WASHINGTON — At a time when statues and memorials are being taken down or reconsidered across the United States, a new one is going up in the nation’s capital that could shape the roiling debate over how the country chooses icons to honor.
The long-awaited $150 million memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower will be dedicated in the shadow of the United States Capitol on Thursday, paying tribute to the general who led the Allies to victory over totalitarianism in Europe during World War II and the president who sought peace around the world after it was over.
The memorial is the result of 21 years of disputes over its design that had nothing to do with the current national reckoning over statuary, but the timing of its debut provides fodder for the continuing conversation about how the United States views itself. Eisenhower was yet another white male figure from an era dominated by white men, but one who seems to offer his own particular lessons for a fractious time.
He was a leader who sought to work across lines toward a common purpose, driven by duty and pragmatism rather than ideology and divisiveness. He steered his Republican Party away from isolationism toward a bipartisan internationalism that prevailed until recent years. He sent troops into the South not to crack down on demonstrations for racial justice but to enforce the desegregation of schools. He ended the Korean War and balanced the budget, presiding over nearly eight years of peace and prosperity. And he pushed through an infrastructure bill that built the interstate highway system.
“What a timely figure right now,” Susan Eisenhower, one of his granddaughters, said in an interview last week. “He united a fractious and frightened America, and this sort of calming steadiness that he represented is something that is also worth reflecting on and reminding ourselves of. Just because the 1950s look like a quiet time, it didn’t just happen that way. That was his underlying commitment, to keep this country united.”
Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and the chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, recalled meeting the future president at the Republican National Convention in 1952. Eisenhower should serve as an inspiration to all sorts of Americans, particularly those from modest beginnings, he said.
“I hope that they would take a look at Ike and look at his background and his humble beginnings and what he achieved,” Mr. Roberts said as he showed off the memorial last week wearing an “I Like Ike” face mask. “There might be sort of a you-too-can-do-that, especially if you’re from a small town.”
While President Trump last week implicitly evoked Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the military-industrial complex, the former president would hardly be at home in today’s Republican Party. He was no culture warrior, and he would eschew Mr. Trump’s bombastic, anti-alliance, institution-busting, racially divisive, self-absorbed style. No one would have accused Eisenhower of calling fallen soldiers “losers” or “suckers,” nor would he have denied that a prisoner of war was a hero.
He called his approach “the middle way,” as Ms. Eisenhower recounted in her new book, “How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions.” At the peak of his popularity, he had the support of 79 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, a full 30 percentage points more than Mr. Trump at his height. But there seems to be little middle way appealing to both sides in American life right now.
“We are in a polarized moment. We’re going to be in a polarized moment for a long time,” said William I. Hitchcock, the author of “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s” and a historian at the University of Virginia. “But maybe there’s a place for an actual physical site where you can reflect about what life might be like in a nonpolarized world.”
For those advocating the removal of statues of Confederate generals, slaveholders and others with checkered histories on race, Eisenhower presents a different sort of figure. While not a crusader on race relations, he arguably did more to advance civil rights than any president from the end of Reconstruction until the movement in the 1960s.
Eisenhower desegregated Washington, D.C., and completed Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the military. He appointed Earl Warren, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that desegregated public schools, and he sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Ark., to escort Black students past the defiant governor and an angry white mob. Eisenhower also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957; while watered down to overcome Southern resistance, it was still the first such legislation since the 19th century and established the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
Eisenhower’s innate caution, though, would be unsatisfying for those seeking bolder action. He largely avoided making a moral argument for equal rights, expressing concern about alienating white Southerners and arguing that laws could not change hearts. He disappointed many who wanted him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting campaign, believing it would be better not to engage and to let him self-destruct instead.
The Eisenhower Memorial was erected on a four-acre plot along Independence Avenue in front of the Education Department and across from the National Air and Space Museum. Its scheduled opening in May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and will be streamed live on Facebook on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Two main displays show Eisenhower in his twin roles in history: as a general addressing troops before the D-Day invasion of Normandy and as a president with his advisers in the Oval Office. Off to the side is a young Ike from Abilene, Kan., gazing at his future. Behind the statues is a sprawling stainless steel tapestry meant to reflect the beaches of Normandy.
The design was the source of years of conflict between the architect Frank Gehry and the Eisenhower family, who objected to an earlier version that had Eisenhower as a barefoot boy at the center of the memorial surrounded by three metal tapestries representing the Kansas prairie. They said the tapestries were garish and excessive and argued that the focus on Eisenhower’s youth obscured his contributions later in life.
The fight became so intense that Mr. Gehry hired a powerhouse Washington lawyer and Congress withheld funding for several years. The New Yorker declared the proposed memorial an act of true bipartisanship because “almost everyone hates it.”
Eventually, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III brokered a compromise that won approval from the family. The new design refashioned the one remaining tapestry with a Gehry illustration of Pointe du Hoc at Normandy instead of Kansas and put the youthful Ike, now in shoes, off to the side.
“In hindsight, it shouldn’t be surprising that the effort to settle on a memorial design aroused discussion and controversy,” David Eisenhower, the president’s grandson, said by email. “There were differing opinions as to what an Eisenhower memorial should ‘say,’ and many differing opinions as to design.” After the revisions, he said, he was satisfied with the final outcome “and now believe that Gehry was the right choice all along.”
The changes did not assuage every critic. Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society who has waged a long-running fight against Mr. Gehry’s vision, said the final version was an artistic mess, combining different styles without reconciling them.
“The memorial is an uninspiring, gargantuan failure,” he said. “Its dominant feature, the so-called tapestry, is an inscrutable, illegible sketch of the sort Frank Gehry is well-known for. It should be called ‘Frankie Doodle.’” At the same time, he said, the statues themselves were wooden and kitsch. “The memorial as a whole is Deconstructivist in that it is a mishmash of motley pieces without unity or coherence. Eisenhower, who detested modern art, would have hated it.”
Mr. Gehry could not be reached for comment over the weekend, and his name is conspicuously absent from the memorial’s engraving. A spokeswoman for the memorial commission said Mr. Gehry’s firm generally did not list his name on projects; as a compromise, he is named on a plaque at the adjacent bookstore.
Susan Eisenhower said she and the whole family were happy with the outcome. “For me, personally, this memorial is also going to be a symbol of how open and honest dialogue finally produced a better result,” she said. “That’s the thing that I’m emotionally going to keep with me. We had some pretty stark disagreements, but we were doing what Ike would have encouraged — let’s sharpen the disagreements and get to a better result.”