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The Unpredictable Past

February 29, 2012

In writing on the collapse of the Soviet Union in my 1994 book Breaking Free, I noted the relish with which Soviet jokesters challenged the communist regime, and its ludicrous use of propaganda to trumpet the future and erase all traces of past failures. “The future is bright,” they spoofed, “it’s the past that’s unpredictable.”

Rewriting history, or framing it to meet contemporary ideological objectives, happens to some degree everywhere – even in democracies. That’s why cycles of scholarly reassessment are vital edits to “history’s first draft,” as newspaper reporting is often called. (To have the last word, perhaps, Dwight Eisenhower left a time capsule buried in the wall of my grandparents’ home at their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.)

One of the most important of these reappraisals on Dwight Eisenhower focuses on his civil rights record. Written by scholar David Nichols, A Matter of Justice, peels back the layers of ideological assumptions to reveal a very different take on the Eisenhower administration’s desegregation strategy in the 1950s. Last week, at the University of Central Arkansas, I was able to reference Nichols’ work in a speech I gave on the 1957 Little Rock crisis. Many in the audience were surprised, for instance, that all federally controlled schools for military dependents, even in the south, were desegregated before Brown v. Board of Education. This, along with the desegregation of Washington, D.C. and the armed forces, was just the beginning of the administration’s effort – under the Justice Department of Attorney General Herbert Brownell. It laid the groundwork for many milestone achievements during those eight years and beyond – including a list of stellar federal and Supreme Court appointments. Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, was in the audience and like many others there, seemed surprised by this history that was told anew.  The conference at the University of Central Arkansas also brought a new dimension to the story by recounting the principled leadership stand taken by the Arkansas Gazette at the time of the Little Rock Crisis in 1957.

Unlike years past, Ike now seems to be constantly in the news. Since the first story about the family’s objections to the Eisenhower Memorial design and concept appeared in The Washington Post, the debate on how to remember Dwight Eisenhower has gained momentum. Front page and opinion piece coverage, such as George Will’s column in The Washington PostRoss Douthat’s in The New York Times, and Eric Felten’s piece in The Wall Street Journal, has assured that the story has “gone national.”

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) also opened a Congressional front on February 10. Wolf called for revamping the memorial and for a new, open selection process. It was a courageous, bold move. This has been followed by another letter, dated February 27, to the National Capital Planning Commission. In it, Congressman Daniel Lungren (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on House Administration, and Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL), a member of that Committee which has oversight for Capitol Grounds, called on the NCPC to delay their deliberations so that a redesign of the memorial can occur.

In this thinking about the past and how we remember and memorialize it, I close on a personal note of nostaglia and sadness. While writing this piece, I was startled to learn of the death of Sam Vaughan, former Doubleday and Random House editor. Vaughan was Dwight Eisenhower’s editor at Doubleday as he wrote his White House memoirs, Mandate for Change and Waging Peace.

Samuel S. Vaughan

Samuel S. Vaughan in 1972. © Robert Walker/ The New York Times

I remember Vaughan well. He would often come to Gettysburg, where we were living, while Ike and my father, John Eisenhower, were working on the manuscripts at a large house on the campus of Gettysburg College. Vaughan was a towering figure, not only in stature, but in demeanor as well. He showed a lively interest in us kids, even as he was deeply engaged in the serious business of editing the books. Years later in 1995, Vaughan tried to acquire the rights to my book Mrs. Ike while he was at Random House. The book was eventually published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, but I never forgot Vaughan – and his generosity of time, his enthusiasm for my subject and his commitment to the craft. He will be missed for these and all the other reasons outlined in The New York Times obituary. But I will remember him for the important role he played in helping my grandfather tell the story of his administration’s record—in his own words.

Many books on Eisenhower have come out recently, and more are slated for publication in the next year. Ike’s White House memoirs are valuable resources. Some books will retell old, dubious out-of-date stories. But others, as we have seen, will underscore what the Soviet story tellers insisted is true: the past can indeed be unpredictable.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Nass-Rosen permalink
    February 29, 2012 1:38 pm

    What has happened to the Republican party,
    Anyone under 50 does not know history!

  2. Vanessa Lambright permalink
    February 29, 2012 5:10 pm

    They know history. They are hoping no one else does so that they can rewrite it.

  3. Eugene Stevens, SFC, U.S. Army (retired) permalink
    April 10, 2012 8:22 am

    I wonder if partisanship isn’t part of the problem here. The Democrats have built a narrative where they are the defenders of the Civil Rights movement. Yet here we have Eisenhower, who took the first steps towards desegregating the military in his capacity as General of the Army. Truman then made it official by Executive Order. But why did he do it by Executive Order rather than through congressional legislation? It was because southern Democrats had vowed to block any legislation to integrate the military. Then as president, Eisenhower enforced school desegregation per Brown vs The Board of Education. Opposing him and the ruling were two governors, Orville Faubus and George Wallace, both Democrats. Not exactly the narrative the Democrats want repeated in a memorial to Eisenhower.

    Martin Luther King has a full-sized statue on the Mall, as he rightfully should, as the voice of the Civil Rights movement. But the argument could be made that Dwight Eisenhower did much of the heavy lifting of the Civil Rights movement. And I wonder if that doesn’t make him an inconvenient truth to the Democrats. Hence Gehry’s design for the memorial, which while grand in scale, marginalizes the man it is supposed to honor, by portraying him as a small boy. If the sculptor who made the statue of Martin Luther King had portrayed him as a small, barefoot boy, would the King family or the black community have approved of THAT statue? No, they’d be outraged! And rightfully so. So why treat Ike in that manner?

    Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am a conservative (my representative is Aaron Schock, who I’m proud to say has taken on this issue). But I would hate to think that partisanship has a part in the design of Dwight Eisenhower’s memorial. He deserves better than that.

  4. Shirley Milford permalink
    July 18, 2013 1:26 pm

    When we toured the Eisenhowers’ home in 1989 the tour guide told us that Ike had left a time capsule in the fireplace. I’ve forgotten when it was to be opened but remember thinking I would be long gone by then. But I always wondered what was in the time capsule – I sure would love to know!

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