A Conversation with Susan Eisenhower

A Conversation with Susan Eisenhower

Shortly after Susan Eisenhower was born, her grandfather sent her a postcard from Europe where he commanded newly established NATO forces. He had recently taken up painting as a way to relax while leading on the front line of the post-World War II transformation. On the message side of the card, he had painted a colorful French garden. He wrote on the card, “Joyeux Anniversaire” – happy birthday, in French. The postcard is a priceless treasure for Susan Eisenhower, today an international policy consultant, author, strategist, educator and member of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee.

The American Legion National Executive Committee passed a resolution last May reiterating the organization’s support for a memorial in Washington, D.C., honoring all that General and President Dwight Eisenhower meant to the nation and the world. A 2015 resolution by the 97th American Legion National Convention made clear one condition of the Legion’s support: that the memorial’s design meet with approval from the Eisenhower family. Modifications to an earlier plan were made over the next year and a half, and in January 2017 the family agreed on a concept that conveys the legacy of the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe who liberated nations in World War II and, as president of the United States, gave America its space program, the interstate highway system, Veterans Day and a long-term vision for global peace.

Susan Eisenhower had a unique vantage point on such developments, which fueled her own passion for international relations during and after the Cold War, including participation in the establishment of the International Space Station – now in its 20th year, having been visited by 18 nations, including many past adversaries of the United States.

In an interview with The American Legion Magazine, Eisenhower describes her life growing up the granddaughter of one of history’s most revered figures, the career route she chose, the lessons she conveys to students today and the memorial to the life member of American Legion Post 39 in Abilene, Kan., who changed America and the world.


What kind of grandfather was Dwight Eisenhower?

You might say I had two parts to my relationship with Dwight Eisenhower: as a kid (he died when I was 17 and a half), and now as an adult.

My grandfather always took a great interest in my siblings and me. In his retirement, he became a gentleman farmer. He was very pleased that I loved his farm. He had a few horses and I began to ride them. When I got older, I developed an interest in policy, specifically international relations. My siblings and I had the opportunity to meet many world leaders who came to the farm to meet Granddad. I often reflect on what a well-centered person he was. He had to make some really tough decisions, but at the same time had the most generous sweet side. 

As a kid I started showing horses (ponies in the beginning) and I won the walk-trot class of some horse show and brought back a little trophy. Suddenly it disappeared, only to reappear weeks later. Granddad presented it to me, mounted on a pedestal. The pedestal was larger than the little trophy, but what a sweet thing to do. He always wrote me longhand letters, giving me encouragement and support, which he did for all of my siblings. This is all the more special, given that he was one busy man. 

As an adult, I began to process the level of responsibility he had and why all these leaders wanted to visit him. In a way, I have spent my adult life learning about him from a completely different angle. He was an extraordinary man who not only shouldered an enormous amount of responsibility, but he did it with grace and confidence.


What made your grandfather such a respected figure in history?

General and later President Eisenhower came from modest circumstances, but he had extraordinary gifts. One of them was a capacity to make decisions and be forthright about them. He accomplished an enormous amount in his positions of authority, and he did so while showing respect for people no matter their political position, racial background or religious affiliation. 

Gen. George Marshall admired him, also because Eisenhower took responsibility for the outcome of his actions. Before he was deployed as commander of forces in Europe, Ike sent a full division to Australia without permission. He was told to accomplish a certain mission, and he made the decision and took the responsibility. Marshall made special note of this. Marshall understood that he wouldn’t have to micromanage this man. He was also a gifted strategist. 


Describe the arc of your own career in international strategy.

I started my career in the strategic communications area, later taking on the challenge of creating a policy mission for the Eisenhower Institute. In my capacity as president, I took an early group of Americans to the Soviet Union and, with the help of many people, staged the first open-policy debate in Soviet history. That debate is still remembered in many circles for bringing together Americans and Soviets at a time when such a thing was thought to be impossible. That’s when I discovered my passion. My real interest was not so much in strategic communications as it was in strategy more broadly. I love assessing a problem and finding ways to solve it. 

So for many years, I worked in the foreign-policy world and still do today. These days, I work on energy issues, which have as much to do with foreign-policy strategy as does arms control or space policy or any of the other components of the U.S.-Soviet/Russia relationship I worked on. Today, I do a fair amount of consulting on energy topics and business strategy.


What was it like at the forefront of a new U.S.-Russian relationship?

New U.S.-Russian relationship? I would say it began not long after Mikhail Gorbachev, the young chairman of the Soviet communist party, came to power. With the hint of an opening, our American-Soviet project, in 1986, brought American and Soviet citizens together with policymakers in a town hall meeting that we later understood played its own small role in unhinging the situation. Most of the Soviet population had never actually seen Americans or had observed a public debate. The Soviet Union televised our event from gavel to gavel, all five days. It was quite extraordinary. 

This event, which was organized by the Eisenhower Institute and the Chautauqua Institution of New York, also included memorable performances in the evenings. American and Soviet musicians and ballet dancers, who couldn’t speak the same languages, got up and performed perfectly together. The contrast of these intensive debates in the day and these joint performances at night was thrilling. 


The International Space Station had to have been another extraordinary chapter in your career.

