Category: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Selling Governors Island

Times were difficult for the Army in the decades between the First and Second World Wars. This was especially true on Governors Island. The American people wanted a quick draw down after Versailles. One of the most distinguished officers in the history of the U.S. Army served on Governors Island during these lean years. Unfortunately, General Fox Conner has largely been forgotten.

BookReaderImages.phpConner was born in Mississippi in the decade after the Civil War and graduated from West Point in 1894. He received an auspicious assignment in 1911; Conner was posted to the French Army’s 22nd Field Artillery. Such assignments had a long history; prior to the American Civil War George McClellan and Richard Delafield were just two American military observers in the Crimea. When American began its involvement in the Great War, René Viviani and Joseph Joffre came to the United States in April-May 1917 to coordinate military and logistical matters with American officials. Conner received orders to coordinate the so-called Viviani-Joffre Mission. His diplomacy and light touch helped make the mission a success all the way around.

General Pershing took Conner to Europe that next month. In France. Conner was the youngest officer on Pershing’s staff and quickly became chief of operations for the AEF. Conner recognized the talents of a young George Marshall and took him under his wing. As the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was grinding along and American victory seemed at hand, Conner advised Pershing against advocating for an armistice. Conner believed the Germans had to be defeated totally or another war would be inevitable. Pershing concurred but the civilian leadership had other ideas. The Armistice came that November, and we will never know how things might have turned out otherwise.

New Yorkers turned out to see Marshal Joseph Joffre when he, René Viviani, and other French officials visited the United States in spring 1917

New Yorkers turned out to see Joffre when he, René Viviani, and other French officials visited the United States in spring 1917

Conner had a number of assignments during the draw down in the 1920s. Budgets were tight and he saw first hand how the cutbacks in funding and personnel were harming the Army. That led to one of the more unusual incidents in the history of Governors Island. In April 1926 Deputy Chief of Staff Conner testified in front of the Senate Military Committee that the War Department should sell the island here in New York harbor as well as the Presidio in San Francisco. Conner estimated the two sites could generate 25 and 26 million dollars respectively. Conner reasoned that with these funds the Army could spend the money in much needed other areas. People were listening. Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia pounced on Conner’s testimony to advocate for an airport on Governors Island.

It may sound sacrilege but Conner had a point. Servicemen on the island were living in dilapidated shacks and old warehouses left over from the buildup during the Great War. A German officer was quoted in the New York Times as saying the Germany provided better quarters to POWs during the war than what existed for soldiers on Governors Island. The savior turned out to be Calvin Coolidge. In January 1928 the president signed legislation authorizing the construction of a new regimental barracks on Governors Island. This would be Liggett Hall. There was much debate over where the barracks for the 16th Regiment would go. Wisely they built it adjacent to the new YMCA.

Conner’s involvement is a little fuzzy, but he may have had something to do with Liggett Hall’s construction; ironically the man who had advocated Governors Island’s sale was stationed here in 1927 as commander of the First Infantry Division. It is interesting that just eight months later Coolidge authorized the spacious new barracks.

This photograph of Brigadier General B.H. Wells, Major General Fox Conner (center) and Major General Dennis E. Nolan (right) was taken on March 8, 1926. Connor was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. Note that the three are wearing business suits. That decade after the war military men wore civilian attire, not uniforms, to work due to isolationist sentiment.

This photograph of Brigadier General B.H. Wells, Major General Fox Conner (center) and Major General Dennis E. Nolan (right) was taken on March 8, 1926. Conner was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. Note that the three are wearing business suits. In the decades after the Great War military men wore civilian attire, not uniforms, to work due to isolationist sentiment.

Conner is forgotten today because he was wedged in between generations. Military glory eluded him during the First World War because he was so important to Pershing as a staff officer. Subsequently, Conner was hugely influential in the intellectual development of a generation of young military officers who played prominent roles in the next World War. Conner alumni included the aforementioned Marshall, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. Conner retired from active service in 1938 and was too old when Pearl Harbor came.

Still, he did prove helpful. Eisenhower, for one, wrote frequently for advice. How to keep a fragile allied coalition together during wartime was something Ike wanted to know. This was a sensitive topic  and one that Conner knew a little about, having handled such irascible characters as Joseph Joffre and Douglas Haig so well thirty years earlier. The Second World War was the conflict Conner and Pershing warned about in October 1918. At least he lived to see its conclusion. Fox Conner died in October 1951.

