Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We Like Ike in Abilene, Kansas (mile 1,955)

June 15, 2009

Despite our goal of avoiding interstates on this adventure, it was most appropriate that we speed along I-70 to get to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene today, because President Eisenhower championed the development of the interstate highway system, and the Kansas portion of I-70 was the first part of the system to be officially completed.

Since Eisenhower succeeded Truman as President, we were able to continue our Presidential history lesson chronologically at the Eisenhower Library. Even more intriguing was the very different perspectives the two sites offered in their coverage of the important events in the lives and times which both men shared.

We began with the Visitor Center film, which repeatedly referred to the 1940s and 1950s as "The Eisenhower Years," giving him credit for virtual ownership of all that was good over those two decades. Lights up, and I am irked--some of those "Eisenhower Years" were years that other people (e.g. Truman) were President or had more significant impact on changes the film credits to him (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr.).

If Eisenhower had a hand in scripting the film, it was indefensibly egotistical. But, it is possible, even probable, that he had no part in its production--Eisenhower didn't live in Abilene after his presidency, he did not have an office at his museum or library, and the museum is strangely silent on the history of its development, so we aren't sure how involved Eisenhower was in shaping its messages and exhibits, beyond providing lots of artifacts. Taking him off the hook, at a minimum the curators were overreaching—he was a hero who made a huge impact on the world stage, but he was not the sole iconic figure shaping two decades of our history. (As I said, I was irked.)

We walked across a green to Eisenhower's childhood home,
a tiny three bedroom cottage with an outhouse where six Eisenhower boys lived with their parents and grandfather. Describing it as "modest" would be generous. We are now three for three in Presidential Library exhibits visited on this trip with a "rise from humble beginnings" theme.

We continued to the Museum, which had four main gallery areas: (1)childhood and youth,(2) military service with a major focus on World War II and the D Day invavsion (3) a small Mamie fashion gallery, and(4) the post-military years, including the Presidential years. The Military gallery accounted for about 50% of the space, and had the most in-depth curation and most interesting artifacts of all the galleries.

Here is the quick run through of Eisenhower's stellar military career. His 1915 West Point graduating class is known as "The Class the Stars Fell On," because it produced a record number of generals with at least one star, and two achieved the highest rank possible in the Army. Eisenhower gave Mamie his class ring as her engagement ring on Valentine's Day in 1916, and they got married that summer. Eisenhower went on to have tons of different staff positions. One of his early assignments in 1919 was to the first transcontinental motor convoy, testing military vehicles. It took the convoy 62 days to travel 3251 miles from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, due to the deplorable condition of the roads. Surely memories of this experience inspired Ike to champion interstate .highway legislation.

He made himself indispensable to his commanding officers, serving with General McArthur in Panama and the Philippines, and General Marshall, who called him to emergency duty five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their letters of commendation, appreciation and recommendation are on display. Eventually General Eisenhower rose to become Supreme Commander of the Allied Invasion of Northern Europe, orchestrating the Normandy invasion, "the mightiest armada in the history of the world." When General Marshall retired as Army Chief of Staff in 1945, President Truman offered General Eisenhower the job, and he took it on the condition that he be able to retire after two years. "The job was as bad as I always thought it would be," Eisenhower wrote in his diary. One of his biggest headaches was dealing with issues involved in desegregating the Army after Truman signed the order (see yesterday's post).

Eisenhower went from being Army Chief of Staff to being President . . . of Columbia University. All the while politicos from both parties, including Truman, were urging him to run for the Presidency. Truman and Eisenhower were friends, but their friendship soured after Eisenhower made a strategic and opportunistic decision to run for the Presidency on the Republican ticket, even though he supported and had played a role in a number of the important initiatives of Truman's Democratic administration. A Presidency gained, a friendship lost.

The War Years exhibit ended with a display case thirty feet long filled with bejeweled medals, ribbons, and legions of honor awarded to General Eisenhower from too many countries to count. It made for a good transition to Mamie's gallery of jewelry and dresses, including her wedding gown, displayed with a real piece of her wedding cake nestled in a napkin in its original red, white and blue wedding favor box. (If you have never seen an 83 year old piece of cake, take it from me, it is truly gross.) Mamie made the "Ten Best Dressed" list every year she was First Lady, and Ike claimed she was a better campaigner than he was. Beyond that, we learn very little about their relationship here, and there is virtually no mention of Ike's role as a father.

I was intrigued by statements from Eisenhower's speeches quoted in both the film and the exhibit which seemed incongruous with his path to the Presidency. He said:

"This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies. . . a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . ."

After ascending to the office through his skill at executing war, he spent his Presidency, like Truman, avoiding war. Much of his attention was occupied by ending the Korean War, "keeping the Cold War cold" and negotiating relations with Russia. The economy boomed, and the Voting Rights Act was passed, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The integration of Little Rock High School was a major crisis, and the President had to use the Army 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine African American students to class after Governor Fabus refused to use the Arkansas National Guard. We will be in Little Rock in two days—perhaps we will learn another chapter in this story.

By the time his two terms in the White House were over, Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. He and Mamie retired to a farm in Gettysburg, and he died just nine years after leaving office.

We toured the Eisenhower historic site thoroughly, and still were done in time for lunch.

Editorial note: Dick has read this post and does not think I did justice to Dwight David Eisenhower. He has added a few facts to round out my coverage, but declined to do a rewrite or post a counterpoint.

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