Who was the greatest American military commander of the 20th Century? Was it World War I General Blackjack Pershing or either of the two popular World War II biopic generals, George Patton or Douglas MacArthur? How about George Marshall, a superb leader of the war effort in World War II, but one whose role was more coordination and delegation than command? If the answer depends on military accomplishment alone, then it is unquestionably General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and coincidentally the 34th President of the United States.
Later this year, groundbreaking begins on an Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C. The memorial’s theme covering Eisenhower’s life has generated controversy because the chief architect, Frank Gehry, has elected to feature Eisenhower’s humble beginnings as a boy rather than his accomplishments as war hero and President. Gehry, a noted iconoclast, focuses the memorial on “the barefoot boy from Kansas” leitmotif, referring to a phrase Eisenhower used in his postwar homecoming speech in Abilene, Kansas.
Many observers voiced criticism of the proposed monument’s treatment of Eisenhower, including his granddaughter, Susan, “I just don’t think Dwight Eisenhower is remembered because he was a barefoot boy from Kansas. When I look at this memorial, I don’t see any bit of him in it.”
Gehry’s approach suggests the deplorable illiteracy surrounding American history continues apace. It’s been 60 years since Eisenhower was elected president and most Americans today have no living memory of him, his presidency, or his war service.
However, Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, was a pivotal figure in my longstanding Democratic family. Both my father’s family in Brooklyn, and my mother’s in Chicago came from immigrant communities traditionally dependent on the local Democratic Party for assimilation and success. In those neighborhoods during the Depression and later on, Republicans were as scarce as Martians. All my family, aunts, uncles, and cousins were traditional “New Deal Democrats”. At the holidays, the discussion was always Democratic Party politics and candidates. There was never dissent.
Yet one day as a youngster, I remember someone observing during a family function that nobody in our family had ever voted for a Republican. My father quietly contradicted, “I voted for Eisenhower for president.”
Everyone was aghast at this heresy. Someone asked how he could vote for Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, the urbane, articulate intellectual confidant of the revered Eleanor Roosevelt.
He replied simply, “Because he was my commanding officer.”
My father was one of the first to land on Normandy Beach on D-Day, the largest amphibious military operation in history, and Eisenhower was responsible for every detail of its success or failure. He had to decide to launch the assault in the face of storms and parlous conditions with crack German troops defending the shore. My father was injured and lost many friends and comrades during the incredibly risky military venture but he never lost his respect for Dwight Eisenhower.
After shocking the family, he recalled his personal encounter with Eisenhower. One morning, Eisenhower showed up unexpectedly at my father’s encampment. Here was the most important American soldier of the war, accompanied by only a small retinue, preparing to enter their tent and discuss matters with the senior officer. Every man stood at attention in disbelief. Suddenly a sentry, a mere private, stopped the Supreme Allied Commander. He requested Eisenhower’s identification before allowing him to pass. Eisenhower said nothing, provided some identification from his pocket to the sentry who checked it and allowed him to enter according to protocol.
There was stunned silence - no one could believe the private had the temerity to stop Eisenhower for identification. Before Eisenhower entered the tent, a midlevel officer approached the sentry, berating him for his impudence. According to my father who was standing right there, Eisenhower witnessed the exchange, stopped the officer and said, “He was doing his duty, Major. Exactly what he’s supposed to do.” My father was profoundly impressed how the General took care not to embarrass either soldier.
My father then explained to us the possible consequences if the Allies had been turned back at Normandy. The Germans, with no Western threat, could have transferred many divisions to fortify their defense against the Soviets in the East and slowed the Soviet advance. This probably would have delayed the liberation of the concentration camps and resulted in the extermination of all the Jews in Europe. The Soviets might still have prevailed, in which case all Europe would have been behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain. Alternatively, the United States might have been forced to drop an atomic bomb on Germany, to prevent Nazi scientists, exploring nuclear weapon technology, from providing the Bomb to Hitler. Unquestionably had Eisenhower and the European invasion failed, a prolonged war would have meant millions of more deaths worldwide and the outcome of World War II would have been vastly different.
So any monument minimizing Dwight Eisenhower’s role represents a profound disservice to our cultural heritage. Besides being President, he was one of our nation’s most important generals, on a par with Washington, Grant, and Lee.
Eisenhower’s family is justified in protesting the monument’s theme. “Barefoot boy” indeed. The Eisenhower monument should honor him just as Shakespeare honored Julius Caesar, another general who also changed Europe’s destiny, “Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’
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