Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano last month evoked a nostalgic vision of America during his May 17th primary victory speech, arguing that he could “restore freedom” to the state. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Nostalgia & Political Power,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed how pining for the past can serve ideological ends, whether in Jeremiads by Puritans, in early 20th-century Civil War reunions, or in the 1970s cultural obsession with the supposedly innocent 1950s. In another event of 1950s-centric nostalgia, Washington united in 1990 to elaborately honor the 100th birthday of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, revealing the growing pains of the emerging post-Cold War world in the process. 

From the start of the Eisenhower centennial year, competing visions of the President’s legacy caused debates in Washington and in the press. In September 1989, the New York Times Magazine published a previously unseen account by Democratic President Harry S. Truman about his assessment of Eisenhower, his successor. The piece, entitled “He Didn’t Like Ike,” was excerpted by Truman’s daughter Margaret from Where the Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman, a collection of Truman screeds and reminiscences that she was editing.

In the essay, Truman–who died in 1972–argued that Eisenhower set the stage for the Vietnam War with his reliance on Communist containment and that Ike avoided taking personal responsibility for his bellicose policies: “Eisenhower really didn’t want to do anything or decide anything. He passed the buck, down. Which can’t be done. And he tried to let somebody else do the jobs that he should have been doing himself.”

A month after the excerpt emerged, the Times received a letter from Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. The Kansas politician and Ike acolyte had just started work as Chair of the Dwight David Eisenhower Centennial Commission, a congressional group planning a year of celebrations in advance of Ike’s 100th birthday, October 14th, 1990. Dole directly addressed Truman’s ghost: “Harry Truman never minced words. Well, neither do I. Sorry, Harry, I still like Ike–and so does America.” 

As Ike’s centennial year began in January 1990, Dole started to unveil his plan to honor the General and President, who served as Commander-in-Chief during the anti-Communist, pro-growth years of 1953 to 1961. 

On January 23rd, Dole introduced a Senate resolution to rename Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport for Ike–a proposal made awkward both by the fact that John Dulles was Eisenhower’s immensely powerful Secretary of State, who was largely credited with resolving the dangerous 1956 Suez Crisis. In a compromise, Dole suggested that the main, Eero Saarinen-designed terminal retain Dulles’ name. 

“Effort to Honor Ike Running Into Turbulence,” read a February 4th Washington Post headline. The article quoted Eleanor Dulles, Secretary Dulles’ 95-year-old sister. The surviving Dulles decried the timing of the proposal, particularly during a moment of Communist thaw in Europe, an outcome that she called “the freedom for which John Foster Dulles prophesied and worked.”

Conservative columnist George Will also spoke out against the name change in a syndicated column on February 11th, arguing that Dulles deserved the airport, but that Eisenhower was entitled to something far greater–perhaps a state. “By all means rename something for Eisenhower, the man who embodied the Fifties,” Will wrote. “Rename something as big as he was, something as broad as his inspiriting grin that contrasted so with Dulles’ grimness. Rename Kansas. Call it with Midwestern informality: Ike.” 

The name change was abandoned. From the beginning of the celebration, however, the legacies and elegies of Cold Warriors were never far away from the conversation.

In the midst of the Dulles controversy, another surreal Eisenhower-related referendum threw the Centennial into an intriguingly romantic and U.S.S.R-centric light. In January 1990, Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan, got engaged to Roald Sagdeev, a Soviet astrophysicist who was the “theory division” head at the USSR’s Space Research Institute. Susan was the head of the Eisenhower Group, which arranged U.S. corporate trips to the Soviet Union, and they met when Sagdeev attended an Eisenhower-sponsored conference on U.S.-Soviet relations. 

Sagdeev, an ally of the Soviet dissident writer Andrei Sakharov, said the union was “a very important symbol and indicator” of the new relationship forming between America and Russia.

“We started talking about the Eisenhower policy toward the Soviet Union,” Susan told the Washington Post on January 6th, explaining the origins of the duo’s relationship. “Roald has distinguished himself as one of the leading voices for reform in the Soviet Union and has the reputation as a man of great integrity and honesty. Both are qualities my grandfather admired.”

With the Dulles controversy simmering and the Eisenhower-Sagdeev union turning heads, Dole looked ahead to March 27th, 1990, the day before the 21st anniversary of Eisenhower’s 1969 death. A dual session of Congress convened for an honoration of Ike. Democratic and Republican legislators both wore large, red, white, and blue “I Like Ike Buttons” identical to those from Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. 

Dole, one of 43 World War II veterans still in Congress, offered a foreign policy-inflected interpretation of Eisenhower’s power amid the fall of the Soviets and other Communist regimes: “Opportunity is the echo of Ike’s legacy–the demand echoing from a thousand street corners, in Prague and Panama City, Managua, Moscow and Bucharest.” 

Winston Churchill’s grandson, British Parliament Member Winston Churchill III, imagined how Eisenhower and Churchill, the architects of the Allied invasion of Europe, would perceive the fall of Soviet Communism: “How thrilled he and Churchill would be today to see the peoples of Eastern Europe at last emerging as free nations from a nightmare of the 50 years’ occupation, first under the Nazis and then the Soviet Red Army.”

In a lighter address, golfer Arnold Palmer recounted his own friendship with Eisenhower. “He was a President who sat down at our breakfast table,” Palmer recalled. “He liked a joke, a good clean joke. He was never much for profanity—unless he missed a short putt.” 

