Wallace for the Smithsonian Institution)
One of my favorite places in the city of Gettysburg is Eisenhower’s Farm. I wrote my masters thesis on Eisenhower and know a fair amount about the president and general. Ike’s ties to the town go all the way back to Great War, when the then junior officer trained troops at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt. Many people do not know that one of the primary purposes of the national military parks was–and is–to train American service personnel in military and leadership strategy. Eisenhower trained members of the nascent U.S. Tank Corps at Camp Colt. It was 1917, just four years after the 50th anniversary Blue-Grey reunion.
After the Second World War Ike and Mamie purchased a farm in Gettysburg, from which one gets a spectacular view of Little Round Top. The farm was a staging ground for Pickett’s Charge. Among other things Eisenhower raised prize-winning Angus cattle at his farm, and took the task pretty seriously. He entered his cattle in numerous competitions, often anonymously to avoid favoritism, and won a fair amount of the time. During his White House years Eisenhower used the Gettysburg farm to relax with his family, attend to his gentleman farming, and also–no small thing–charm foreign dignitaries. Eisenhower had formidable interpersonal skills and, for good reason, believed he could win just about anybody over if he could spend time with them in both formal and informal situations. This is where the Angus cattle came in; Ike loved taking other heads-of-state out to the barn to show them his prize-winning bulls, have a photo op, and then discuss world affairs in the tranquil setting once the press had been dispatched. A few who got the hidden hand treatment in such a manner included India’s Jawaharlal Nehru (December 1956), West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (May 1957), Nehru nemesis Winston Churchill (May 1959, after he left Downing Street), Nikita Khrushchev (September 1959), and Eisenhower nemesis Charles de Gaulle (April 1960), among others.
Gloria Hertley donating sign to the Eisenhower National Historic Site. Note photograph of Ike and Nehru, partially obscured in the upper right corner.
In a lighter news story, the farm’s heritage became a bit more complete this month when Gloria Hartley, widow of herdsman and farm manager Bob Hartley, donated the original Eisenhower Farms sign to the National Park Service. Preserving small details of our national heritage such as this is something the Park Service does well.
Bob Hartley with Angus bull at show, Chicago 1961. Note sign in background.
(images: top, NPS; bottom, Hanover, PA Evening Sun)
The demands of work prevented me from commenting the week before last that the National Capital Planning Commission has decided to table any decision on the Eisenhower Memorial until sometime in 2013. I am taking that as a hopeful sign that the powers-that-be will reconsider (i.e. rescind) the plans of starchitect Frank Gehry for his monument to the general and president. In mid-November John S.D. Eisenhower, the 90 year old son of the 34th president and former general and ambassador in his own right, wrote a letter to Senator Daniel Inouye, vice chair of the memorial commission. Media outlets tended to publish only excerpts, His daughter Susan has just published the entire piece. It is worth checking out.
In the spring of 2011, the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) and the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art (ICA&A) Mid-Atlantic Chapter invited classical architects and artists to engage in a competition to design a counterproposal to Frank Gehry’s design of a national monument to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Next week the results go on display in Washington. The exhibit kicks off with a reception on Tuesday the 17th, and will then be on display until September. Conveniently it is close to the Union Station metro station. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but Vanity Fair has a piece by Paul Goldberger in the August issue about the Eisenhower memorial saga. The controversy has been heating u recently, with Congress threatening to withhold funds from the current incarnation of the memorial. I will be in DC next week but it doesn’t seem I will have time to catch the presentation. I am going to do everything I can to see this before the summer’s end. Next week I do hope to finally see the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall, which I have been eager to see since its unveiling.
The NCAS competition results can also be viewed online.
(image courtesy National Civic Art Society)
Today is the 68th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. To mark the occasion I am re-posting this piece from last year:
I could not let the 67th anniversary of D-Day go unnoticed. When I was younger this was a much bigger deal than it is today. It is only a bit of a stretch to say that I have measured the events of my life according to the anniversaries of the Normandy invasion. In June 1984 I was still in high school, getting ready to start my senior year at the end of the summer. Ten years later I had graduated from college, but was unsettled and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. By 2004 I had gone to graduate school and moved to New York City. Now I am married and in full middle age.
The arc of D-Day presidential ceremonies, or lack thereof, paints a fascinating portrait of the postwar decades. In 1954 President Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion a decade earlier, skipped France altogether and instead vacationed at Camp David. His only public comment was a small proclamation about the Grand Alliance. For the 20th anniversary Ike did record a television special with Walter Cronkite entitled D-Day Plus Twenty Years: Eisenhower Returns to Normandy. The footage of the journalist and the retired president was filmed in August 1963 and is quite moving. On June 6, 1964 Johnson, who had taken office only seven months earlier after the Kennedy assassination, was in New York City speaking to the Ladies Garment Workers Union. In the waning days of Vietnam and the Nixon Administration in 1974 Americans were too tired and cynical to care about World War 2. Reagan’s address in 1984 remains the most memorable of the anniversaries. At Pointe du Hoc he addressed a sizable audience of veterans still young enough to travel but old enough to appreciate their own mortality. President Clinton’s address on the beaches of Normandy during the 50th anniversary symbolized the passing of the baton from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers. In 2004 current events overshadowed the 60th anniversary and the ceremony painfully underscored tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Today only one person mentioned it to me. Alas we have reached the tipping point where most of the veterans have either passed on or are too aged and infirm to participate in the observance. In other words it has become part of history. Makes me feel old and a little sad.
Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial
In November I posted about the controversy surrounding the Eisenhower Memorial scheduled for groundbreaking early this year. The Frank Gehry designed monument will be directly on the Mall, near the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and within easy view of the Capitol Building itself, some prime real estate to say the least. I wrote my masters thesis on Eisenhower and believe him to be worthy of this distinction. Public art is almost always fraught with controversy, something no one understood better that Ike himself. Speaking at the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1954 President Eisenhower noted that “as long as artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.” Controversy can indeed be healthy, moving good ideas forward and pushing bad ones aside. Still, it is this writer’s humble opinion that the design does not suit the subject or the site. Modernity itself did not intimidate Dwight Eisenhower, but the avant garde memorial does not align with how the general and president lived and saw the world around him. Eisenhower’s family has become more vocal in their opposition. Grandson David stepped down from the Commission in December and last week the family issued a letter to the National Capital Planning Commission expressing its disapproval. It will be interesting to see if the projects moves ahead in the face of this opposition.
In other news concerning memorials on the National Mall, the Department of the Interior will change a quotation on the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument to better reflect Dr. King’s words. As currently written the inscription has King saying
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
In a February 1968 sermon know as the “Drum Major Instinct,” King said
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Critics, including Maya Angelou, believe the paraphrase does not accurately reflect King’s statement. The Park Service will consult with the King family and scholars to create a new inscription.
(image/Eisenhower Memorial Commission)