Dwight Eisenhower’s life reflected the classic American success story. Born of humble origins, he chose an Army career in order to serve his country. Through his own talent, hard work and quiet ambition, he rose through the ranks to command one of the mightiest military forces ever assembled. The victories achieved by that force would bring him worldwide acclaim. With the campaign slogan of I Like Ike, Eisenhower would go on to be overwhelmingly elected to two terms as President of the United States.
In 2020, a new memorial to Eisenhower was unveiled in Washington, DC. The monument’s designer, Frank Gehry, carefully researched his subject. He was so taken with Eisenhower the man, he wanted the memorial to emphasize not only Eisenhower’s accomplishments, but also his humanity and his interaction with others. Unlike other presidential memorials, there is no large, neoclassical edifice. Rather, Eisenhower’s memorial is more akin to that of Franklin Roosevelt’s with statuary and scenes telling the story of the man and his times.
Located just off the National Mall, the memorial’s broad, open expanse forms a four-acre plaza between two Smithsonian Museums and several Federal office buildings. The memorial is composed of four central elements. Three elements portray Eisenhower, the person: as a young man, as Commander of the D-Day forces, and as President. The final element is a grand tapestry of stainless steel representing the Pointe du Hoc cliffs over the Normandy coast and covering the front of the Department of Education building. The space also includes trees, lawns, benches and two stone columns detailing Ike’s accomplishments.
As is often the case, work on the memorial took decades. Congress first authorized the Memorial in 2003 and Gehry’s designs were revised several times due to impassioned input from the Eisenhower family, historians and bureaucrats. While Gehry’s final work has not won universal acclaim, its central features invite the visitor to learn more about Eisenhower and the traits that not only made America “like Ike” but also made him such a pivotal figure of the 20th century.
Born in Texas, Ike grew up in Abilene, Kansas where he and his five brothers were raised by hard working parents to value a strong work ethic, responsibility and education.
Eisenhower was proud of his origins and Geary thought it very important to include Ike’s image as a young man. The memorial shows a young Eisenhower, sitting in overalls and boots, looking off into the distance and imagining his future.
The statue of Eisenhower as a young man, imagining his future.
Perhaps to the dismay of his pacifist Mennonite parents, Eisenhower sought an appointment to West Point. Initially attracted by the free education, he proved a competent student, but a sometimes rebellious cadet who earned more than his share of demerits. He graduated in 1915 and chose to stay in the Army as a way of serving his country.
During World War I, Ike remained in the United States assigned to training commands. He studied the use of a new combat weapon, the tank. He gained valuable experience not only in armor tactics, but also military logistics, administration and training.
Army service during the two decades after World War I was challenging. The Army contracted quickly and defense budgets were small. Promotion was slow. Ike spent twelve years as a major, but stayed focused. He continued his professional development and was skillfully mentored by Major General Fox Conner.
Conner tutored Eisenhower on military history and operational matters. He also instructed his protégé on his principles for how democratic governments should wage war – Never fight unless you have to. Never fight alone. Never fight for long. Conner also emphasized his belief that a second “great war” was coming, and this time, the US Army would need to know how to fight as part of an international coalition.
Dwight Eisenhower as a cadet at West Point.
Ike continued working hard, making himself indispensable to his bosses. He wanted them to miss him when he moved on to his next assignment. One of those bosses would be General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff who approved several promotions for Eisenhower and first sent him to London in June of 1942. Eisenhower would receive several more promotions as his responsibilities grew, overseeing Allied military operations in North Africa and Italy. As a commander of troops from other nations, not just the United States, Eisenhower mastered the balance and patience necessary to work with political leaders and diplomats as well as senior officers from other militaries. President Roosevelt selected Eisenhower to be the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in December 1943 with responsibility for the planning and execution of the invasion of France.
The memorial sculpture depicting Dwight Eisenhower as the commander of the D-Day invasion.
Through this all, Ike never lost his common touch with his soldiers. The memorial depicts Eisenhower as the D-Day commander speaking with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division, based on a real encounter the day before the invasion. Ike always took time to talk to soldiers. In addition to offering encouragement, he wanted to hear from them. He wanted to ensure they had been briefed on their mission, were properly fed and had all the equipment they needed.
