Eisenhower Memorial Commission chairman: 'We got it right'
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, speaks at the dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17. Photo courtesy Eisenhower Memorial Commission

Eisenhower Memorial Commission chairman: 'We got it right'

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The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., is open to the public after a 20-year wait, inviting Americans to reflect anew on the legacy of the great soldier-statesman.

To many, he's the general who led hundreds of thousands of Allied troops in the D-Day invasion that began the liberation of Europe. To others, "Ike" is the popular two-term president who ended the Korean War, created the nation's current infrastructure and laid the groundwork for civil rights.

The capital's newest memorial presents a unified portrait of Eisenhower, the man from Abilene, Kan., who applied the lessons of West Point on the battlefield and in the White House, who was both a leader and public servant, who didn't seek the political life but answered his country's call.

Congress commissioned a permanent memorial to Eisenhower in 1999, but agreement on its design and scope took time – and compromise.

"We persevered, and then we persevered, and then we got it right," Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, told members of the Eisenhower family and other guests at the Sept. 17 unveiling.

Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the memorial combines different art forms to trace Eisenhower's journey from Midwestern boy to beloved general to visionary president. Bronze sculptures by Sergey Eylanbekov include a young Eisenhower, seated, gazing toward his future – at one end of the open-air plaza, the general addresses his men before D-Day, and at the other, the president stands with his advisers in front of a world map done in stone bas relief, also by Eylanbekov. Above the two scenes are stirring words from Eisenhower speeches, etched in limestone.

Framing it all is a first-of-its-kind stainless-steel tapestry by artist Tomas Osinski. Eighty feet high and 480 feet long, it depicts the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on Normandy's coastline in peacetime, symbolizing the sacrifice to liberate Europe and save Western democracy.

Located in a newly created park on Independence Avenue SW between 4th and 6th streets, and adjacent to the National Mall, the Eisenhower Memorial is close to sites that connect to his administration's achievements, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Eisenhower established NASA, the FAA, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare).

In the memorial, especially the tapestry, one sees the coming of age of Eisenhower and America – a shared transition from humble beginnings to global leadership, Roberts said.

"I hope this memorial makes us more aware of Eisenhower’s accomplishments and where we would be as a nation and world without him, without his vision and leadership, but even more importantly, I hope it causes us to reflect on where we are today," he added. "It is incumbent upon us to learn from the past and apply those principles to our circumstances, to build on the foundation that Eisenhower fought desperately to protect and secure. This memorial comes at exactly the right time to provide some light in our troubling times."

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the dedication, originally set for May 8, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. Even so, several speakers delivered their remarks virtually, including Bob Dole, former Kansas senator and World War II veteran, and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser.

Dole, now 97, fought with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, receiving two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. In a recorded greeting, he praised Eisenhower's honesty, integrity and decisiveness.

"He spent much of his time trying to reconcile the interests of the British and the French and the Americans, but he did it with expertise," Dole said. "He kept everybody on board, and because of his brilliant approach we won World War II. I’m proud to call Gen. Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, my hero."

Roberts thanked Dole for his years of work raising funds for the memorial.

"Because of his tireless efforts, the remaining heroes of the greatest generation can come here and finally, finally, salute their commanding officer," he said.

Rice, who was born the year after Eisenhower took office, recalled her father's pride in casting his vote for Ike. Her parents and their friends desired to be treated as first-class citizens in America, and sought justice, she said; they saw in Eisenhower a person who sought justice too.

"None of us will ever forget that it was President Eisenhower who protected young black children as they tried finally to deliver on the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education and to integrate segregated schools in Little Rock, Ark. That was an act befitting a leader."

As a young staff member at the National Security Council, Rice witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain, and reflected then on how Eisenhower's determination to stop the spread of communism had made that day possible.

"It was a time when our country was emerging on the world stage as a dominant force for peace and prosperity and freedom, but a time too when new dangers were arising in Europe, Asia and the Middle East," Rice said. "He led us and the alliances that we built, particularly NATO, where he was the first supreme allied commander to accept those responsibilities with strength and with will, but also with our values solidly at the center of what we did."

Bret Baier, Fox News anchor and author of "Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission," emceed the ceremony. A self-described "huge fan" of Eisenhower, he described him as "perfectly reflecting the American ideal ... an ordinary man who answered the call to perform extraordinary duties and deeds."

After the war, Eisenhower realized that "his fame was earned, as he put it, in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends," Baier said. "Called to serve once more as president, he was fully aware of his shortcomings. He was a soldier, not a political animal, not a politician, but he was always trusted, and he always trusted the American people to be smarter even than their leaders. His own personal code was to associate with and learn from people who knew more than he did."

An unexpected message came from 280 miles above the earth, where astronaut Chris Cassidy, commander of the International Space Station, reminded the audience which president launched the U.S. space program.

"President Eisenhower understood what NASA could do for America as he provided the vision for the amazing things we do in human and robotic exploration today," Cassidy said. "His voice on the first broadcast from space in 1958 was the beginning of what is now part of our day-to-day life, as we approach the 20th anniversary of a permanent human presence here on the ISS."

