Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Rarity of His Presidential Letters

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Publication Date: March 1, 1995
By Benjamin Shapell
Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1995.
Eisenhower Presidential Portrait. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Portrait. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before we proceed with our 34th President, a quick summary of past findings is in order.  As many of you remember, our first in depth study of the top 10 Presidents was devoted to the number one ranked President: Andrew Johnson.  Our study concluded that he still remains the rarest of all the Presidents (both nineteenth and twentieth century) in the top-ranked position.  In quick follow-ups written up in two subsequent issues of “Insider’s Report,” his ranking remained at number one, no new examples having been discovered in the ongoing review of his presidential papers.

For our next presidential rarity subject we chose a twentieth century president – Herbert Hoover – who was ranked at number eight in the 1992 rankings.  Remember that oftentimes after a President leaves office, the discovery or sale of his Presidential correspondence is a likely possibility.  At the time of our study, Hoover had been out of office for over 60 years (versus 125 years for Andrew Johnson), yet we concluded that not only was his number eight ranking secure but, because of Hoover’s almost peculiar, premeditated intent to deliberately limit his handwritten correspondence, that he would most certainly experience a dramatic move up at the time of our next official rankings of the top 10 rarest Presidents.

In the case of James Garfield (ranked number seven in 1992), however, we discovered something quite interesting.  Whereas our recent discoveries in the public sector of handwritten letters as President of Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover have strengthened their overall rankings in terms of rarity, the results of our recent study of Garfield presidential ALS’s (“autograph letter signed”) have removed him to a more common position.  Indeed, with a surprising total of no less than 25 ALS’s accounted for, he most likely will show a dramatic drop in the top 10, if not beyond.

We thought it ironic that Hoover, a full-term, twentieth century President, so far outranked the President who served the second shortest term in U.S. history.   But having plunged quite deeply into analyzing presidential writing habits, trends and total output, we concluded that the length of a President’s term had no bearing on the ultimate number of handwritten letters a President would write while in office.  (If that were the case, we argued, then William Henry Harrison would certainly be one of the more “common” Presidents in handwritten letters as President since he wrote four or five examples in only 32 days in office!)  That conclusion was evident in our 1992 survey when we placed Garfield and his 199 days in office in the number seven position, and Franklin Roosevelt (with his almost four full terms and 4,000-plus days in office) in the number six spot.

By delving into the holdings and archives of public institutions, we also concluded in the Hoover piece that two Presidents in the top five positions of our 1992 study would, today, most likely be reduced in rarity and ranking.  We wrote: “Gerald Ford (ranked number two in our 1992 study) will most likely drop in the wake of several new discoveries of ALS’s as President were located at the LBJ Library in Texas.”

Which brings us to our number three ranked President, Dwight Eisenhower.  We wondered if we would also witness a drop in his 1992 ranking due to several reasons: 1) Our combing through the Eisenhower presidential papers in the public domain; 2) Eisenhower being a twentieth century President who served 25 years later than our other twentieth century study, Herbert Hoover; 3) Eisenhower was a two-term president, serving the second longest (along with nine other two-termers) after Franklin Roosevelt’s 12 years.

Like Ford and Johnson, Eisenhower is considered a “recent” Chief Executive, even though he left office over thirty years ago.  Since then, there certainly would have been time for new discoveries of handwritten correspondence to be made.  However, Eisenhower was one of our oldest chief executives, with similarly aged cabinet members and other officials who would likely have been recipients of such personal letters.  Given the fact that most of these people have died by now, it is quite probable that any such letters would have somehow surfaced.

