Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Eisenhower’s diary fragments

To mark the 40th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s death, the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is opening up the last of the President’s personal diaries to the public - hitherto kept closed under the instructions of his son. These last diaries - as most of Eisenhower’s earlier diaries - are rather fragmentary. The museum’s director says they show the man was in firm control of his mental faculties despite failing health.

Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Denison, Texas, but was brought up in Abilene, Kansas. He graduated from West Point military academy in 1915, and served in a variety of military positions until being made responsible for strategy in the War Department in 1941. The following year, he took command of US forces in the UK, and eventually, in December 1943, became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, leading the allies to victory over Germany. Three years as US army chief of staff followed, as did an appointment as president of Columbia University, and a posting back in Europe to be the first boss of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

In 1952, Eisenhower successfully ran for president, with Richard Nixon as his running mate. His achievements, during the two terms (1953-1961), are generally said to include negotiating a truce to end the Korean War; maintaining cold war pressure on the Soviet Union; prioritising nuclear defence weapons; launching the space race; and starting the interstate highway system. Critics blamed him for insufficiently supporting the civil rights movement, and for not publicly opposing McCarthyism. He died on 28 March 1969, some 40 years ago.

And to mark the anniversary, the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum (in Abilene) has announced the opening of Eisenhower’s ‘final personal diaries from 1966, 1968, and 1969’. The museum’s director, Karl Weissenbach, says these ‘new diaries show that Ike was still very much engaged in the world of politics and affairs, even in the twilight of his life . . . and that he was in firm control of his mental faculties despite failing health’.

Here is more from the Museum’s press release: ‘Eisenhower writes that he started the diary in 1966 ‘to make notations of any physical discomfort or ailment so as to answer my doctor’s questions concerning my health.’ Although medical problems dominate the volumes, Ike found space to comment on the issues and personalities of the day, including the economy, civil rights, Vietnam, and the 1968 presidential elections. ‘Scholars will find President Eisenhower’s opinion of President Johnson to be of particular interest,’ added Tim Rives, supervisory archivist.’

The Museum has an online list of its diary holdings which describes those previously open to the public as follows: ‘These diaries were maintained by Dwight D. Eisenhower on an intermittent basis between December 1935 and January 1969. Although they document several phases of Eisenhower’s military and civilian careers, they are richest in their documentation of certain periods. For example, his experiences with the MacArthur mission to the Philippines, 1935-38 are well documented. Also, the diaries are rich sources for the 1948-52 period when he was intimately involved in such matters as military unification, defense mobilization for the Cold War, and NATO, and he was confronting political pressures to run for the Presidency. Finally, there are materials pertaining to his experiences during the first eight months of the Presidency, January-August 1953.’

The listing also explains that the 1966 and 1969 diaries ‘have been closed to research for an indefinite period at the request of John S D Eisenhower who controls literary property rights in his father’s writings as well as conditions governing access to them’. Clearly, this situation has now changed. 

The hitherto closed diary holdings are described as follows: 
1966 - appointments, Eisenhower College, 1966 election, Lyndon Johnson and civil rights, but primarily notes on his health; 
1968 - health, social life and recreational interests, public service activities, writing projects, GOP politics, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, Pueblo incident, civil rights;
1969  (January only) - account of DDE’s health, Walter Reed operations and staff, visitors.

There is one published collection of Eisenhower’s diary entries (obviously not including the diaries just made public): The Eisenhower Diaries by Robert H. Ferrell, first published by W W Norton in 1976. But The New York Times’ reviewer, John P Roche, wasn’t much impressed by it. For starters, he says, the Eisenhower ‘diaries’ are in no meaningful sense diaries: ‘The book is a disappointing collection of fragments Eisenhower inscribed in random fashion over the period 1935-67.’ Although, he adds, ‘[they] do at least reflect Eisenhower’s closed, calculating quality’.

Roche provides a few brief extracts from the diary, and here is his commentary on them:

‘Only briefly, in his entries during early 1942, does Eisenhower indulge in spontaneous comments. On Jan. 23, he noted: ‘MacArthur recommends successor . . . He picked (Major General Richard K.) Sutherland, showing that he still likes his boot lickers.’ And on March 10 we get the last real id discharge of the volume: ‘One thing that might help win this war is to get somebody to shoot (Admiral Ernest) King. He’s the antithesis of cooperation, a deliberately rude person, which means he’s a mental bully.’ Elevation to high command ended these forays into candor.

From 1942 on, what few entries there are tend to be highly formal, particularly in the postwar period, when he realized he was potentially an extremely valuable political property. The entry for Sept. 16, 1947, is a classic in this genre: ‘I wonder whether I’ve previously noted down in this book what I’ve often given, in conversation, as my conviction regarding the progressing world revolution.’ What follows is a banal treatise that reads like a political speech, not some hasty thoughts entered at close of day.’

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