Despite all of the challenges of COVID-19, the Center for Law, Engagement, and Politics continues to provide engaging and interesting learning opportunities for students. Most recently, students were able to watch a Facebook live interview with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, where she discussed her grandfather’s leadership in World War II and as president. Author of the biography How Ike Led, she had much to share about his life and overall legacy.
The interview began with a look at President Eisenhower’s role in D-Day,
liberating Europe from Nazi rule, and his handling of the discovery of concentration camps. It was explained that Eisenhower opted for a broad, slow advance to defeat the Nazi empire, rather than a fast and hasty one. He wanted to bring an end to the regime, and prevent it from rising to power again, and for his approach he was criticized by some who wanted a quicker–but riskier–approach.
In spite of his critics, this slow advance would be an important factor that led to the discovery of concentration camps. When he learned of the atrocities, he took it upon himself to examine every corner of the camps to understand what had happened and how it had come to pass.
She told us that he then issued orders for as many people as possible to document and bear witness to the camps. He brought in journalists, elected officials, and everyone fighting on the front lines.
He then had townspeople from surrounding areas marched through to see what their denial and willful ignorance had led to, and many were made to give burials to the deceased.
As she discussed the importance of Eisenhower’s foresight, and how he was able to anticipate that many people would not believe what had happened in the camps, Susan Eisenhower reminded us that Germany is one of the few countries in the world with zero tolerance of Holocaust denial. LEAP ambassadors learned about Germany’s efforts to reverse the wrongs of the Holocaust and its lingering effects earlier this year.
As the discussion transitioned to Eisenhower’s post-war service, I learned several interesting facts about his commitment to service and duty…
Apparently, on more than one occasion, President Truman offered not to run for reelection after his term, and instead let Eisenhower run for the Democratic nomination. Eisenhower refused each time because he was not in search of power. His granddaughter reminded us that he had wielded more power than most other leaders during World War II, and did not want run for president except when he felt it was his absolutely duty to do so.
A few other aspects of his commitment to duty were his refusal to wear a helmet because they should only be worn by those serving in combat, and his refusal to accept the Congressional Medal of Honor for the same reason – it was meant for those who had shown valor in combat.
The conversation then pivoted to Eisenhower’s leadership style as president of the United States. It was made clear that he did not engage in personal attacks; he was strategic and methodical in his political approach. When dealing with Senator McCarthy and his infamous hearings, Eisenhower did not call him out directly. Instead, he gave speeches about what American democracy should look like, insisted on televising the outrageous investigations, and let the Senate come to censure McCarthy on their own.
President Eisenhower also suffered no nonsense when it came to dealing with issues of race. As LEAP ambassadors learned in January of this year, the governor of Arkansas – Orval Faubus – dragged his feet in complying with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, and made every effort to not desegregate schools. In response to this, Eisenhower mobilized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed 101st Airborne (paratroopers he had commanded on D-Day) to protect a group of African American students, immortalized in history as the “Little Rock Nine,” as they desegregated Little Rock Central High.
Susan Eisenhower then spoke about how her grandfather was a leader through study and discipline, and was naturally empathetic. He knew what people needed to hear, and tried to be relatable and genuine whenever he could. We saw a picture of him speaking with members of the 101st Airborne Division prior to D-Day and were told that he was discussing fly-fishing techniques with Lt. Wallace Strobel, rather than giving a pep talk about their mission. He wanted to remind them of their humanity.
Finally, President Eisenhower’s legacy of leadership and empathy are embodied eternally in Norman Rockwell’s portraits of him, which at various times depict him both serious and smiling. As his granddaughter explained, the big, toothy grin we saw was his trademark smile, as he was generally in good spirits around his family.
As the meeting came to a close, Susan Eisenhower reminded us that we will “be better as people if we can understand the views of those who come from…different backgrounds,” encouraging us to be ‘like Ike’ when it came to how we view and deal with those who are different than us.
This interview was so interesting and informative, and we were incredibly lucky to hear from Susan Eisenhower. We are grateful for her time and insight, and look forward to the possibility of meeting her in person someday soon.