Initially, while compiling our 1992 rankings of handwritten letters limited to just the private sector, we wrote that Eisenhower’s long period as President, as well as his voluminous handwritten correspondence with his wife Mamie while serving as Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War, would certainly scuttle any high hopes for Eisenhower even appearing on our list.  However, there was some surprise when we found only one bona-fide handwritten example as President through the auction records starting from 1953 to the present.  (We are not aware of any presidential ALS ever changing hands privately between dealers or collectors.)  This letter was auctioned in a group lot at Sothebys in 1983.  It wasn’t written on the traditional pale green White House stationery so well known to collectors.  Instead, it was written on cream-colored, quarto, stationery embossed with the initials “DDE” and “The White House,” and signed in full.  Dated June 29, 1954, this letter, had it been typed instead of handwritten, would have long been ignored.

Written at the request of Warnick J. Kernan, President of the Board of Trustees of the Utica Public Library in New York, Eisenhower sends his “greetings and best wishes to the Board of Trustees of the Utica Public Library and to all the visitors of your fine institution.”  Why he chose to “honor” this institution with one of only four known ALS’s as President written over the course of two terms in office is simply a mystery.

Ironically, the other three Presidents included in this group lot (FDR, Truman and Nixon) are also rare in handwritten letters as President.  Predictably, they each sent a typed letter to Mr. Kernan of the Utica Library.

But Eisenhower, rarer in handwritten letters than anyone of them, sent an ALS!  We don’t know of any personal attachment Eisenhower might have had with the institution, and the fact that many other Presidents were solicited for a presidential letter makes it unlikely that Eisenhower viewed this as nothing more than a courtesy.  (You might remember that, in our study of the handwritten letters of Herbert Hoover, one of his few handwritten letters as President was, likewise, written to Mr. Kernan.)  No doubt the Utica Library had its sights on handwritten letters and probably stated so at the time of its request.  They certainly lucked out with Hoover and Eisenhower!

Our criteria for what constitutes a legitimate ALS as President in the most optimal sense is met by Eisenhower’s letter to Kernan.  (Dated on White House stationery or, failing that, plain stationery with a presidential date, salutation, and signed in full.)  We usually will count a handwritten letter signed with initials or a nickname when it is apparent that the President clearly intended to write an ALS of some length.  But that might only be applied to a President where a dearth of handwritten letters exist and not for many of the more common Chief Executives.

If we choose to go with the more strict definition where a presidential handwritten letter signed in full is a must, then we encounter very few indeed.  Charles Hamilton, both in 1985 and in his 1990 follow-up, ranked Eisenhower as second only to Andrew Johnson, and added that he had never encountered an ALS a President.  While acknowledging that there are quite a few typed letters of Eisenhower with holograph postscripts around, he ruled out letters signed with nicknames or initials.  With Eisenhower, he speaks only of full handwritten letters signed “Dwight D. Eisenhower,” and not “D.E.,” or ” D.D.E.,” or “Ike,” or “Dad.”

Mention should also be made of an Autograph Draft Telegram which sold at auction in 1986.  Though interpreted by way of its content as having been written on June 14, 1953, the one-page example was written on ruled legal paper with no salutation.  Despite being signed in full, it still falls outside our requirements of what constitutes a legitimate handwritten example as President.

In the public sector, however, only two were found at the Dwight Eisenhower Library in Texas.  All of Eisenhower’s private files, which are closed to the public, were checked.  Also, the papers of Eisenhower’s closest associates and friends were checked (including John Foster Dulles).  No ALS’s were found in either case.  Also, of the few ALS’s written to his brother Milton before and after the presidency, no other handwritten letters were known to have been written as President.

The first example that was found was a three-page letter on White House stationery, undated on the letter itself, but carrying a postmark of February 25, 1954, on the envelope.  It was written to his brother Milton Eisenhower’s wife, Helen.  It was a pep talk delivered in the form of a letter, when Helen Eisenhower was in the hospital undergoing X-ray treatments.  He then related to her a story about the power of the X-ray:  “It is astonishing what X-ray can do.  I had a bursitis 4 or 5 years ago that was on the way to immobilizing my shoulder completely.  The doctors shook their heads about an operation – and thought that so much additional bone had formed in my shoulder that X-ray treatment would be useless… They completely destroyed the new bones (which they said were heavier and denser than the surrounding natural ones) and did not injure the rest of the joint.”  He goes on to advise her to listen to the doctors.

