tv The Presidency Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Holocaust CSPAN April 24, 2021 12:00pm-12:40pm EDT
today is international holocaust remembrance day. 76 years ago soviet troops liberated the auschwitz camp complex including its killing center. and people around the world pause today on this somber anniversary to honor the memory of europe's jews whom the nazis and their collaborators attempted to annihilate. it's a day to remember the warnings of the holocaust era and to defend the historical record now more than ever as we have fewer and fewer eyewitnesses to these events. please join me in welcoming today's guest. susan eisenhower, good morning, susan. it's a pleasure to be with you today and thank you for the
opportunity and also the the honor of presenting today for the international holocaust remembrance day. it's an honor to have you. for those of you who are not familiar with susan she is an accomplished scholar who's most recent book is titled. how ike led the principles behind eisenhower's biggest decisions. you may be familiar or you are likely familiar with susan's grandfather dwight d. eisenhower's the united states president between the years 1953 to 61 or during world war ii as the supreme commander of the allied expeditionary force in europe. today we want to focus on a lesser known but incredibly important aspect of eisenhower's legacy. his determination to document the crimes that we now refer to as the holocaust even as the allies continued their fight against nazi, germany. eisenhower's then that one day some might deny the truth about the atrocities committed against european jews and other victim
groups. during the course of today's show these placed your questions for susan as a comment section and we will get to as many of them live as possible. so let's begin by understanding a little bit of the forces that shaped your grandfather's background susan. where was he born and raised what was family life like for him growing up? well ike was actually born in denison, texas, but grew up in abilene kansas and there he was part of a german-american community that a demigrated to the united states and 1741. this family were deep believers and pacifism. they abord alcohol cigarettes and dancing. they were actually very religious family. you can see ike there over on the extreme left. he's the blonde of the family and these are six six boys all together. there were seven sons originally
one dot an infancy. so i was a real student of history as a young boy and often had to be reminded that he should put down his history books as a matter of fact his mother locked them up in a closet, but actually of all those boys, i don't over eisenhower's said that her son dwight had the most to learn he was a passionate character. he felt injustice. he was alert to injustice. he had a temper that his parents had to teach him how to control and altogether. i guess he was a bit of a handful, but certainly going to west point changed much of that and you just saw a wonderful picture of him in high school. and you mentioned they were a very religious family pacifist. his mother. ida was in fact a mennonite, right? she was this is a subgroup of the mennonite church. they were called river brethren. and it was a large community that left from pennsylvania and went abilene kansas in the late 1800s.
so must have been quite the statement for ike, and you have told me i can call him ike i want to be disrespectful. for ike to come from this background and then go to the to a military academy. tell us a little about that trajectory and how he rose through the ranks of the us armed forces. the eisenhower's were farming people and my great-grandfather david, jacob eisenhower's not want to be a farmer and try to hand his hand in business which wasn't terribly successful so he had a modest job at the abilene creamery. they couldn't afford to put their kids through college and i put his older brother through college, but then went to west point because of the free education and i think it also merge with his interest in history and military history. and i want to take a moment to acknowledge visitors that not visitors viewers. i'm used to speaking in museum terms or we have visitors, but unfortunately, our doors are closed now due to the pandemic and we are very pleased to welcome viewers from around the
world. good morning, and thank you for joining us or afternoon wherever you are in hampshire in the united kingdom. hello in toronto, canada, peru london also in the uk, we're glad to have viewers from sao paulo brazil from tokyo, japan guadalajara and mexico and here in the united states from belvedere, tennessee, saint augustine florida, jackson county, michigan, goldsboro, north carolina and just up the road in wilmington, delaware so greetings and thank you for joining us. so when general eisenhower and he became generalized in howard became the supreme allied commander during the the war in europe, what were his responsibilities in this role and his approach to them? well, actually dwight eisenhower's the strategic leader. he was a supreme commander and his job was to reconcile all the factors involved in any military operation. and of course when he has given that appointment he has been
given the appointment for operation overlord, which is what we often called d-day his job was to rationalize the the strategic objectives with logistics with the use of forces with the politics with everything that goes into making a successful operation. this is this is actually one of my favorite pictures of ike during the war. he's actually here talking to the 101st airborne division literally within an hour they are going to take off for the coast of normandy in what is one of the most ambitious and certainly the largest amphibious landing in military history. this is one of the largest operations ever and and so um, you know, there were a lot of factors there including a very dicey weather forecast and as you know paratroopers have to have the capacity to see their targets. so this was a very important moment for i to be going out and
looking in the eyes of his soldiers and and to make a connection with them and i think his feeling was is that he wanted to know and see the people who had have an impact who his decisions would impact and i think it's very moving picture because you get some sense of his humanity there. yeah, it's such a powerful image and and we know not unique that he made it a point to personally greet thousands upon thousands of soldiers, whatever their rank that he took their risks and sacrifices very very seriously. well, that's right and he felt that morale had to be an input to any successful operation rather than just the result of victory. so he thought it was important that they knew that the supreme commander cared about them and understood the challenges in front of them. kind of lump in the throat type interactions to to imagine, but i'd like us to turn to a transformational moment from the following year during the last
