On Presidents Day 2020, I offer this remembrance of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1948 while serving as president of Columbia University, Eisenhower wrote an inspiring open letter to America’s students. As head of the university, he received many letters from young people asking for his advice. “Shall I keep on with school,” they asked, “or shall I plunge right off into life?” His answer, penned when I was barely three, reveals a man of remarkable character who understood the importance of education.
“Dear Jack—or Margaret,” Eisenhower began. “The decisions we make as young people affect not only our whole life, but collectively affect the life of the entire country.” Having grown up 40 years earlier in a small Kansas town, Eisenhower felt fortunate to have come from stock that “set the school on the same plane as the home and church.” Back then, many students left school early knowing that except for those few who could afford to pick a profession, most would likely end up working on the farm, a local store, creamery or grain elevator.
Eisenhower’s role as Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in World War II, had given him an expanded worldview. “Today,” he wrote in 1948, “the business of living is far more complex than it was in my boyhood. No one of us can hope to comprehend all of its complexity, even in a lifetime of study. But each day profitably spent in school will help you to understand better your personal relationship to country and world.”
Eisenhower counseled America’s students to read history and know our country’s character and problems in the broadest possible way. They might then develop their own character and be prepared to help find solutions to our nation’s problems. “America,” he reminded them, “is a country where personal liberty is cherished as a fundamental right. It requires untiring alertness, for liberty is easily lost.”
Presciently, he cautioned, “When America consists of one leader and a population of followers, it will no longer be America. Truly, American leadership is not of any one man. It is of multitudes of men–and women.” And speaking from experience, he wrote, “It was so in war and you will find it so in the fields of peace.”
America’s true strength, Eisenhower believed, was not in the superiority of our machines, “but in the inquisitive, inventive, indomitable souls of our people.” “Every American boy and girl,” he wrote, “has an opportunity to be that kind of soul.”
“Start now,” Eisenhower advised, “being a good member of your community, helping those who need your help, striving for a sympathetic understanding of those who oppose you, doing each new day’s job a little better than the previous day’s, placing the common good before personal profit.”
Eisenhower assured America’s students that they were not too young to make a difference. He reminded them that Alexander Hamilton had been a 17-year old student attending what was then King’s College when he spoke passionately before crowds of New Yorkers on the political problems of the American Revolution. “Loyalty to principle, readiness to give of one’s talents to the common good, acceptance of responsibility—these are the measure of a good American, not his age in years.”
Looking through the lenses of history and time, I think of other 17-year old youth who made an impact on their generation. At 17, Joan of Arc led an army. Jane Austen wrote her first work. Ann Frank kept a journal. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize. Today, Greta Thunberg, author of “No One is Too Small to Make a Difference,” is challenging world leaders to trust science and address global climate change now before it is too late.
In his compelling 2007 biography, “Ike: An American Hero,” author Michael Korda captured Eisenhower’s character this way— “He was a boy raised in Kansas who rose to become a military hero, an international statesman, and president of the world’s most powerful nation. All the while, he remained a man whose basic values were those of his youth: honesty, courage, and basic human dignity.” Eisenhower’s inspiring message to America’s students 72-years ago is worthy of remembering this and every Presidents Day.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.