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Eisenhower memorial fallout over legacy omissions, design

Believed to date between 1953 and 1955, this photo shows (left to right): Channing Tobias, Arthur Spingarn, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, Clarence Mitchell, Walter White, and Theodore Spaulding. Mitchell and Tobias were well-known civil rights activists.
Believed to date between 1953 and 1955, this photo shows (left to right): Channing Tobias, Arthur Spingarn, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, Clarence Mitchell, Walter White, and Theodore Spaulding. Mitchell and Tobias were well-known civil rights activists.
U.S. Library of Congress Digital Collection

President Dwight D. Eisenhower has long deserved a memorial, but the monument being planned is drawing criticism from many quarters. Fallout over legacy omissions like Eisenhower’s role in civil rights as well as the design has touched arts experts, the president’s family members and the general public.

Eric Wind, chairman emeritus of the National Civic Art Society, wrote in an editorial that plans for the Eisenhower Memorial had something in common with the Martin Luther King Memorial—“leaving the viewer confused -- if not outright misled -- about the man it claims to commemorate.”

In a phone interview, Wind told Examiner the current plans “don’t capture Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishments.” That’s important, “Because millions of people who know nothing about President Eisenhower will see this— we’re not just building this memorial for ourselves but for future generations.”

Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group, Inc., is the granddaughter of the president.

Ms. Eisenhower testified before the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources at a hearing titled ‘The Proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial’ on March 20, 2012. She pointed out numerous problems with the memorial plans, including “eighty-foot metal curtains to be suspended from columns of the same height, scattered on a four-acre site” and fencing consisting of “mesh metal scrims.” Ms. Eisenhower went into great detail about other issues, including the sculpture.

The artist envisioned having the figure of the president sculpted as a boy. Critics find that bizarre—that the sculpture of one the most influential and capable men in modern U.S. history is depicted as a boy.

Also missing from the artwork narrative is Eisenhower’s contribution to civil rights at a pivotal time in the country’s history. President Eisenhower supported and signed the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, and he ordered federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the desegregation of Central High School, a natural extension of the whole reason his Republican Party was founded.

Although Eisenhower's role in civil rights is a matter of record, it took a long amount of time for Examiner to locate the photo that accompanies this article.

In the essay for The American Thinker, Wind and his fellow author Jack Carlson expressed concerns about the memorial, citing the controversial Martin Luther King Memorial. That memorial was actually sculpted under the auspices of a Chinese artist and the work was even done in communist China. It didn’t help that lines from a speech by Dr. King were misquoted.

Wind and Carlson pointed out the 9/11 Memorial also suffered from “a failure to understand the nature of monuments...The misappropriated quotation of Vergil's Aeneid at the new 9/11 Memorial in New York suggests the same in another monumental context.”

Critics of the Eisenhower Memorial design believe a classical approach is in keeping with the tradition of statuary and other monuments and architecture in the nation’s capital.

Ms. Eisenhower said in her testimony:

“One of the main flaws of the current proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial is that Eisenhower’s contribution to this nation is not the central theme of the design. The narrative is muddled and never really gives us the ‘bottom line’ phrase that articulates his contribution to the nation.”

The U.S. victory in World War II, space exploration, the interstate highway system, the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states, ending the war in Korea, civil rights—all these accomplishments bore the unmistakable imprint of Eisenhower. “Peace and Prosperity” were hallmark key words to describe his presidency.

One of the most oft-quoted phrases, although severely truncated insofar as the meaning, in political debate is the term Eisenhower alluded to in his farewell address in 1961, "the military-industrial complex."

Mockups of images shared at the National Civic Art Society website give an idea of the misguided design—gargantuan towers and the panels, referred to as “tapestries” by the designers, not only displease the eye, they do not suitably capture the legacy established by the 34th president of the United States. Tapestries are actually more common in commemorative artwork in totalitarian countries.

David Brussat, a member of the editorial board of The Providence Journal (R.I.), summed up complaints, writing of the artistic conflict: “If architecture is to play a more gentle role, the profession must heal itself by shelving its ego and designing places people like. Modern architecture has refused that task, but classical architecture has not. Still, people must tell the profession how to proceed.”

Although funds have already been expended, nothing permanent has yet been erected. Critics are calling for a do-over.

Wind said, “Why throw good money after bad? We ought to get this right.”

Many Americans, especially those who lived during President Eisenhower’s years as military commander and then president, would agree with Wind that the proposed memorial simply doesn’t “properly convey all of Eisenhower’s great accomplishments.”


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