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Eisenhower Memorial, opening in DC this week, pays tribute to Ike's Kansas roots

By Bryan Lowry, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON - The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will open in Washington this week, a long-awaited tribute to his legacy as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and the 34th president.

But the memorial, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, also honors Eisenhower's Kansas roots.

The statues of a general and president are joined by a barefoot boy from rural Kansas alongside a quote from a 1945 speech: "The proudest thing that I can claim is that I am from Abilene."

This statue is of particular importance to Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chaired the memorial's commission.

"I think that sets the tone," Roberts said.

COVID-19 thwarted the original plans for dedication in April, on the 75th anniversary of the Allies' victory in Europe over the Nazis.

The date was chosen to acknowledge both Eisenhower's wartime leadership and support for the memorial from World War II veterans. President Donald Trump was to appear, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as keynote speaker and a military flyover before a crowd of thousands.

Thursday's dedication will be smaller and simpler - video tributes from Trump, Rice and others, along with a limited crowd at tables 12 feet apart and complimentary "I Like Ike" COVID-19 masks.

The memorial is across the street from the National Air and Space Museum, a popular destination for school field trips. Roberts hopes that teachers will take students, particularly those from small towns like Abilene, to reflect on Eisenhower's humble origins.

"The figure of the young boy looking toward the memorial and then you read right off the bat that in every man there is a young boy who is dreaming big," Roberts said.

"Here is a young man who dreamed big, he climbed the ladder of success."

Victoria Tigwell, deputy executive director of the memorial commission, elaborated on this point during a tour of the memorial for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle.

"If you come down there and you see this young boy and you listen to the audio tour, you'll find out he had no particular advantages. His family wasn't well-known. His family wasn't wealthy," she said.

"He's this far out of the wild west, right, when he's born. And he was determined to get an education. He didn't have any money. He figured out how to do it. And then in everything he did he's really acknowledged as really one of the best whether he was a staff officer, a general or president," she said. "And if you can see that that kid can do that, I hope you think, 'I can do that.'"

But Gehry's decision to focus on Eisenhower's Kansas boyhood caused controversy with Eisenhower's family.

Susan Eisenhower, the former president's granddaughter, testified to Congress in 2012 that the "Horatio Alger-like narrative that Eisenhower grew up to 'make good' is a slight on the countless millions of people, during World War II and the Cold War, whose very existence was directly affected by Eisenhower's decisions."

The decision to scrap designs for tapestry of Kansas landscape in favor of a depiction of Normandy at peace alleviated her concerns. In a Friday interview, Susan Eisenhower stressed her family's love for Kansas, but said she wanted to ensure the focus remained on Eisenhower's leadership during war and peace.

"The beaches in Normandy in peacetime is a monumental concept because it covers both his presidency and winning the peace after the war," Susan Eisenhower said.

The tapestry sits behind two statuary scenes, one depicting Eisenhower as president and another depicting him as a general speaking to the 101st Airborne ahead of the D-Day invasion.

In the presidential scene, he is receiving advice from two civilian aides and one military official, symbolic of the tensions he faced as a Cold War-era president.

"Ike is with other people. Nowhere do you see him as the chest-bumping singular figure who is taking credit for all of the achievements. He was a leader," said Susan Eisenhower, noting her grandfather took responsibility for failure but gave credit for success to his subordinates.

One of the aides depicted is African American.

"We wanted to bring attention to Eisenhower's accomplishments on civil rights, which are often overlooked," Tigwell said.

The statues of the aides represent ideas rather than specific people, but she noted that Eisenhower was the first president to employ an African American aide in the executive office of the president, E. Frederick Morrow. He also oversaw the desegregation of Washington, D.C.

 

Eisenhower famously sent in the 101st Airborne to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock in 1957 and that same year signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first piece of civil rights legislation since 1875.

The legislation enabled federal prosecution for voter intimidation, although the law was more limited and incremental than the better-known civil rights and voting rights acts passed under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Despite the gains, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed his disappointment in letters to Eisenhower that he did not use his office to more forcefully speak out against discrimination.

The memorial has been planned for 21 years and enjoyed bipartisan support. But its opening comes at a moment when statues of white historical figures have become political flashpoints.

Figures of Confederate leaders, presidents and Christopher Columbus have been taken down amid an ongoing debate over racial justice.

Eisenhower, the general who defeated Nazi Germany, is unlikely to inspire the same ire as those figures. But Roberts invoked the cultural debate ahead of the opening.

"I think the timing of this is especially crucial in that this is a time when many folks are in the business of taking down statues and monuments," Roberts said.

"They act as sort of a historical touchstone. They link the past and present and they facilitate what we hope to be a dialogue."

Susan Eisenhower said she would be surprised if her grandfather's memorial faced the same controversy as other monuments.

"Eisenhower during his presidency laid the groundwork for the civil rights advances that came later," she said.

Congress passed the legislation to memorialize Eisenhower in 1999, an effort championed by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, two World War II veterans representing states added to the union during Eisenhower's presidency.

Both have since died - Inouye in 2012, Stevens in a 2010 plane crash.

As commission chair, Roberts oversaw the planning, construction and fundraising for the memorial, paid for by a combination of $150 million in public funds and $15 million in private support.

The private donations include $1 million from the government of Taiwan, a contribution that reflects the conflict with China during Eisenhower's presidency, which began during the Korean War.

Roberts noted that Eisenhower was the only president to visit Taiwan, the island nation where Chinese anti-communists fled after dictator Mao Zedong took power in China.

The memorial is surrounded by federal agencies established during Eisenhower's presidency: The Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"He was president when America began our leadership on the world stage. He established much of our nation's current infrastructure. He started NASA. There's a lot of things he started," Roberts said.

The opening of the memorial will be the retiring Kansas senator's last major act as a lawmaker after four decades in Congress.

Now 84 and the longest-serving member of Congress in Kansas history, Roberts' exposure to politics began with Eisenhower's 1952 campaign when his father, Charles Wesley Roberts, was involved with organizing support for Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention.

Roberts, then a high school sophomore, got to meet Eisenhower at the convention and months later participated in his inaugural parade after his father was tapped to chair the Republican National Committee.

"I think the thing that I remember most about the inauguration was we were in a Buick convertible," he recalled. "My dad was national chairman at the time and we were far up in the parade and we were going through red lights and I thought that was pretty neat."

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