Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The night before, Eisenhower had penciled a note, to be read publicly and placing the blame on himself in the event the invasion failed. (U.S. Army/Library of Congress)
Kansas’ own Dwight D. Eisenhower served as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and defeated a rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism. As a popular two-term president, he governed as a pragmatic conservative — sustaining prosperity, supporting integration and supporting international alliances.
In every way, he lived and governed as the opposite to former President Donald Trump, a man who has made no secret of his love for chaos, racist impulses and dislike of global allies. Trump tore a page from authoritarian regimes’ playbook on Jan. 6, 2021, as he egged on an armed insurrection of his own government.
So why is Eisenhower’s foundation in Abilene making common cause with a traitor?
In case you missed it, the foundations and institutions representing nearly every U.S. president since Hoover united for the common good late last week. They issued a stirring statement calling for a renewed commitment to civic institutions, public civility and protecting this precious representative democracy.
“By signing this statement, we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy undergirding this great nation, protecting our freedom, and respecting our fellow citizens,” they wrote. “When united by these convictions, America is stronger as a country and an inspiration for others.”
Those signing were foundations, centers and institutions representing former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
Shamefully, the Eisenhower Foundation didn’t participate.
Meredith Sleichter, executive director of the Eisenhower Foundation, said in a statement that the organization “respectfully declined to sign,” according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter. In the statement, she appeared to fault the process of creating the letter, saying “we have had no collective discussion about it. Only an invitation to sign.”
“We recognize and respect that each presidential center and foundation has its own priorities and programs related to our democracy,” Sleichter added, saying that it would meet with other foundations “later this year.”
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Nothing in the letter should be remotely controversial or difficult to support. Other foundations added their own statements as introductions, and the Abilene-based Eisenhower organization could have done the same. (For the record, Trump has no foundation or center at this point.)
There’s only one way to read what transpired here. And it’s not flattering to those who claim to carry on Eisenhower’s legacy.
The letter reads as a rebuke to Trump, who appears to be cruising to another GOP presidential nomination. Recent reporting suggests his allies have planned to reshape the government in a potential second term, aiming for the creation of a near-fascist state. These reports do not come from bedwetting Democrats or alarmist corners of the internet. They are real and serious.
A refusal to sign the letter, therefore, looks like nothing more than appeasement to the most ruthless and least democratic shards of the modern Republican Party.
Eisenhower himself warned about the temptations of authoritarian leadership.
In a 1959 letter to WWII veteran Robert Biggs, he wrote: “Dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”
Biggs had written wanting more certainty from the president. He had detected “from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty.” The veteran craved clear answers and direction. He was looking for, in my reading, the kind of assurances that politicians like Trump fall over themselves making.
Eisenhower would have none of it.
“I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed,” the president wrote. “Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life.”
Eisenhower was no liberal Democrat. He was a reliable Republican, and no one should confuse themselves over that point.
Yet he understood that the United States, at its best, involves participation from all of us. Not slavish devotion to a would-be autocrat.
‘One earnest conviction’
The comparisons stretch toward the horizon.
Eisenhower served as the first NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He understood that preserving the victories of WWII required rock-solid alliances to keep the peace. He maintained that commitment throughout his presidency.
Trump, on the other hand, told officials in his administration multiple times that he wanted the United States out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Such a move would have strengthened Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping for no reason other than the former president’s ignorance.
Eisenhower wrote his son in 1943: “I have one earnest conviction in this war. It is that no other war in history has so definitely lined up the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship against those of human rights and individual liberty.”
Trump, on the other hand, refused to visit a French military gravesite, asking: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” He also called the nearly 2,000 dead marines there “suckers.”
I understand that my words here will fall on many deaf ears among those who claim to follow in Eisenhower’s footsteps. They will claim that the real evil bedeviling our country comes from “woke mind virus” liberals, and that anyone who can stem that tide — regardless of his personal failings or shortcomings — must be supported.
Such justifications merely serve to paper over inconvenient truths.
Trump doesn’t represent liberal or conservative values. He represents sheer hunger for power, a mindset that Eisenhower and his troops vanquished through blood and sacrifice.
We do this revered history and this august Kansan no favors by ignoring the threats of our current day. The foundation should have eagerly signed onto the statement, regardless of the circumstances. The responsibility that Eisenhower wrote about in his letter to Biggs has fallen to us now.
Let’s not fall short during these dark hours.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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