News & Politics

A Q&A With Susan Eisenhower About the Fight Over Her Grandfather’s Memorial

Like many monuments erected in Washington, the one commemorating the last general-turned-president is stirring up conflict.

This view of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial shows the metal tapestries and the LBJ Department of Education in the background. Photograph courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

When it comes to presidential families, the Eisenhower family is among the quietest. Rarely do they speak up about anything, but that has changed dramatically as plans are finalized for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial adjacent to the Mall. Last week the family members joined forces to protest the design by architect Frank Gehry and the speed with which the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is moving the project forward.

A letter sent to the National Capital Planning Commission read, “We are calling for an indefinite delay in the approval process and an indefinite postponement for the groundbreaking for the memorial until there is a thorough review of the design.” It was signed by Anne Eisenhower with the note: “representing all members of the Eisenhower family.”

Anne’s brother is David Eisenhower, who resigned from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in December. Susan Eisenhower, who is an author and an expert on international security and US-Russian relations, is another vocal opponent of the design. We talked with Susan about the memorial, the controversy, and what the family hopes to achieve.

The Eisenhower family does not strike me as a family that seeks out controversy. How did this happen?

There’s been a long process, going back to 1999, in identifying architects and the site. The site selection was one of the first jobs. The controversy began emerging this summer when there was a change in concept. Originally the plan was to put Dwight Eisenhower’s image on these metal tapestries. By summer, the approach changed to focusing on Eisenhower as a young boy. We had some concerns about that approach, and the more we looked into it the more we became concerned about other elements of the design—some fairly basic issues of scale, scope, and sustainability.

This all seems to have happened quite suddenly.

We were told in a meeting that the concept and design was on a fast track. If you look at the history of presidential memorials, it takes a long time to get them done. They [Gehry and the Eisenhower Memorial Commission] wanted to break ground this spring, and most Americans don’t even know it’s underway.

What can the public do if they share the family’s concerns?

[The issue is] on the calendar for the National Capital Planning Commission in March. I would encourage people to involve themselves in this process.

Should they show up at the March meeting?

Yes, absolutely. [You can sign up to speak through the commission’s website.] 

There is a website called the Truth about the Eisenhower Memorial, which is quite damning of the process, Frank Gehry, and sculptor Charles Ray. Is the family involved with that site?

I don’t have anything to do with it, and I haven’t seen it, but I am familiar with the issue. I’m aware of the fact there are opposition groups to this memorial, and it should be of concern not only to the Eisenhower family but to anyone who is interested in a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower.

What do you know about accusations that Charles Ray’s work “sexualizes” children?

Frank Gehry mentioned this sculptor’s name before the National Capital Planning Commission back in November. It’s completely inappropriate to focus on a young Eisenhower. That particular sculptor is inappropriate for a sculpture that is inappropriate.

In Abilene there’s already a sculpture of a ten-year-old Eisenhower. It’s charming and appropriate, because it’s in Abilene of a boy who grew up playing in the park where it stands. Gehry didn’t pick a new idea here. To focus on [his childhood for a memorial] in Washington, DC, loses an opportunity. Eisenhower was a 20th-century figure who became president and ushered in the space age. It seems odd that we wouldn’t remember the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in some kind of context.

Is there a Washington memorial that represents the spirit or style of what the family would prefer?

We don’t want to get into prescribing any kind of design, but let’s focus on the most popular memorials. They are powerful because of their simplicity. The most popular, in terms of numbers of visitors, is Lincoln. What makes the Lincoln Memorial so powerful is that it doesn’t try to do too much. In effect, it says that he saved the Union.

And that’s what you’d like for your grandfather?

Yes. The problem with this [Gehry] design is that it’s like a theme park. If you want to define appropriateness, just put him in a more traditional setting, in a more modest and sustainable way.

What would you rather it show—particularly the metal tapestries?

We’d rather not have them at all. No one has made a case for us that these tapestries will last for hundreds of years. They are finely woven mesh and are eight stories high. No one has convinced us that the most important feature of the design is sustainable. This is a huge maintenance issue.

What is your objection to the site?

It is [located] between the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education and the Air and Space Museum. The objection we have is that the metal tapestry has its back to the Department of Education. The original concept was that this memorial was going to be a green square, called Eisenhower Square, and it was going to be open, which is symbolically in keeping with Dwight Eisenhower. He didn’t have his back to Lyndon Johnson. They collaborated and cooperated and passed some landmark pieces of legislation.

Beyond writing a letter and speaking out, does the family have any power?

We are American citizens and taxpayers. I’m a Washingtonian. In terms of power, I’d like to think we have a prominent place as stakeholders in this. Of all the people who knew Dwight Eisenhower, we have a sense of obligation to him. My father was my grandfather’s only surviving child. All of Eisenhower’s grandchildren are my father’s children: my brother and sisters, David, Anne, and a younger sister, Mary. All of us have children. My father is 89, and he signed a letter to put to rest [the rumor] that the family is not united on this issue. He called for a fair examination of the plans underway.

Who does have the power?

The power rests with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. People should write to them, to the commissioners themselves.

Can the President intercede on your behalf?

I don’t know the answer to that. Frankly speaking, it is a matter for a congressionally appointed commission. After all the controversy surrounding the Martin Luther King Memorial, we should take our time to get this right. The people rushing it through are not doing us a service.

Should the families of presidents and other public figures have a say in the memorials that honor them?

Every American should have a say in the memorials we choose to build in our nation. Family members have a special responsibility. In this case, as far down as my generation, we knew him well. We lived on a farm adjacent to his. We were all young adults when he died. Certainly we should be given a voice in this process.