Eisenhower in His Own Words

Eisenhower at Normandy in 1963 -- Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

[Excerpted from The Gehry Towers Over Eisenhower: The National Civic Art Society Report on Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial by Justin Shubow.]

Frank Gehry’s statements, along with his Memorial design, must be contrasted with Eisenhower’s own expressed thoughts on art, culture, and memorials.  Eisenhower served as a staff officer on the American Battle Monuments Commission between the first and second World Wars, a position that gave him a special understanding of and appreciation for monuments and memorials.[1]  Eisenhower’s personal preferences deserve substantial consideration, as Gehry himself has admitted:

 I have tried to look at this as, what if he [Eisenhower] came back?  What would he think?  This guy, I think, not seeing his image would make him happy.[2]

(Note how Gehry impiously calls Eisenhower a “guy.”)  The Commission has also acknowledged the importance of Eisenhower’s preferences.  For instance, their official statement on the “tapestry” states, “The overwhelming focus of the Eisenhower Memorial will be the Abilene landscape.  This is fitting for Ike.  At the end of his life he said, ‘Please don’t let them put me on a horse,’ not wanting to end up like civil war generals ‘rigidly astride their steeds, inanimate statues’ that line the streets of so many cities.”[3]

Moreover, we believe that what Eisenhower said in his time—namely, that the artistic and architectural elite is out of step with the rest of the America—is true today.  See, for instance, the remarks Eisenhower made in 1962 in Abliene, Kansas, at the dedication of the library in his honor:

 When we see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and speak in the present in terms of a piece of canvas that looks like a broken down tin lizzie [Model T Ford], loaded with paint, has been driven over it, is this improvement? What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?[4]

Also see a letter Eisenhower sent to his aide in 1959, regarding the U.S. Information Agency’s controversial American National Exhibition in Moscow, which prominently featured Modern art:

 I appreciated having your thoughtful letter about our art exhibit at the American Exhibition in Moscow.  While I personally do not believe that the pictures and sculpture that we have sent over there are broadly representative of America or what America likes in art, I do believe that it would be unwise, by Administrative action, to censor the work of the selecting Commission by withdrawing what the jury chose. [emphasis added][5]

Also see the official U.S. State Department summary of Eisenhower’s response to the Moscow Exhibition:

 The President said that during the press conference the question of the paintings to be sent to the Moscow Exhibition had been raised. He said that those paintings, or at least most of them, represented an extreme form of modernism and that some of them are even unintelligible to the average eye; some of the paintings were satirical or even lampooning. The newspaper men had asked him why he personally had not participated in the selection of paintings. The President observed that the committee that had selected the paintings was apparently not much interested in public taste. The public at large, at least 95 per cent of the population, would [not] approve the type of paintings he had seen at the Soviet Exhibit. He said that the committee represented a thin stratum of artists, or at least of people who call themselves artists and who believe that they are the ones who interpret America.” [emphasis added][6]

See also the historian Michael L. Krenn’s discussion of Eisenhower and the Moscow Exhibit:

 Eisenhower was briefed by USIA Director Allen very early in the controversy when questions about “the political leanings of the painters involved” were raised.  Allen reported to the president that after conferring with Secretary of State Christian Herter . . . , the decision was reached to keep the exhibit as it was.  Eisenhower seemed to have little interest in the politics of the artists, but he did evidence “curiosity as to the nature of the paintings selected.” Allen replied that “only 10% of the paintings selected would be abstract”; the others would be “representative paintings” (Herter probably meant “representational” paintings.)  Eisenhower, himself an amateur painter[7], pointed Allen’s attention toward a painting hanging on his wall as evidence of his own personal taste in art: “This painting of ducks on a wall came from the Whitney museum.”  As the debate over the art heated up, Eisenhower weighed in more directly.  In a letter to Representative [Francis] Walter, he noted that he personally believed that the art in the Moscow show “represented an extreme form of modernism” and that much of it was “unintelligible to the average eye.”  And in a press conference, Eisenhower remarked that Levine’s Welcome Home[8]looks more like a lampoon than art as far as I am concerned.  What America likes is after all some of the things that ought to be shown.” . . .

While no paintings were deleted from the exhibition, the Eisenhower administration did decided to add twenty-six additional paintings, all from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to “supplement” the exhibit.  A press release announced, “The additional canvases were assembled to give greater depth and perspective to the art exhibit, in keeping with President Eisenhower’s desire that more attention be given to paintings by American artists of the pre-World War I period.”  The new paintings included work by George Caleb Bingham, Childe Hassam, George Catlin, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington, and George Bellows, as well as the president’s personal favorites, Wild Duck, Hanging on a Green Wall, by George W. Cope. [emphasis added][9]

According to historians, “President Eisenhower is reported to have ‘flushed with anger’ when he learned about the [Modernist SOM-designed] chapel[10] proposed for the [Air Force] Academy, and it was widely supposed that he would have preferred the colossal classical Freedom Shrine he sponsored for the Potomac River shoreline in 1960.”[11]  As for the Freedom Shrine, in 1953:

 The National Memorial Commission planned a massive freedom shrine on a tract of land near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.  Supporters of this memorial wanted to build a copy of a massive classical Greek temple and fill it with a series of bas-reliefs depicting the history of the United States.[12]

Pres. Eisenhower and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery at Gettysburg in May 1957 -- Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library


[1] “. . . at a presidential press conference held on Armistice Day 1953, Dwight Eisenhower spoke wistfully of the meaning of the day for him.  This veteran of both wars (although never seeing overseas service in the first) urged the reporters to grant him a favor and ‘make some mention in your stories that it is Armistice Day, and what Armistice Day really meant to us at one time.’ . . . During the interwar years, Eisenhower served as an army staff officer to the American Battle Monuments Commission and this no doubt strengthened the affinity he felt toward the holidays and symbols associated with the First World War.  In 1968, Eisenhower appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson to halt a proposal to disband the commission and collapse its functions into the Veterans Administration.  In response, Johnson granted the request and tabled the plan.” G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995) 215.