(image/Wells, Conner, and Nolan photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

D-Day plus seventy years

It is hard to believe that today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. When I was young this was closer to current events than history, even if I did not understand that at the time. I remember meeting so many Normandy veterans in 1994 who were going to France for the 50th. Now twenty years later so many of them are gone. Here is a reprise of something I wrote to mark the occasion in 2011.

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.

The origins of the monuments men

I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library doing some research today when I passed this display case.

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I did a double-take when I noticed this image of none other than Dwight Eisenhower himself. This is he and Mamie walking down the Met Museum steps familiar to New Yorkers for generations.

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The date was 2 April 1946. That day the Met made Eisenhower an Honorary Fellow for Life for his role in saving European artworks during the Second World War. This is the first page of the address he gave that April day:

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Here is the order he gave in May 1944, just a few weeks before D-Day. It is revealing that he would issue such an order even before the Normandy Invasion. He always said there was no contingency for failure. Thus, there were preparations for saving artworks even before a beachhead had been secured. Think about it.

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Here are Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley. The photo was taken by a U.S. Army lieutenant in a German salt mine on 12 April 1945, a month before the war ended and a year before Ike spoke at the Met.

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In a nice touch, the museum has a gallery itinerary in which one cane find artworks now in the Met that were saved by the Monuments Men. I had seen a few of these a number of times over the years without knowing their provenance.

Here is one of those works.

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter
David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47

The painting was donated to the Met in 1964, half a century ago and only nineteen years after the war’s end.

(images/Ike et al, National Archives; Guardroom, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Arthur Kennell

799px-Evercemadams_gatehouseOne of the last  vestiges of Dwight Eisenhower’s Gettysburg is no longer with us. Eisenhower’s  local caddy and longtime superintendent of Gettysburg Country Club, Arthur Kennell, has passed away at the age of 86. Kennell worked at the GCC starting in the 1950s and retired in 1976 because he found the job so stressful. That Bicentennial Year he took a job of even greater prominence: caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery. As such, he lived in one of the most recognizable structures in all of Civil War iconography, the Evergreen Gatehouse.

The wife and I visit Gettysburg every summer but it was not until two years ago that we first made it to Evergreen. It instantly became my favorite place in the town. Cemetery Ridge is called Cemetery Ridge because of Evergreen; the fighting went right through it. What I find most touching walking the grounds is the way one sees the history of the battle and the town in front of you. The Culps, the Herbsts, even Gettys himself, are right there. It was all managed in such detail by Mr. Kennell, and now by his son Brian. When he was a kid, Boy Scout Art assisted elderly veterans during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1938 visit for the 75 anniversary of the battle. Now there is a reminder that the war was not long ago in the grand scheme of things. Imagine telling that one to Ike.

What is perhaps most impressive about Mr. Kennell’s work at Evergreen is the manner in which he modernized the cemetery without detracting from its traditions in any way. For instance, in his years of service he gave increased prominence to the women of the town in their service during the war.

Art caddied hundreds of rounds for President Eisenhower adding up to over 1,000 hours on the bag. Having the groundskeeper as one’s caddy would be  decided advantage. He helped design the putting green at the Eisenhower Farm as well. It is sad to know that this unique individual is no longer part of Gettysburg.

(image/Donald E. Coho)

D-Day plus 69 years

WW2 ration book found on commuter train, July 1943

WW2 ration book found on commuter train, July 1943

I know I have been at this blogging this awhile now because I am again re-posting this piece about the Normandy landings I wrote in 2011. The passing of the WW2 cohort is a common theme of mine, in part because I am old enough to remember veterans not as infirm geriatrics but as robust, neighbors, teachers, and just general folks you saw everyday without thinking much about. The death earlier this week of Senator Frank Lautenberg only made their passing that much more real. He was the last sitting senator who also served in the war, following the death of Daniel Inouye late last year. (Bob Dole was a WW2 veteran as well, having served in Italy, though he of course left the Senate to run for the White House in 1996. He is still practicing law in DC a month away from his 90th birthday.) I believe we are diminished with no more of these individuals serving in the U.S. Senate. Part of our institutional memory is gone with them.

I was in Grand Central Station earlier today and in their small museum space they had an exhibit of items lost-and-found by a family whose members have served as conductors for four generations over the past century, since Grand Central’s founding in 1913. I could not resist taking the above photo of this ration card that some unfortunate commuter left behind on a train in July 1943.

And, again, from 2011:

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.

Good Friday

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.

Reconsidering Ike

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.

image001Some 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.