One hundred twenty-one years ago today, October 14, 1890, Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in the small town of Denison, Texas. His birthday will be commemorated this weekend with a wreath laying at his burial site in Abilene and another at his statue in Gettysburg. Otherwise, the day will pass without many Americans realizing its significance.
Is it just me, or does Eisenhower seem to be largely overlooked these days, if not outright forgotten? It was refreshing back in January of this year to see Ike garner so much attention during the 50th anniversary of his farewell address – the one in which he warned of the military-industrial complex. But that was just a momentary spike in what seemingly has become a nearly flat line of interest in the 34th president .
We see that here at Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg, most strikingly among the younger generation. Students don’t know Eisenhower, particularly as president. For most, American history concludes with World War II. They’ve never been introduced to the Cold War and the Eisenhower presidency in their history classes. If they are vaguely aware of him presidentially, it’s as the one lucky enough to have a nickname that made for a snappy campaign slogan.
Lately, his own party no longer acknowledges him. While Ronald Reagan is regularly invoked, the soldier and reluctant candidate who successfully controlled defense spending, who balanced budgets and refused to cut taxes until they were, and who advocated a course down the middle of the road where one can “obtain agreement for constructive social action,” and “where are rooted the hopes and allegiances of the vast majority of our people,” typically warrants nary a mention.
Then, too, I recall how he was dismissed by historians on whom magazines relied to compile their 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century polls. You didn’t find the WWII supreme commander who led the Allies to victory in Europe and the president who safely navigated America through the hazards and hairpin turns of the Cold War for eight years listed in any of those issues.
But I tend to think Ike wouldn’t so much mind the disregard. He was a modest man who preferred the quiet, hidden-hand, understated approach to leadership and tackling issues, even though it didn’t always serve him well. He was one who appeared more concerned that subordinates receive credit for achievements and successes. During the war, Chief of Staff George Marshall chastised him for always publicly crediting everyone but himself for Allied victories.
What Ike would find satisfying is how his name has almost indiscernibly yet steadily climbed the presidential polls over the past 50 years. From 22nd best president in Schlesinger’s 1962 poll, he’s risen to 8th best in C-Span’s latest poll in 2009.
Of course, there is a generation who remembers him well. World War II vets who visit his Gettysburg farm speak of him with great fondness and pride. Others recall how as president he got them out of Korea, or how no matter what party you belonged to you instinctively trusted him, or how he instilled in everyone an abiding confidence in the country, even in the midst of the McCarthy witch hunts and burgeoning civil rights unrest.
And it’s not only Americans. We have had former German prisoners of war visit the site who in 1943-45 were at the POW camp located just down the road from the Gettysburg farm the Eisenhowers would one day purchase. Even they refer to him with respect and admiration. A good soldier… A man of honor and integrity.
Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, and his death was accorded the usual pomp and circumstance due a passing president. Tellingly though, Ike requested that he be buried as his troops were during the war – in a plain wooden coffin.
One day at dusk, as the train transporting Ike’s coffin from the Capitol to its final resting place in his hometown of Abilene coursed through the endless and empty wheat fields of the Midwest, a Secret Service agent happened to glance out the train window. There, alone in this vast expanse of flatland, an old farmer climbed down from his tractor. And as the train passed, this lone farmer there in the middle of nowhere without another soul to be seen, stood at attention and saluted. The agent recalled thinking how Ike would have “appreciated that more than all the pomp they gave him in Washington.”
I think it wouldn’t distress Ike if his birthday passed with little attention. But surely there will be those who will remember quietly and perhaps, in the expanse of their own Midwestern field, direct a salute skyward.
John Joyce is a park ranger at Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg, PA.