The Eisenhower Memorial: Another Front in the Culture Wars?

For decades I have worked in the national security and energy security arenas where passions run high, but they are tempered by facts and figures, data and verifiable results. That’s why it has been a new experience—and often a disturbing one— to become an unwitting combatant in America’s Culture Wars, confrontations of emotion, taste and values.

What started as a simple request on the part of the Eisenhower family to delay the approval process and groundbreaking for an Eisenhower Memorial has turned into a fiery debate about modernism versus traditionalism; the gender of memorial language in the 21st century; memorial aesthetics on the National Mall; and controversies around the work of the Memorial’s famous architect, Frank Gehry, and his potential sculptor, Charles Ray.

Gehry’s memorial design proposes to highlight a “barefoot boy from Abilene,” who sits in the shadow of 80-foot woven metal “tapestries” that depict the Kansas landscape. Yet little has been said about the best way to capture Dwight Eisenhower’s contribution to his nation—the very reason he is being memorialized in the first place. In essence, the debate has been about the medium not the message; about the objects rather than the objectives. It seems to me that if we can capture what Dwight Eisenhower has to say to future generations, the way to convey it will be clear.

Existing statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a boy in Abilene, Kansas

Some of the reporters and officials who have spoken in the media have masked their own strong feelings about the memorial design and concept by putting words into the mouths of various members of the Eisenhower family. This is not surprising, given the emotions this topic has evoked. However, it is an inaccurate filter through which to understand our family’s simple— and what we hope is constructive— position.

In the context of the nation’s recent experience with the Martin Luther King Memorial, the bottom line is simple: The time is now to get this memorial right. We should not be afraid of delays. The FDR Memorial took three different design competitions before reaching a final plan. And for those who think that a “fast track” is the only road to success, the National Building Museum’s exhibit, “Unbuilt Washington,”  underscores that nothing in the built environment is inevitable, as one museum official told the gathering at its opening in 2011.

To communicate directly, in the ensuing months I hope to write an occasional blog to keep readers of this site up-to-date on the position of the Eisenhower family. In the meantime, here are a few fast facts:

  • We respect all of the artists involved in the Eisenhower memorial project to date. No, we do not “hate” the design, nor do we pass artistic judgment on any of the artists who have been engaged in this process. Appropriateness, however, is absolutely key to the memorialization of Dwight Eisenhower, just as it would be any other American similarly honored.
  • We are concerned that through the federal appropriations process “top dollar” has been spent on a memorial design that lacks originality and doesn’t meet common-sense sustainability demands. The statue of a young “barefoot” Dwight Eisenhower has already been done in his hometown of Abilene, where he grew up (see photo above). The idea of metal tapestries has also already been used by Frank Gehry on parking garages in Santa Monica, California and Miami Beach, Florida.
  • We hope to find a constructive way to work with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, though we are concerned and frustrated to read that, according to commission staff, no changes in the design are likely and that the project is still moving at full speed ahead for an early approval.

Let me close in saying that my family encourages all Americans who care about this issue to weigh in with the Eisenhower Memorial Commissioners.  Since there is no published list of the Commissioner’s email addresses, it will be easiest to contact the members of Congress who serve on the Commission. Please ask them for a delay in the approval process. If you like, you are also welcome to post a comment here on this website or spread the word to your friends.

This is a case where the old adage “Nothing Good Happens Fast” takes on new meaning and urgency.

To learn more about the controversy surrounding the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, please see Katherine Boyle’s piece “Eisenhower’s granddaughters critical of Gehry’s design” and Philip Kennicott’s piece “Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial reinvigorates the genre,” both recently published in the Washington Post.


20 thoughts on “The Eisenhower Memorial: Another Front in the Culture Wars?

  1. A bell tower? That has a nice ring to it (no pun intended). It would be something not done before in the Mall, but would complement rather than overwhelm the surrounding architecture. A visual monument that would also be an audio monument. Short of an actual statue of Eisenhower (and there’s no reason there couldn’t be a statue in front of the bell tower), it would seem a tasteful solution. And the ground floor of the bell tower could have a small audio-visual presentation of Eisenhower’s accomplishments. I like the idea. It would definitely be better than the present design.

  2. The Gehry Memorial seems an affront; a lordly arrogance. Dwight D. Eisenhower, from everything I read about him would not have tolerated such “hoi palloi”. Equally disagreeable would be a tribute unadorned with those elements that distinguishes “Ike’s” character and career.