weeks of the war in april 1945 ordriff was a subcamp of the buchanwald concentration camp and it was the first such site liberated by us forces reports quickly got back to general eisenhower and he insisted on seeing for himself what was uncovered there. what did eisenhower well, first of all driving into the order of area, apparently the atmosphere was absolutely overwhelming the smell of decaying flesh was overwhelming and already, uh dwight eisenhower's general omar bradley and general george patton could tell that they were about to enter some kind of really dire situation. it was so bad as a matter of fact general patton, you know deferred going into certain parts of the camp because he was felt he was getting sick now i learning extreme self-discipline finally as a kid really felt it
was important to look in every as he said every nook and cranny of the camp because he wanted to bear witness to what had occurred there. however, i mean if you look at these pictures which are really rather remarkable, you can see a very defiant stance in in eisenhower's physical comp you're there and and you know, you can see a kind of set jaw as a matter of fact after this incident. he went back to patton's headquarters and told his valet that he had never been so angry in his life that that the english language didn't even have words that could describe what he saw he was astonished at at the the hideous ways the germans had for treating and disposing of these bodies and all of it was in a violation of every rule of war that had ever been written. and so eisenhower's determine you can see he's got his hands on his hips there. i mean, i'll tell you in in
family body language hands on the hips mean something really serious as does that very firm jaw that you can see in any case i think it was of course, it was critically important that he went through quote unquote every nook and cranny because he wrote to winston churchill and he said everything you read in the paper about this does not adequately describe. what has really happened here? and indeed he demonstrated the impact of that the the pain of what he had seen in his actions over the subsequent weeks when he was surely very very busy winning. the war the war was not over but after witnessing order if he demonstrated an extraordinary foresight and recognizing that one day some might deny these crimes that they might prove to be too extreme to be believable. what what actions did he take? and i have to say that was what impressed me most about researching all this because
that evening after he got back from ordorf. he sent a message to chief of staff of the army george marshall and said that he wanted first of all, he said that the camp beggared description. he had all kinds of adjectives including bestiality, but he you know as he later said those words were inadequate he wanted general marshall to send members of congress reporters and ike also ordered anybody close to those camps or all officers who are not at the front to go to these camps. so chronicle it and as a matter of fact, you know, many of those pictures including our own family collection represent photos that were taking there by my father. and when we were prepping for this show, you described to me. i thought it was a really powerful turn of phrase that eisenhower's an extraordinary talent for thinking in time this
capacity to project really really far ahead. could you comment on that a little well, i think again what i found remarkable about this was eisenhower's capacity to in real time to look at what he was saying and then allowing his mind to work beyond the current shock and he was in shock as a matter of fact, his valet said that when he came back his face was like his ballet had never seen his face before. but yet while he's looking at this truly disturbing scene he was thinking about 50 years from now and he just knew that the horrors were so beyond imagination that if this didn't get chronicled people would say it never happened or it would be put down to what we call today fake news or propaganda or whatever. and so i think and and he made a very very big point in the last weeks of the war to make sure
that these things were chronicled and they the army was sent into take documentary footage so that later they could be shown to the german population as we got into the accountability phase of of this of this terrible war. and before we turn more specifically to the german population, i would like to quote more extensively from the cable that you mentioned that general eisenhower's sent to general george c marshall the head of the joint chiefs of staff in washington part of it is in fact quoted in our museum here in washington at the outset of our permanent exhibition and it reads quote. i made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever in the future, they're develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to quote unquote propaganda. and for viewers who are watching, please look at the links in the comments section. you'll see that you can
participate in a crowdsourcing project project. we have called history unfolded in which you can learn how american newspapers at the time reported on eisenhower's push on his invitation to us congressman and to journalists to come and bear witness for themselves. but susan you just mentioned he also felt it was important to compel ordinary germans to view the camps and to see the crimes that were committed in their names. let's show a clip from the time that illustrates that endeavor. nazi party leaders and office holders were commanded by allied military authorities to visit concentration camps in the neighborhood of their cities. they were forced to see with their own eyes crimes whose existence they had indignantly denied. by mark all citizens were ordered to visit the
concentration camp. they started the trip as though they going on a picnic. after all, it was only a short walk from any german city to the nearest concentration camp. but there was no picnic behind the barbed wire. death was the only one who had feasted here each and every one had been murdered. on orders of the nazi high command susan that's not easy footage to watch it certainly couldn't have been an easy experience at the time. why did your grandfather find it so important that average civilians be brought in to witness these atrocities? well, there were many people at the end of the war who said they didn't know and i had very little patience for that. he felt that if they didn't know they were closing their eyes to
it or those who said they were only following orders did not did not cut mustard with generalized in the hour. he believed that if you were that there was a responsibility in the orders that you accepted. i must say that the other rather interesting thing is he put out orders that townspeople should come in and give the holocaust victims a dignified burial and that must have been every bit of staring to the german population is actually having to go in and witness the camps. later, a documentary film was put together and it was circulated around germany and the german population was compelled to watch it. and we do have in our collection still photos and i believe also film footage that shows some of those burials happening. it can't help but think looking at that clip that we just saw about the young children who were brought there. they are the only ones who would still be alive from that scene today, but clearly that's something that would have been seared their their memories.