This famous photograph of General Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division inspired the World War II sculpture at the Eisenhower Memorial.
After the war ended, Ike held a series of high profile positions: Army Chief of Staff, President of Columbia University, and the first military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1952, a “Draft Eisenhower for President” movement began to sweep the country. Americans were attracted to Eisenhower’s proven leadership. Over 25,000 people intent on drafting Eisenhower and proclaiming “I like Ike” attended a rally at Madison Square Garden. He even won the New Hampshire primary before he declared his candidacy.
As a career soldier, Ike had initially eschewed politics. But he had concerns about a growing sense of isolationism in America. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Ike clearly understood the need to contain Soviet aggression with a strong military presence in Europe and through close cooperation with the European allies. He resigned from the Army and announced his candidacy for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. In November, he won a landslide election.
The memorial portrays Eisenhower as president, with three advisors, before a large map of the world.
The map emphasizes the central role global affairs played during Eisenhower’s tenure, which saw many global calamities, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, and the Hungarian Revolution to name a few. Through it all, Ike aggressively pursued peace. Already well known to international leaders, Ike was a reassuring figure on the world stage. He drew heavily on the skills he honed as a wartime commander: patience, careful planning, collaboration and the ability to balance the interests of many. Today the 1950’s are remembered as a period of relative calm, resulting from Ike’s success in navigating so many potential pitfalls.
Domestically, Ike governed as a moderate. He maintained FDR’s New Deal programs, maintained balanced Federal budgets, founded the Interstate Highway System and helped establish several different Federal agencies. (These agencies, or their successors, are present in the buildings surrounding the memorial, Health and Human Services, Education, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration within the National Air and Space Museum.)
Dwight Eisenhower’s official portrait as President of the United States in 1959.
As a political leader, Ike believed in moving gradually and keeping to the middle ground. One of the advisors depicted behind Eisenhower in the memorial is an African-American, which represents Eisenhower’s early success on civil rights. Some historians believe Ike’s approach limited progress on civil rights. Eisenhower did not write or speak very often on the subject. Nevertheless, he knew his responsibilities as president. The steps he took on civil rights, completing the racial integration of the Armed Forces, signing the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, and enforcing the desegregation at Little Rock High School more than matched his predecessors and set the stage for continued progress during the 1960’s.
Ike’s memorial is testimony to his biggest accomplishments on the beaches of Normandy and in the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Ike shaped much of the world we live in today, but how he did it is impressive as well. The values Ike demonstrated are timeless. It was decades of selfless public service, hard work, humility, integrity, and a belief in others that enabled his successes and endeared him so much to others. No wonder than that everyone “liked Ike”.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial is located across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. There is limited street parking in the area. This National Park Service website has a map with metered parking locations around the National Mall. Public transportation is the best option for reaching the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, as well as the other monuments and museums that line the National Mall. The Washington, DC Metro system is conveniently located near the memorial. From the L’Enfant Plaza station, exit via Maryland Avenue & 7th Street; from the top of the escalator, the memorial is one block straight ahead.
The National Mall Circulator Loop bus provides access around the National Mall. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial is a short walk from the Jefferson Drive and 7th Street SW stop on the National Mall route, or the D Street SW and 7th Street SW stop on the Eastern Market – L’Enfant Plaza route.
Capital Bikeshare is metro DC’s Bikeshare service, with 4,500 bikes and 500+ stations across the region, a number of which are located close to sites on the National Mall. There is Bikeshare station on 4th Street, just south of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial visitor contact station.
Command Reading List
Many books have been written on Dwight Eisenhower’s life and career. Here are just a few:
Eisenhower: Soldier and President (The Renowned One-Volume Life) by Stephen E. Ambrose
Ambrose’s one volume edition focuses on Eisenhower’s most notable roles as president and D-Day commander.
Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
Smith reviews Eisenhower’s life in great detail from Kansas through the presidency, while examining how Ike’s different personality traits of hard work, dedication, intelligence, and the ability to get people working together propelled his success.
Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Prior to his presidency, Ike wrote this book to tell his own story of the strategies he followed, battles he fought and decisions he made to secure victory in World War II.
You can access the audio guide to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial here.
The Eisenhower Foundation has a series of informative videos about Dwight D. Eisenhower, his times and the memorial on their website.