    As my Face Book posts for several years now will attest, my admiration for Susan Eisenhower is not circumspect; and may well be boundless; however, I do not agree with the concept of campanile bell tower ( albeit the symbolism and the purpose are understandable).

    A man of towering strength and steadfast logic and purpose, President Eisenhower was no St Francis of Assisi, nor perhaps even religious in the conventional sense. His sonorous voice announcing the Normandy invasion, inspiring and disseminating hope is more rhapsodic than any tone emanating from such a contrivance.
    No architect I, nor urban planner, but I am impassioned on this issue. There is some contentiousness here, to be sure. Susan’s comments cite perhaps the most incredible of achievements of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the ability to hold together a fragile alliance, during the war, and later at NATO.

    In terms of vision; I would like to see 5 large stars in relief, each commemorating an element in his career; e.g., West Point, Supreme Commander, Columbia, NATO, President. Perhaps against a granite backdrop from which recordings of his masterful elocution would emerge.

    It any event, I am continuing to follow this with considerable interest and posting about it on Face Book.

  3. Architect and critic Roger K. Lewis has offered yet another on-target analysis of the misguided Gehry Memorial. See:

    To me, the problem is neither the style of architecture nor the boy versus man argument. Nor is it whether this is more of a Gehry Memorial than an Eisenhower Memorial.

    Rather, it does not put the right man in the right space, as the memorial easily could and should.

    Ike the general successfully molded Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley, with their disparate and conflicting styles of leadership, into a working relationship that won WWII in the European Theatre. Ike the president worked out his differences with Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Senate, and the military-industrial complex, as he called it.

    The Maryland Avenue space symbolically presents the same problems that Ike faced as general and as president. The buildings the memorial must deal with are as different as Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley. The buildings are even more symbolic of the issues Ike dealt with as president: the Wilbur Cohen Building is the New Deal both in time and name; the LBJ building’s symbolism is eponymous; the NASA museum contains the highest achievements of the military-industrial complex.

    The key to Ike’s success was that he found a way to work with disparate people and conflicting ideologies. He did not try to repeal the New Deal; he worked with LBJ; and he solidified his place in history with a caution against the excesses of the military industrial complex that only he could deliver.

    The Gehry Memorial does not exploit any of this obvious symbolism and in fact completely misses Ike the general and president by neglecting the surrounding buildings. Ike would never agree to such an affront to LBJ as the Gehry Memorial proposes.

    My cholce of memorial would fit into Roger K. Lewis’s plan. I would create a campanile bell tower that would rise above the other buildings but unify them with a central column. Bell sounds would reach out in harmony to the buildings and the neighborhood. The campanile would not necessarily be either traditional or modern, but pick up the best design elements of the neighboring buildings just as Ike was able to make use of the best qualities of the people he dealt with.

  4. Why not five life size statues to depict the different highlights of The Presidents life.

    1. A small boy of ten.

    2. Cadet Eisenhower at West Point

    3. Lt. Eisenhower in Mexico

    4. Gen. Eisenhower in WWII

    5. President Eisenhower during The Cold War

    Accompanied by plaques that explains his dreams and/or major achievements at each stage.

  5. I just watched an interview dated Oct 2011 with Frank Gehry. I can only say that this man is absoulutely clueless. He and his liberal artsy cohorts should stay in Hollywood where they belong. While listening to his ramblings it is apparent that he should not be on this project. He sounded like he didnt even know who Dwight Eisenhower was.He stated that he read everything on Ike he could find. I doubt it! He must of missed a few.Im still reading after many, many years. PLEASE stand your ground and reject everything that has been proposed. I feel that we need to get this right and honor a GREAT AMERICAN! Endeavor to persevere!

  6. I still have a 2.75 inch figure of General Eisenhower, in uniform. Looking straight ahead, smiling, one hand on his waist, the other along his side. Confident, competent, strong. A leader who we trusted. A proven leader who led the free world against tyranny. One proud of his uniform, which displayed clearly all medals. A proud American. THAT is the figure the world should remember. THAT is the figure which belongs on the memorial. Not the boy from Abilene, the MAN who was a 5 star general, the MAN who was President when America prospered.

  7. My husband’s family lost their oldest son serving under Eisenhower in Europe. Foster was a farm boy, who in the prime of life did not get to fulfill his dream. He was a ‘barefoot boy’. Along with his brothers they had a great beginning in their farm heritage.