we have a viewer question susan a woman named sandy is asking what do you think your grandfather would say to all of the deniers of the holocaust now? well, he would have i think he'd have very little patience for it. and i think he would depending on how widespread it was. i think he would of course. well, he bore witness to it so he would be able to validate its reality. it's a little hard to take him out of his era because i dare say we wouldn't have gotten into a situation that we're in today where we have a post-truth environment where people feel like just what they want to think is is legitimate and fair game. but anyway, it's a good thing that he did put together this or encourage the collection of these important documents. it's so widespread. there's so much of it that it's
impossible to deny that this happened. and susan it wasn't just an impact on your grandfather, but on many generations of your family i know from speaking with you that you were quite young when you learned about the holocaust your father john had graduated from west point only months before enlisting and he was among the troops that were called to witness the camps. what did your father tell you about his experience and his case at the buchanwald concentration camp. well, of course, he not only described what he saw but he had taken a significant number of photographs. he was an amateur photographer anyway, but they were encouraging young officers anybody who was in these camps to actually take pictures so that it would add to the volume of evidence. we have my father thought that this was such an important chapter of world war ii that we were raised on those photographs. i can't tell you how many times i've been through that photograph album that is largely
focused on what he saw buchanvault and my father made sure that my own children and even my grandchildren saw these pictures before he died again, he must have had some kind of a feeling that it that even though we couldn't bear witness directly we had to tie his knowledge to him and his credibility and it was an important thing for all of our family. and that somehow that responsibility to pair what to bear witness is transitive that it is carried on it's a burden carried from generation to generation. well, it must be otherwise, there's room for the deniers and the liars to make inroads into what public understanding is. this is one reason, i think what the national the holocaust national memorial and and museum this is such an important benchmark for our country and for the other museums that are similar to it around the world.
i'd like to encourage our viewers to post your questions for susan in the comments section but change course a little bit here because we're very lucky that not only are you a scholar of history of the soviet union of your grandfather, but you are also a granddaughter and i hoping that you could give us some personal insights. tell us a little bit about off-duty ike what he was like as a grandfather and a family man. well his high school yearbook. he graduated from west point in 1915. he was described as big as life and twice as natural and i have to say that really just beautifully summarized his personality. what a what a big figure i mean in every in every conceivable way. i mean and what a smile so i must say that in writing how ike led i know about these decisions, of course, but then i for the first time my life i put it together with what i know about him as a person and i
think the thing that's just extraordinary is how he managed some of the most consequential decisions of the 20th century and kept his calm we would have i discovered that occasions when we were getting together with my grandparents overlapped with major crises in the civil rights movement, including sending the hundred and first airborne division to little rock, arkansas, so all of those things come together to make me realize actually that self-discipline was really something he exercised well, but he was always stick and given the dark things he saw during world war ii, you know it i'm surprised in retrospect that he could keep his optimistic center at all times. and then finally, let me just say that he was a he had a wonderful wonderful kind side. look at that face of a grandfather, right that's taking up right? i'm sorry. that's you on his left. that's right. that's me. this is taking a camp david in
1954. i was 17 years old when he died, so we had tremendous opportunity to be with my grandparents during those years and i can tell you that he loved kids and he always used to give us advice whether we wanted it or not, but one of the big pieces of advice he would say to us always you have to be for something. you can't be against things all the time. you have to be for something and that's always stayed with me. i think it is at the you know, it's fundamentally about optimism. you have shared with me that in fact, he also was a painter. in his spare time because you talk a little about that because i was surprised to hear that. well, this was something that was very much part of my childhood was i get the easel? there's a picture that he's doing right there as you can see of my mother and three of three of the four of us before my younger sister was born and he
he painted after the war he started but throughout his presidency and post presidency and he did it as a way of centering himself. if you have these enormous responsibilities and complex set of circumstances, he believed it was very important to go let your mind work settle down and let the various levels of your brain produce some new insights into the problems at hand. it's what we would today i guess call mindfulness. exactly exactly. that's a great way to put it. i'm struck listening to you now and in prior conversation talking about him. he's been described as a warrior who hated war he seemed to have a prescience about him a kind of foresight but also a self-awareness that one needs balance in life in order to navigate such heavy weights. we balance thing is very important. and so you can even see it in the way.