Speaking on behalf of the Eisenhower family were two of the 34th president's grandchildren: David Eisenhower, an author, television host and director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School for Communication, and Susan Eisenhower, an international policy consultant, strategist, educator and author.

David Eisenhower shared a favorite story about his grandfather, from 1954, when Eisenhower was scheduled to give a commencement address at Penn State, where his brother Milton was president. Thousands were gathering for the outdoor event, but rain threatened. "You can picture the scene of worry in the president’s house as Milton is on the phone and he is pacing the living room. At one point, Dwight Eisenhower remarks, 'Milton, since June 6, 1944, I have never worried about the rain.'"

Continuing, David said, "My earliest memory in this world is being buckled into a seat aboard the Columbine, Gen. Eisenhower’s NATO command airplane of 1951. I distinctly remember Granddad boarding the plane in his Army uniform. I remember the electricity and the energy surrounding him. In the years that followed, not once did I doubt his greatness, knowing his extraordinary mind and spirit, his generosity, fairness and courage."

He congratulated Gehry for holding fast to the memorial's design concept, and his sisters, Susan, Anne and Mary Jean, for helping resolve design questions and securing sponsorships and other support. "Timelessness is something I think this memorial has achieved," David said. "I think all of us tonight can hope and pray that a time will never come when Americans do not cherish the values depicted here: hard work, bravery, optimism, steadfastness and vision."

In a recorded message, Susan Eisenhower thanked everyone who donated to the memorial, and described her experience researching and writing "How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower's Biggest Decisions," released in August.

"I was astonished to see how many things I didn’t know, but also to see this enormous alliance between the person I knew and the person who is depicted in the history books," she said. "I was impressed by his grasp of human nature, his belief in our country and his commitment to serve the Constitution of the United States. He always put his own personal interests aside, and as a strategic leader, he led as a human being, with tough-minded determination to bring victory in Europe and to bring our country together during a tumultuous time in our history. But he led with his head and he led with his heart. He was trusted by the American people, and his 'middle way' presidential approach to politics assured that his administration could serve all segments of American society. He held together, during vast technological and social change, a fractious and frightened America."

A life member of American Legion Post 39 in Abilene, Eisenhower was awarded the organization's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, in 1945. As president, he signed legislation establishing Veterans Day as a national holiday and supported The American Legion's "Back to God" campaign.

In 2015, The American Legion passed a resolution endorsing the Eisenhower Memorial, provided its design was acceptable to the Eisenhower family.

"They stood squarely with us, and can certainly take credit for providing that important support," Susan said. "Everybody agrees that what we finally came up with, and that’s all parties concerned ... the result is better. It only goes to show what people of good will can do if they come together and continue to work on something."

She encourages Americans to visit the memorial and reflect on the fact that the nation has survived difficult times. "I think if Ike were alive today, he would say we all need to take responsibility .... We have to be observant and make no excuses for ourselves about talking to our neighbors in ways that are a) not polite and b) inappropriate. We need to be good listeners and find what Eisenhower called the middle way, which is the ground between deeply divided camps where all can meet, all can hammer out measures that will help America progress. Let me just put it this way: I think he still has a lot to say to us today."

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, is eager for people to meet, or perhaps reacquaint themselves with, the only U.S. president to serve in uniform in World War I and World War II, and as commander in chief during the early years of the Cold War – what he and others call World War III.

Reddel encountered Eisenhower's contributions by way of Russia, as he led teams into the Soviet Union to do Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty inspections. "The question was, how do you end wars in a way that is positive and effective? I thought one of the things I could do was think a bit about World War II," he said. "If perhaps we aren’t doing as well with the end of World War III, what did they do with World War II? I saw that people such as Eisenhower and (George) Marshall and men of that generation, leaders at the time, were far more insightful and future-oriented than I had realized."

As a trained historian well aware of revisionism, Reddel was curious to see an increasingly positive evaluation developing of Eisenhower as general and president. "I came to the conclusion that that story would continue to be changed, probably, and it was important to get it right and accurate," he said. "I began to go to the very top specialists as sources and cultivate them and learn as much as I could, personally and working with the commission. We haven’t stopped that since we began roughly 20 years ago."

In C-SPAN's most recent Presidential Historians survey, conducted in 2017, Eisenhower ranks among the top five U.S. presidents. Reddel agrees with that assessment.

"People tell me, 'Take a look at the interstate highway system, you don’t have to do more, that’s his memorial,'" Reddel said. "To be sure, he transformed and made more free movement over the land surface of the North American continent with that highway system, but let’s think about the other things he did. He gave access to the seas of the world with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. But you’re still thinking too small. He created the FAA and regularized air travel. But maybe we’re still thinking small. Who is it that gave us civilian control of space and made the Elon Musks of the world possible today? It was the last president born in the 19th century, before the time of both roads and airplanes, who was the first president to look at reconnaissance photographs taken from satellites in space that he put there.

"When you ask me, 'Is it appropriate to memorialize this man?' I’d say, 'Give me the arguments why we shouldn’t.'"

For an audio tour of the Eisenhower Memorial, pivotal moments in Eisenhower's career, lessons plans and more, go to eisenhowermemorial.gov.