In 2020, Eisenhower Is a Lantern in the Dark
Four months ago, as America’s monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower readied to open officially just off the national mall in Washington, the celebration was shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the country grappled with its greatest crisis since the era that made Ike a hero, the symbol of the kind of nation he represented and tried to build — and the global role it aspired for — stood ready, gleaming, yet temporarily shuttered, awaiting a new day.
Now that day has arrived. Yet while dignitaries gather on Sept. 17 to cut the ribbon for “Eisenhower Park” — a $150 million memorial marked by a massive steel tapestry with seven-story high columns and nine-foot tall statues spread across four tree-filled acres — the pandemic has only gotten worse. As the disease rages and economy sputters, America’s civic life is unraveling. In this time of darkness, Eisenhower’s example is as important as ever.
It is easy to see America’s current crisis as singular, but many of its elements would be familiar to Ike. When he entered office in 1953, Eisenhower found a country which had achieved great global triumph but been battered by a costly, divisive regional conflict in Korea. Many observers worried about America’s uncertainty in the face of rising great-power competition and the existential threat of the new atomic age.
At home, Eisenhower had to manage the consequences of deadly viral outbreaks, from polio to the Asian flu pandemic, which killed over 100,000 Americans. He had to answer demands for greater civil rights for African-Americans and a necessary reckoning for the country’s racial caste system. He also had to grapple with a political debate laced with fear and conspiracy, in which demagogues like Sen. Joseph McCarthy peddled falsehoods and fringe right-wing groups like the John Birch Society claimed Ike himself was an enemy of the state.
Although Eisenhower was hardly perfect — for example, he famously whiffed at confronting McCarthy directly and remained too impassive about remedying racial injustice — there is much to commend about how he handled these challenges. This is especially the case in the way he charted America’s role in the world. His ambition for the country was matched by his deep concern it would overextend itself, so he worked hard to forge a policy recognizing the limits of American power and the importance of budget discipline. He fervently believed in the idea of collective security, arguing America’s strength was enhanced when “we bind that up heart and soul in material ways with our friends overseas.” And Ike’s far-sighted investments in education, science, and infrastructure set the foundation for decades of innovation and prosperity.
No doubt such examples will be cited among the many accolades at the ceremony opening Ike’s memorial. Yet perhaps most relevant for today is something commonly overlooked about Eisenhower: the importance placed on what he called the country’s “spiritual strength.” Although Eisenhower is more often remembered as a commanding hero of war, he recognized that America’s internal health — not only its economic well-being, but its adherence to a certain set of liberal values and ideals and the vitality of its civil society — was an indispensable ingredient of its geopolitical advantage.
Ike’s often emphasized this theme in public and throughout his voluminous private correspondence with fellow world leaders, politicians, family, and friends. But there may be no better example than a long letter he wrote in August 1951 to answer a note from a complete stranger, an Army private in training at Fort Dix who asked if there was anything more to the meaning of his service than “kill or be killed.” Imagine the trainee’s surprise when in response he received not some polite form letter, but a lengthy, soul-searching personal missive from a five-star general then serving as supreme allied commander of allied forces in Europe.
“True human objectives comprise something far richer and more constructive than mere survival of the strong,” Ike wrote. He stressed the country had to aspire to something more than mere self-preservation. It needed to ensure “the security of spiritual and cultural values, including national and individual freedom [and] human rights are included.” In other words, America had to stand for a higher purpose, to look out for more than itself and be big-hearted at home and abroad. For Ike, the values to guide policy were no different than those for living everyday life, which meant “attempting to solve in decency, in fairness, and in justice the multitude of problems that constantly present themselves to us.”
With his typical humility and hard-earned wisdom, Eisenhower hoped his words would provide a “small bit of optimism and faith.” And no doubt they did. It is a testament to Ike’s character that he offered such candid thoughts to someone he had never met, a young man looking for answers about an uncertain future.
We remember great presidents for their big accomplishments — the wars they won, the policies they enacted, and the tough decisions they made. But we build memorials to honor their larger legacies and celebrate what they stood for — for the causes they championed, the values they represented, and the leadership they exemplified. They symbolize what we expect of our presidents, as well as of ourselves.
That’s why the nation’s capital has memorials to honor only a few presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and now Eisenhower. As we approach our own uncertain future, one hopes the Eisenhower memorial offers a small bit of optimism and faith, for it could not come at a more opportune time.
Derek Chollet is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund and a former assistant secretary of defense. His next book, The Middle Way: How Three Presidents Shaped America’s Role in the World, will be published later this year.
Image: U.S. Army