he handles big issues like us german relations is kind of balance of accountability and eventual reconciliation. i mean, this is all part of balance. could you talk a little bit more about that about how what he witnessed what he saw what his experiences are how he then translated that into recognizing the dangers of ostracizing germany after the war. well, i've heard some of this is my speculation, but i'm thinking of a young boy who grew up in a german-american household. where a lot of german food was consumed his uncles all spoke uncles and anne spoke german. they spoke english too, but they spoke german and and then to go watch the events unfold and be in a position of power to change the trajectory of history. i was thinking sometimes as i wrote this book about the painting and and what he was processing in his own mind about
good and evil about his ethnic roots about what turns a civilized people into maniacs, you know, i don't know that there's another word for it into people who are so fanatical that they will do things that are completely inhuman. and i think you know he was very aware of the conditions that broad germany to that point and the dangers of really dangerous leadership. and so i think this is one reason why he felt, you know, it was important to find a reckon a path of reconciliation with the germans after they had taken full account of what they did during the war. and i remember that even just within days of accepting the unconditional surrender of nazi germany. he said to his staff and i quote we will know we have won this war if 50 years from now germany is a prosperous democracy.
what did he mean by that do you think well, i think he meant that you know that the end of a war is really the beginning of a new chapter and it's as hard when he decided to run for president. he thought that it was his duty to try and win the peace and i think this was exemplified by the fact that in 1955 exactly 10 years to the very day the unconditional surrender of nazi germany dwight eisenhower west germany into the nato alliance in what what one german described to me as it's our iron embrace. very powerful and not necessarily the path that everyone would have followed after those experiences and i do want to acknowledge of your name valerie who had written in to ask about the effects on
eisenhower's viewing memorializing these atrocities. i think you've described a lot of those to us. we have another question from a viewer named david and this might be more of a historian question for me. david is asking didn't the us military have definitive proof of the details of the death camps prior to actually liberating one. why was it such a shock to the military a very complex question david? it depends who you're talking about in the case of yes, the united states government did at the highest levels have irrefutable evidence of the scale of nazi crimes and some of the details of the mechanics of it, but the average united states soldier was not sent to europe with the goal of liberating jews. that was never the military priority and i remember in particular a man named irving hemant. he was a colonel in the army at the time. he described himself not as a camp liberator, but as an over runner because he felt that the term liberator implied intent
that he and his fellow brothers in arms over around these sites in the course. achieving a different military mission, which was the defeat of germany and that if you think about someone who's 18 or 19 years old a young soldier who might have seen small news reports, but not what the kind of photographs that were used to now not with the sort of vivid and brutal newsreel footage that we just saw. how could you not be shocked as a human being to witness firsthand to see people who look like skeletons to smell the smells to see the scale of it. so i think it's very different to talk about knowledge and understanding and also at those those different levels of responsibility and access to information. that's right, and without the defeat of nazi germany, this would all be an academic question. i mean that the end of naziism made it possible also to assure that these camps were shut down
for good but you're right. it's a it's a complex question eisenhower's say that he had gotten secondary reports of these things. but you know, i think it's fair to say who could even imagine really who could imagine even if he warned churchill that even if i tried to describe it the english language doesn't have words for it. so i'll just leave my part of that question there. this reminds me actually of words from one of the holocaust survivors who volunteers at our museum a woman named aggie. gueva. she was asked at the time of a dedication of a new memorial to general and president eisenhower in washington to reflect on what he meant to her. and she said i shall never forget the moment when we saw the american troops and heard a voice telling us you are free. it was indescribable unbelievable. it was a miracle my four great grandchildren would not be here today. if not for general eisenhower and the american soldiers who
fought so courageously. so i think it just helps us to remember the the human impact and magnified by thousands and thousands and thousands of people including those of the soldiers who lost their lives in fighting for that victory. susan in the in the time we have left. i want to turn a little bit more to the analytical side of your most recent book, which is about eisenhower's approach as a leader. what inspired you to write this book and what were some unique aspects of his vision of leadership that you think might speak to us now in this present moment. well, first of all it might interest you know that i got the idea to write this book at one of the holocaust commemorations. i was invited to attend one of the dinners that marked this important date and when i heard somebody stand up and and talk about this visit to order if
suddenly in my mind it clicked, i wonder why he went to so much trouble to get this chronicle that wasn't in his job description nowhere in his job description. does it say to do anything other than to destroy nazi power? and so then i thought well he didn't have to do it. so why did he and i started getting curious about that particular element and the more i looked into his career the more i saw that he was often telling hard truths to people he was closest associated with now. i'm not saying he was closely associated with germany point except ethnically, but you know, he was a truth teller and he all so had an uncanny capacity to assess whether or not something he was doing could be sustained over a longer period of time now in sheer leadership.
