As the Republicans grind inelegantly through their nominating process, a controversy has arisen over one of their greatest past leaders, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the subject of only the fifth presidential memorial in Washington, D.C. Though he is increasingly seen as a distinguished president, he is not generally thought to be one of the five greatest presidents, so his memorial may be assumed to celebrate his attainments as a military commander as well as his time as president (1953–61).
The controversy has arisen over the proposed design of the architect, Frank Gehry, the renowned octogenarian (and originally Canadian) specialist in flamboyantly sculpted aluminum or stainless-steel walls, most famous for his Guggenheim art museum at Bilbao, Spain. Gehry proposes to hang stainless-steel-mesh tapestries from stone columns to depict Eisenhower’s Kansas origins: an imaginative and attractive technique. Where it becomes more complicated is in the proposal to have, as the only representation of Eisenhower himself, a statue of him as a barefoot teenage boy in Abilene.
This is nonsense. The monument is not raised up to a farm boy, but to the Supreme Commander of the Allied armies that liberated Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 and to a two-term president of the United States in tense and complex times.
It is quite in order to show his upbringing, but the tapestries should show him also in his military-command and presidential roles, and so should the statues. In a four-acre site, there is room for three tapestries and three statues (if the Kansan part must be maintained). Apart from aesthetic considerations, there is the matter of historical justice. Portraying him as a farm boy incites the notion that this is a monument to everyman, like the tomb of an unknown soldier. This was a notion championed by a culture critic at the Washington Post
, Philip Kennicott, who said that “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, who could have done what he did . . . if tapped.”
If Mr. Kennicott thinks the American population, or even the higher ranks of the army, were teeming with people who could just as well have planned and executed the greatest military operation in the history of the world, repulsed the German army in the Ardennes, achieved the double envelopment of the Ruhr (and bagged 325,000 German prisoners), secured the unconditional surrender of Germany in the West, set up the most successful alliance in history (NATO), ended the Korean War, and retained popular confidence and international respect (including the esteem of Churchill and de Gaulle) through eight years as president, then Mr. Kennicott should stick to culture.
And even there he should be careful, because implicit in such a fantasy there is a notion of a master race, or at least nationality, that vastly exceeds the ambitious conjurations of Nietzsche or Wagner, who in their more questing moments blurred the distinction between men and gods and balefully influenced the minds of many of the Germans whose surrender Eisenhower sought and received. But not even they suggested that the average man, no matter how uplifted by Teutonic notions of human perfectibility or susceptible to the forest murmurs, could plunk down ten divisions from Britain to France in one day, liberate half a continent in less than a year, successfully rule a nation of nearly 200 million, and lead a worldwide alliance.
As now conceived, Gehry’s memorial is the equivalent of a Washington Monument that ends with a flat top at one third of its height, a Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial with its subject housed as a miniature statue of a teenager. In Abilene, Kans., where he was brought up; at West Point, where he was not at all a star (unlike Douglas MacArthur, who had been); and even when he was MacArthur’s understudy in the Philippines in the Thirties (studying “theatrics,” as he unkindly said), when he was in his late forties, there was little to indicate the astonishing take-off Eisenhower’s career would make. He had the presence of mind to return to Washington as soon as World War II broke out, impressed the new chief of staff, George C. Marshall, became head of Marshall’s war-plans section, successfully directed the first major offensive operation of the U.S. Army in the war (the invasion of North Africa), brilliantly integrated his command with the British, and even sorted through the ghastly French political bouillabaisse in Algiers. (As the chief of the British general staff, Sir Alan Brooke, said of the faction heads: “[General Henri] Giraud has integrity but little intelligence, [Admiral Jean-François] Darlan has intelligence but no integrity, and de Gaulle has integrity and high intelligence, but an impossible and dictatorial personality.”) Eisenhower saw, long before Roosevelt, or even Churchill, how indispensable de Gaulle was to France and would be to post-war Europe.
Stalin, who was not much given to praise of others, and is widely suspected (including by Churchill and Brooke) of having hoped and expected that D-Day would be a failure that would distract the Germans and facilitate Russian penetration of Western Europe, volunteered: “The history of war does not know of another undertaking comparable to it for breadth of conception, grandeur of scale, and mastery of execution.” This was, for once from this source, nothing but the truth. Does anyone imagine there was a deep reserve of Americans ready to rack up such accomplishments and earn such laudations from such stingy and worldly judges?