Ike, JFK, and the Gettysburg Address

Ike at Gburg Address Centennial.jpg
Ike at the lectern for the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address (photo courtesy The Gettysburg Times)

Today is the anniversary of the death of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969. In commemoration, we offer the intertwined story of Ike, JFK, Lincoln, and the Gettysburg Address.

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For the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the Centennial Commission and National Park Service invited President John F. Kennedy to come to south-central Pennsylvania and offer a few appropriate remarks. Renowned for his writing almost as much as Lincoln was—Kennedy had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and his inaugural address had become an instant classic—the president seemed the ideal choice for such an auspicious occasion. He had also visited the battlefield earlier that year, in March, and had enjoyed himself tremendously.

Kennedy demurred on a return trip, however. He had already committed to attend a political event in Dallas, Texas, at the request of his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. He sent, in his stead, (very) brief remarks: “On this solemn occasion let us all rededicate ourselves to the perpetuation of those ideals of which Lincoln spoke so luminously. As Americans, we can do no less.”

Imagine how history might have unfolded differently had JFK gone to Gettysburg in November 1963 instead of Dallas.

Coincidentally, the next most prominent figure from American politics happened to live in Gettysburg already: JFK’s predecessor in the White House, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, had purchased a farm on the outskirts of the battlefield in 1950 and, following Ike’s presidency, they had moved to the farm permanently. Ike even surrendered the honorific title “Mr. President” in favor of “General” when Congress restored his military rank upon his retirement from politics.

“The General” gladly accepted the invitation to offer the keynote at the commemoration ceremony. Events that November 19 began with a VIP luncheon at the Gettysburg Hotel, where Dr. James I. Robertson of the Centennial Commission offered a few remarks. From there, the Gettysburg Times reported, dignitaries climbed into a dozen “sleek sedans,” with Ike and Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton in the lead car. Mamie Eisenhower was there, too, “dressed in brilliant red and displaying her famous smile.”

The procession left Lincoln Square and went down Baltimore Street, then turned onto Steinwehr Ave., and eventually onto the Taneytown Road. “One hundred years ago they rode in carriages or on horseback,” the newspaper noted. “There was not a horse in Tuesday’s parade.”

There was, however, the U.S. Marine Band, “resplendent in their scarlet and silver braid dress uniforms,” marching at the head of the column just as their counterparts had done a century earlier.

The temperature reached a “pleasant” 59 degrees as the crowd gathered in the cemetery, everyone enjoying the “bright sunlight that fell generously and warmly.” The newspaper estimated some 10,000 spectators attended the ceremony.

“We mark today the centennial of an immortal address,” Ike said:

We stand where Abraham Lincoln stood as, a century ago, he gave to the world words as moving in their solemn cadence as they are timeless in their meaning. Little wonder it is that, as here we sense his deep dedication to freedom, our own dedication takes added strength.

Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray, would one day beat in unison, to summon a people, happily united in peace, to fulfill, generation by generation, a noble destiny. His faith has been justified—but the unfinished work of which he spoke in 1863 is still unfinished; because of human frailty, it always will be.

Where we see the serenity with which time has invested this hallowed ground, Lincoln saw the scarred earth and felt the press of personal grief. Yet he lifted his eyes to the future, the future that is our present. He foresaw a new birth of freedom, a freedom and equality for all which, under God, would restore the purpose and meaning of America, defining a goal that challenges each of us to attain his full stature of citizenship.

We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words—the beauty of the sentiments he expressed enthralls us; the majesty of his words holds us spellbound – but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we—ourselves—live it. For well he knew that to live for country is a duty, as demanding as is the readiness to die for it. So long as this truth remains our guiding light, self-government in this nation will never die.

True to democracy’s basic principle that all are created equal and endowed by the Creator with priceless human rights, the good citizen now, as always before, is called upon to defend the rights of others as he does his own; to subordinate self to the country’s good; to refuse to take the easy way today that may invite national disaster tomorrow; to accept the truth that the work still to be done awaits his doing.

On this day of commemoration, Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give that increased devotion to the cause for which soldiers in all our wars have given the last full measure of devotion. Our answer, the only worthy one we can render to the memory of the great emancipator, is ever to defend, protect and pass on unblemished, to coming generations the heritage—the trust—that Abraham Lincoln, and all the ghostly legions of patriots of the past, with unflinching faith in their God, have bequeathed to us—a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all.

When Ike finished, the crowd rose to its feet in standing ovation. “[T]here were many moments when those in the audience swallowed hard several times as lumps arose in their throats . . .” the newspaper reported,“and there were obvious glistening of tears. . . .”

Ike is not necessarily remembered for his eloquence as a speaker, but as the man who led the Allies to victory in World War II, Ike understood the full weight of Lincoln’s words. Ike, if anyone, understood the full weight of sacrifice made by those who have given “the last full measure of devotion.”

His words resonate a half-century later. We are the “coming generations” he referred to. The work still to be done awaits our doing.


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The text of Eisenhower’s speech comes from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Archive.

Newspaper coverage comes from The Gettysburg Times, 20 November 1863.

For more on presidents who’ve visited Gettysburg, see Constitution Daily, 19 November 2014.

16 Responses to Ike, JFK, and the Gettysburg Address

  1. We can wonder about how American history would’ve been impacted if Kennedy had gone to Gettysburg rather than Dallas and had completed his term as president.For one thing I believe the Vietnam War would not have been the failure that it was and we would not have lost 50,000 young men fighting the war that they were prevented from winning.

      1. You seem to be suffering from the common stained-glass image of JFK. How convenientl of you to have either forgotten or dismissed the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall. The Wall was built shortly after he took office / They didn’t dare do it when Ike was president..

    1. It has been reported that in May, 1963, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson was visiting President Kennedy at Hyannisport, Massachusetts. I believe Pearson was well-acquainted with the Kennedy family through his decades as a Canadian diplomat, politician and Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, and he had just been elected Prime Minister in April. Pearson was sitting in Kennedy’s bedroom having a drink while Kennedy was getting dressed for dinner, and they were discussing various topics of importance at the time. Then Kennedy asked, “What am I going to do about Vietnam?” Pearson reportedly said, “Well, get out of course” and Kennedy replied “I know that, but how?”.

      I may not have the exact words, as it has been years since I read of this, but if not then the above is a very close recitation of what I remember reading about the conversation.

      The history of Vietnam in the years that followed might have been very different if Kennedy had not been killed. The unification of North and South Vietnam may have happened anyway though. I do not think we will ever know.

  2. Chris thanks for the in sight on this piece of history. Where do you find the time? . Missed you in Buffalo at round table

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