After the congressional ceremony, Ike VIPs headed to the State Dining Room in the White House, where President Bush hosted a luncheon. Bush spoke about how Ike’s values reflected a religious belief in the United States. “We like him because he was a man of character; good will was at the core,” Bush praised. “He was a healer, not a hater. And he had a deep faith in God, and he believed America to be divinely blessed.” Bush, in a self-denigrating turn, tied his own rhetorical stumbles to Ike’s penchant for bumbling speeches. “In fact–fracturing syntax–he even spoke like us,” Bush joked. “Come to think of it, now I know why he’s among my favorite Presidents.”

Bush, battling against rancorous taxation debates in Congress, a faltering economy, and the aftermath of the invasion of Panama, evoked the ostensibly simpler times of Eisenhower’s tenure. “Listen to Ike’s record of presidential hits: eight years of peace and prosperity, eight years of domestic unity unparalleled in our history. He was a role model, everyone’s second father.”

Eisenhower’s hometown, Abilene, Kansas, got in on the commemoration as the weather heated up. On June 2nd, Fabulous 50’s Week, spearheaded by the locally-based Eisenhower Center, began with an outdoor dance on the center’s grounds. 

The Abilene festivities hit a fever pitch in late July, when former President Reagan visited and offered a speech from the porch of Eisenhower’s childhood home. 

Reagan, like Bush, embraced a decidedly backward-looking interpretation of Abilene’s moral system. ″Ike’s Abilene was a state of mind and a set of values, first learned in this simple white frame house,″ Reagan said. ″Eisenhower remembered Abilene as a leveling ground where bank accounts counted for little and bloodlines for even less.″

Reagan, as with the congressional revelers, credited Eisenhower with many of the moment’s geopolitical victories: “President Eisenhower did not live to see such changes [in Europe], but he knew they were coming. He set them in motion.”

In a particularly barbed political allusion, Reagan invoked the ongoing legal controversy over the constitutionality of flag-burning, sparked by a 1989 Supreme Court ruling protecting burners from prosecution.“No one in Abilene ever burned a flag,” Reagan announced. “No one in Abilene would tolerate it.” 

Amid the lovefest, some Eisenhower scholars and administration figures questioned Ike’s decision-making, particularly around civil rights. 

Stephen Ambrose, who had written several mammoth books on Eisenhower–and who later got into hot water for exaggerating the extent of his relationship to Ike in the final years of the President’s life–broke down Eisenhower’s questionable participation in 1950s bigotry. In a syndicated interview on May 6th, Ambrose highlighted that,  “For Blacks it was a pretty dreadful decade, actually. And for women it was pretty bad. The subordination of women to men was pretty strong.”

The historical interpretation of Eisenhower dominated the Eisenhower Centennial Symposium, a Centennial Commission-sponsored affair at Gettysburg College. The meeting, adjacent to the 189-acre farm where Ike spent his final years, ran four days immediately preceding Eisenhower’s October 14th birthday. 

Ambrose reiterated his critiques of Eisenhower’s perspectives on race: “He never stood before the American people and said, ‘I think segregation is wrong.’ I won’t call him a rampant racist, but he certainly was a segregationist.”

Some former Eisenhower aides acknowledged the criticism. Bradley Patterson, Ike’s Deputy Cabinet Secretary, told the Los Angeles Times, “The 1950s were a time when we sort of ignored things.” 

Many others at the symposium, however, focused more positively on Eisenhower’s centrism and belief in government–a value they saw vanishing within the GOP. 

Elmer Staats, Eisenhower’s operations officer for the National Security Council and an eventual longtime Comptroller General, argued that Reaganomics was inherently anti-Ike: “I don’t think that Eisenhower would have bought supply-side economic theories that have tripled the national debt in eight years.”

Raymond Saulnier, Eisenhower’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, guessed that Ike would have had far franker conversations with the American people about national economic policy: “Let’s have the facts, he would say, and lay them out. I think he would have talked to the people as they haven’t been talked to for quite a while.”

Washington Post political columnist Haynes Johnson wrote at the end of the symposium about Eisenhower’s “season of ascendency,” arguing that the political tensions of the early 1990s had made Ike’s management of the postwar period all the more impressive: “The Eisenhower presented here was notably different from the Eisenhower whom intellectuals and academics widely viewed as a bumbling father-figure who had presided benignly over the problem-free America of the 1950s.”

The following day, 1,500 people–including former President Gerald Ford and comedian Bob Hope–gathered at the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg for the actual centennial. Hope argued that he never had really stopped being an Eisenhower man after he first met the General during his first campaign: “He gave me an ‘I Like Ike’ button. I wore it for 47 years. Those tattoos are so hard to get off.” 

And Ford, between poses with a massive “I Like Ike” button cake, recalled a steadying Eisenhower quote from the elder President’s first State of the Union address in 1953, a sentiment that defined many of the tightropes that the Republican Party and post-Cold War America faced in 1990: “‘There is in world affairs a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly.’”

Given the rancorous three decades since Eisenhower’s centennial, the innocence of the 1990 veneration now seems as quaint as the sock-hops and Soviet fears that dominated memories of Ike’s 1950s. The ongoing weaponization of political nostalgia, however, shows us that retrospective myth-making remains a favorite strategy of political actors yearning for validation and control. 

For more on the Eisenhower centennial, check out Gettysburg College political scientist Shirley Anne Warshaw’s edited account of the Centennial Symposium, The Eisenhower Legacy: Discussions of Presidential Leadership

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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