he believed that accountability truth telling and building positive relationships, you know, we're fundamental to his leadership and i think we see a time and time again in his record. so it's very moving to this program specifically because it was the holocaust museum and all you do there that really gave me the inspiration to look into how brave it was even to admit that the stock from which he came. could have been so compromised and you know in terms of its own moral standing and again, there are no words in english language for anything. we're discussing here. well, thank you for that susan. i know i speak for my colleagues when i say that we're very grateful and humble if at all we could offer you some inspiration or food for thought and how to approach your own history your own work in a new way. we're in an extraordinarily
fractured moment in our nation's history. and what is particularly troubling is that many americans don't even share a common understanding of what is credible or what is true. susan a viewer named lisa is asking what can we do personally to address the so-called post-truth. we find ourselves in currently. and what do you think that general eisenhower's ideas can offer us today? well, first of all, there's no such thing as post-truth. we've only called it that because we've given up. trying to reason with our neighbors who think something completely differently than we do about the facts ike was very facts oriented. you can't fight a war without needing to know the facts and so i'm sure if he were alive today he would be talking about the importance of finding facts that we can all agree upon but frankly at the end of the day, it's a failure of leadership. the facts could be told about a whole range of things if certain
people who held political positions right now, we're willing to help educate their followers who believe that something that happened. i mean who believed a set of untruth this is a dangerous time for this country because we don't want some of these uh some of these situations to that was the thing about world war ii would be hard to imagine a germany today if they hadn't been held accountable. and and so i think we have to hold our public figures accountable those who lie and tell people things that aren't true need to be held accountable in the marketplace of ideas and we have to be better neighbors to those who we disagree with and i think that civility if it starts with us might make its
way up the political and intellectual chain. well general and certainly also president eisenhower's embodied a lot of those values. i can see that he has passed them on to you. i'd like to end on a more personal note susan we have a comment from a viewer named kathy kathy writes that my dad was a member of ike's boys a group of his bodyguards who deeply respected him and would have done anything for him after the war was over this group of men would meet about every five years in a different town in america. any thoughts for kathy? but kathy this rings absolutely true and i am so lucky in life to be invited often to those reunions, and i i know about ike's boys, and i think it's wonderful that you raise this here today, you know, my grandfather. my grandfather love those boys, and i think i'm glad to know that it was passed down to you that the feeling was mutual.
i also want to give a special acknowledgment and thanks to the families of many many liberating soldiers who are sharing their personal stories in our facebook comments today. susan will be glad to share those with you after the program. we are very very grateful for their bravery for their sacrifice and also especially for those who did not live to have descendants. we owe them a great great debt. susan was a real pleasure to talk with you today about your book about your grandfather as a man and as a leader, thank you. thank you for joining us. thank you so much. general eisenhower as we've described presciently with foresight recognized that there could be future challenges to the truth of the crimes that we now call the holocaust. he anticipated a day like today when unfortunately we continually confront holocaust denial and distortion and eisenhower's exceptional legacy endures in so many ways not least in the many lives that he helped to save. at our museum we are proud to
honor eisenhower's extraordinary contributions, and you are right now seeing a photograph of the eisenhower's plaza one of the entrances outside of our museum here in washington dc when you are next in washington when travel is safe and possible again, also, you can visit the national memorial to president dwight d. eisenhower's oned just this
past september how would a person that spent a majority of their life studying war? learning head how apply not just manpower but technology industry and everything towards fighting major battles it's it's weird. it seems weird that the man that studied all this who ended up leading an allied army of multiple nations of over five million men. would be the person who would. be such a large advocate for pete. and that was just a few decades later.