What an honor it was for me to participate in the early stages of the building of the station. There were many dimensions – political, geopolitical, technical and financial. Dr. Roald Sagdeev and I had the opportunity to help NASA identify and secure Soviet participation in the early work on the station. Later I wrote a book called “Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War.” Again, people with completely different backgrounds and languages figured out how to collaborate on the engineering and science to build one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken. The relationships between the United States and Russia that were formed there were fundamental and long-lasting. It was an enormous privilege for me to have the opportunity to contribute to that mission. 


Where has this all led?

The event in 1986, my work in space, and my subsequent trips of behalf of the Department of Energy to Russia to visit nuclear facilities, were all done while I was running the Eisenhower Institute. In 2009, the institute merged with Gettysburg College because we saw an enormous benefit to be had in educating rising generations about public policy issues. Today, the Eisenhower Institute is a proud institute of Gettysburg College. 


What kind of education does the Eisenhower Institute provide?

We serve as a bridge between the academic community and the world of work. It is an experience targeted for students who have already received a thorough academic and theoretical base. My own program at the institute focuses on strategy and leadership. Each year we choose a case study to examine, research and experience. In this capacity,
I have had the opportunity to take students to Normandy.

In the United States, we are not very good about teaching our children and students history, unfortunately. That is why it is so important for people to tell the younger generations not only about their experiences, but how this, and the experiences of others, fits into the context of contemporary times. I am very passionate about this, both from the point of view of studying the strategy of World War II to studying the strategy of our contemporary foreign policy. Putting these things into context is critical to understand where we are today and how we got there. So, I am having an adventure of a different kind – interacting with young people. 


How do you see American Legion youth programs as synergistic with your interests? 

I think The American Legion’s programs are extraordinary because they emanate from veterans themselves. Increasingly, Americans have a kind of separation from those who served in the military. It’s important for our public to understand who the people are who serve as the guarantors of our security. We need to put faces to the individuals who served their country. Veterans can also be at the forefront of asking young people to do something for their society. It is not only appropriate, but it also underscores their role as fighters for our democracy. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t have as many role models as it used to. So, this is really a very specific and important mission that the Legion undertakes. 


You often return to Normandy for D-Day anniversary ceremonies. What brings you back year after year?

Each time I go, I take away a different telling of the story. With each passing decade, you see a different perspective on a set of finite events that took place more almost 75 years ago. Now, when I take a group of students there, I am looking at this from an entirely different perspective. I tell the strategic leadership story and we talk a lot about individual leadership in Normandy, often exhibited by soldiers, sailors and airmen who were not that much older than (the students) are. 

We often forget that (the U.S. troops) were really high school and early college age, so I try to tell the story from that perspective. That’s had a big impact, I believe. A number of my former students have written me to say that what they are dealing with, when facing a huge challenge in their careers or personal lives, is nothing compared to what their contemporaries did in Normandy. Context is so important for everything.

I just studied the life of a young medic with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who saved the lives of a number of people when his medic station was under attack by the Germans. I am sure when he joined the paratroopers – which he did for the extra pay – he thought he would go into combat and patch up some troops. He had no idea what was inside of him, and he saved a number of his patients while his station was under attack – making the ultimate sacrifice. There are so many hidden and unknown heroes. Also, there are some hidden and unknown stories of people who didn’t quite rise to the occasion. It is a massive human story. 

Normandy is also symbolic. It represents all the battlefields of World War II, especially in Europe. The extraordinary commitment and performance of American troops, for instance at the Battle of the Bulge, is every bit as heroic as what happened at Normandy. But there is something about the Normandy terrain that is so evocative and capable of creating this learning laboratory.


Especially for the French, Normandy has a special meaning, doesn’t it?

The French don’t like the word invasion. They call it a liberation and rightly so. On the coast of France, June 6th is seen as a kind of July 4th, a Liberation Day. They set off fireworks, and young couples can be seen pushing strollers with their children into the village green, picnicking and celebrating. I simply can’t think of anything that is a more worthy way to remember the sacrifices of our Allied troops than the fact that the French people, especially along the coast, mark this as their liberation day and celebrate it as such.


How did it strike you that The American Legion’s support of the National Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., was conditional, based on acceptance by your family?

I was deeply moved that The American Legion not only supported the idea of an Eisenhower Memorial, but also wanted to make sure that the Eisenhower family was aligned with the design and the theme. I am deeply grateful. I think what we are going to have today is a much more meaningful memorial, and this is in large part because The American Legion stood with us to help explain Ike’s legacy in a broader context. 


What was changed about the design?

The original idea for the stainless steel tapestries was to picture a scene of Kansas. While it is tremendously important to mark the fact that a young boy from the middle, landlocked part of the country actually could rise and bear these extraordinary responsibilities and burdens as a general and president, these tapestries – which are a modern version of the old historic idea of tapestries – will now feature Pointe du Hoc, to symbolize “Normandy in Peacetime.” This is a wonderful symbolic backdrop to Ike’s career of public service. This depiction celebrates his legacy as Supreme Allied Commander of forces in Europe. Showing Normandy in peacetime symbolizes how President Eisenhower put together an enduring alliance to protect and secure the free world during the dangerous years of the Cold War. 


When is the memorial expected to be completed?

The memorial commission is moving as quickly as possible so that we can be ready for the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. This is a big undertaking because the site itself needs a lot of infrastructure readjustments before the memorial can even built. And we will be marking Eisenhower as a youth, as it is perfectly right to do so. Again, we want to be inspiring young people to think about responsibility and public service.  


Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.