[2] CFA Transcript, Jan. 20, 2011 at 58.

[3] Jonathan Warner, “Tapestry and Architecture: The Historical Context of the Eisenhower Memorial” (Aug. 20, 2011), http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/news_file/110922_Tapestry_Essay_Final_with_Appendices_051011_1550.pdf.

[5] Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Personal to Andre de Saint-Phalle Jul. 6, 1959” in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, ed. L. Galambos and D. van Ee, doc. 1228. World Wide Web facsimile by The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission of the print edition; Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, available at http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/presidential-papers/second-term/documents/1228.cfm.

[6] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Volume X, Part I, Eastern Europe Region, Soviet Union, Cyprus, Document 79, available at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1958-60v10p1/d79.

[7] For more on Eisenhower as an amateur painter, see Sister Wendy Beckett, “President Eisenhower: Painter,” White House History no.21 (Fall 2007): 30-39. available at http://www.whha.org/whha_publications/publications_documents/whitehousehistory_21.pdfSee also Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Eisenhower College Collection: The Paintings of Dwight D. Eisenhower (Nash Publishing, 1972).

[9] Michael L. Krenn, Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) 164-166.   A photo of Cope’s painting is available at http://www.artchive.com/web_gallery/G/George-Cope/Hanging-Duck.html.

[11] Robert Bruegmann, and Ante Glibota, A Guide to 150 years of Chicago architecture (Chicago Review Press, 1985) 108.

[12] G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 159.  See also the history of the Freedom Shrine reported in Jeanne Marie Knapp, “Don Belding: Advertising America” (Texas Tech University approved master’s thesis, May 1983), 70-73, available at https://dspace.lib.ttu.edu/bitstream/handle/2346/12392/31295003393823.pdf?sequence=1 [all ellipses are in original]:

 In March 1949, the list called “The American Way of Life” was published in Reader’s Digest. As published in the Reader’s Digest, it was set up in the form and shape of a monument, on each panel or portion of which certain words were inscribed, combined to make up the Credo.

The broad base of the monument has inscribed on it the words “Fundamental Belief in God.”  A somewhat smaller, superimposed base has on it the words “Constitutional Government Designed to Serve the People.”

Above that are two square shaped columns on which the following appears, on one side:

 Right to worship God in one’s own way.

Right to free speech and press.

Right to assemble.

Right to petition grievances.

Right to privacy in our homes.

Right of habeas corpus—no excessive bail.

Right to trial by jury—innocent until proved guilty.

Right to move about freely at home and abroad.

Right to own private property.

 On the other side:

 Right to work in callings and localities of our choice.

Right to bargain with our employers.

Right to go into business, compete, make a profit.

Right to bargain for goods and services in a free market.

Right to contract about our affairs.

Right to the service of government as a protector and referee.

Right to be free from “arbitrary” government regulation and control.

 Superimposed on these two is a head or cap stone on which are inscribed the words “Political and Economic Rights which Protect the Dignity and Freedom of the Individual.”

The monument first pictured in the Reader’s Digest article now stands, almost thirty-feet tall, at the headquarters of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.

The National Monument Commission

In 1954, five years after the Credo appeared in Reader’s Digest, a group, which included [advertising leader Don] Belding, encouraged Eisenhower, as President of the United States, to build a monument in Washington, D.C., similar to the one erected earlier in Valley Forge.

Eisenhower appointed a National Monument Commission, which was approved by Congress on August 31, 1954, and Congress gave the commission a twenty-three-acre tract of land called the Nevi[u]s Tract, in line with the Mall leading from the Capitol, on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  This land was to be used to erect the Freedom Shrine.

The plans for the monument, according to Belding, called for:

 . . . an open-to-the-air granite rectangle with walls ninety feet high. One side, facing the Capitol, is open except for five pillars. On the smooth face of these walls (i.e., inside) will be depicted in sculpture the high spots of our history and culture, including religious, political, economic and military events.

. . . In the center of the rectangle, like a jewel in a jewel box, will be a twenty-foot onyx monument inscribed on four sides with the definition of American Principles which we use as the judging guide in the contests at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.

. . . The shrine will be built by the school children of America, much as the Statue of Liberty was financed by the pennies of the children of France.

. . . The work will be conducted by a joint venture composed of the Hall of History Group and the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.

 Unfortunately for Belding and the National Monument Commission, a government agency also became an interested party in the building of the Freedom Shrine.  The Monuments Commission, which regulates the matter of monuments in Washington, D.C., had become embroiled with important members of Congress and others over the placing of a monument in memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In addition, other difficulties forced the government’s representative commission to cut down on permits at the same time.  Thus, the erection of the Freedom Shrine was never approved and has not been built on the site.

2 Responses to “Eisenhower in His Own Words”
  1. Tony Frame says:

    This is important research; thanks for publishing. -T

  2. Richard Bono says:

    The Gehry design is in no way appropriate for the Dwight Eisenhower memorial. The sentiments of this designer have overwhelmed common sense, scale, and aesthetics, of the Eisenhower family, and I contend, the man himself. It should have reflected the sense of restraint, in scale and expression, and focused upon the central reason Americans will remember Ike, i.e., as a soldier, a leader among leaders, and as a pivotal president. In all this, the Gehry design fails miserably. At this late stage, I don’t know how this appointment can have any significant effect. I am very disappointed.

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