    Many ‘barefoot boy’ served under Ike. He was their supreme commander.They all had their dreams. Eisenhower fulfilled his.
    Many grew up.

  8. As a five year old German kid I witnessed with tears when Eisenhower’s soldiers crushed
    our precious vegetable garden with their tanks but those tears were quickly replaced with
    the revelation that the American conquest in our village was a blessing in disguise. Every
    kid felt the generosity and kindness of these new aliens and Eisenhower represented in
    an almost corny sense this civilian nonchalance that captivated the hearts and minds of
    a humiliated country. Unlike the arrogance and indifference that was displayed more than
    fifty five years later, Eisenhowers strategic achievement saved me, Europe and the world from an unimaginable murderous tyranny.

    As an artist I respect Frank Gehrie’s originality very much. He lovingly designed the kitchen
    of a friend years ago. His playfulness is unique and very experimental and I am sure that he would have no problem to reconsidering his design and inviting Susan Eisenhower to his
    studio. Her request makes total sense to me and probably to him too. Artists by nature go
    with the flow.

  9. We already have one recent memorial (MLK), on the mall that was poorly designed and executed. That memorial does not truly reflect the essence of who Martin Luther King was and what he stood for.

    In reading “IKE’s” biography a few years back, I came away with the sense of a man of silent strength and a simple humility. It seems you are all on the right track. Ask the artist to employ the KISS principle in designing the memorial.

    Wishing you all the best in turning this design around!

  10. I agree with Roger K. Lewis and his “Just say No.” Metal tapestry, indeed. It would be known as “Ike’s Iron Curtain.” And the pillars are bollards on steroids.

    More power to the Eisenhower family. Get it right.

  11. Clearly, the design that represents the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower has not been found. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission must take more time and find a better solution for the chosen site. See my letter to the Commission, Roger K. Lewis, architect and professor emeritus of architecture UMD, says in his critique of the current design, “Perhaps the National Capital Planning Commission, when it next reviews the design, will muster the courage to do what the Commission of Fine Arts has not done. Just say No. The NCPC would have lots of company.” (Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2012).

  12. I agree with the last responders. President Eisenhower should not be patronized in this way. He was a great General and a man of integrity. Having recently visited Normandy and viewing the movies that showed the General on the front at D Day, I cannot understand how the architects could be so insensitive to the American public much less his family. Who in Washington would get the idea of a boy under a tree?

  13. The design shown on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission website looks like a public park, not a memorial to an American President and the key military leader who led Allied forces to victory in Europe in World War II and freed the Holocaust survivors from their prisons of horror. Nor is the design shown a memorial of the type built for other Presidents, including Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR, which were not only built of stone and marble for the ages, but also include inspiring words and images that represent the accomplishments of those Presidents. No such memorial should proceed further without the support of the Eisenhower family.

  14. A youngster could not have said this:

    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children…This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” (Speech delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C. April 16, 1953)”

    A memorial design should evoke the man that said this. The man who led and held together one of the most important coalitions of the twentieth century, who led us to victory in the European theater should not be reduced to a “Huckleberry Finn ” caricature – that characterization is reductionism at its worst.! The rendering that will immediately convey the greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower. is what is called for not this figure best suited for a children’s’ playground.

  15. This is a thoughtful and well written blog about a important topic – our nation’s memory.
    The monument should not be about appeasing a rarified art elite, but should be about communicating to Americans for generations yet unborn what was good and great about President Eisenhower, and by extension, about our nation. The “challenging” abstract novelties of modernism can never speak intelligibly to people outside of this elite, hence such a monument would be meaningless gibberish to most Americans, and utterly fail in its purpose, to memorialize.

  16. So pleased that you relaunched the site. I always have enjoyed your thoughtful opinions on all things American.
    Lary Alba

  17. The notion of modernism for the sake of “being contemporary” or reaching a wider (younger) audience is not valid in the portrayal of historical figures. As someone born in 1953, I remember learning about President Eisenhower as a successful general and good president.

    However, revisionism can be found in both history writing AND art. President Eisenhower, as I later learned, was a great president. There is a clear indication that a historical torch was being passed along – from the “we Americans” to the “me Americans”.

    While I admire innocence in youth and purity in intent, that is something difficult to portray in art. A memorial should honor the leader and the man. Those who remember more can hold a youthful memory. As America did in his lifetime, he grew from a child to a leader. With those gone, now we can only seek the nostalgia or the path back to progress. However, we can only live in one or the other.

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