The second letter, also written to Helen Eisenhower, is evidently of presidential date.  It is one page and dated on the verso in another hand (perhaps by Milton Eisenhower), “August 1953.”  However, unlike the above letter to Helen, it is written on Hallmark note paper with little elephants, something which Eisenhower addresses in the opening paragraph: “Let it never be said that this stationery is of my choosing, but a diligent search of Mamie’s desk reveals no other.  So after this note has served its purpose of bringing to you a ‘happy birthday’ from me – please file carefully in the waste basket!  We are all delighted to hear from Milton that you continue to improve – so we hope your anniversary is a joyous one.  All the best – to you and to the children.”

There is no doubt that President Eisenhower intended to write a full page handwritten letter – not just a note.  He had something he wanted to say, and that meant writing it on anything that was available.  He could have written on just the bottom flap of the card, which is usually done.  Instead he opened it up vertically and wrote from top to bottom.

“Dating” an undated letter can be an interesting and innovative research task.  In this case, the reasons that we believe the one-page letter is of presidential date (if we ignore for now the scribbled date on its verso) is because it, like the February 25, 1954, ALS written as president, also relates to the health of Helen Eisenhower.  This, and the three page “X-ray” letter to Helen, appear to have been written close to one another with the “Happy Birthday” letter written first.  This order is based on the opening line in the one-page example, when Eisenhower writes that “Milton tells me that you are again in the doctor’s clutches.”  A more convincing point would be the fact that Helen died of a blood clot on July 10, 1954, at the age of 49, just one and one half years into Eisenhower’s first term.  Also, Eisenhower’s reference to her birthday helps date the letter to having been written no later than August 1953, since she died prior to her August birthday in 1954.

We also see a side of Eisenhower’s personal side in the content of both letters and in the way he expressed himself.  Helen Eisenhower had clearly been in poor health and her brother-in-law didn’t forget her.  Perhaps the extent to which he cared is measured by the fact that he assumed the rare task of taking pen to paper (and in her case any paper that was available).

The extent of the scarcity of Eisenhower’s handwritten letters was brought home to us when the Eisenhower Library could produce only two examples.  (But according to the stricter definition, they would not qualify because both were signed “Ike.”  Still it is obvious that Eisenhower clearly intended to write them as longhand letters, especially the three handwritten pages on White House stationery).  If they, of all places, had only two, then what would be the likelihood that there could be additional ones in other public repositories?  Amazingly, and only by sheer accident, did we discover another – only the second ALS as President signed in full.  In that case it came from the Richard Nixon Library in California.  Dated December 14, 1953, this two-page handwritten letter was written to Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard Nixon following his ten week, 45,000 –mile Asian goodwill tour.  In a report about his trip, Nixon reported to Eisenhower that his foreign policy program had put the Communists “for the first time…on the defensive all over the world.”

In his letter, Eisenhower expressed his admiration for the Vice-President:  “Proud as I am of the record you and Pat established in your recent visit to a number of Asian countries, yet I must say I’m glad to have you home.  We, by which I mean all the principal figures in the Administration, have missed your wise counsel, your energetic support and your exemplary dedication to the service of the country…”

What then, is Eisenhower’s holographic legacy?  Well, without a doubt, he replaces Gerald Ford, termed the rarest twentieth century president in our 1992 rankings, in the number two position.  (A future article on Ford will, as mentioned on page 23, show a rather large and surprising correspondence.)  Eisenhower will inherit that position, hands down.

In comparing Eisenhower and Hoover a bit further, there is no doubt that many similarities exist between the writing habits of these two Presidents.  In both cases each was obsessively selective and restrictive in deciding when to take ink to paper and to whom.  Interestingly family members, the press, elites and others seemed to be completely ignored by the Presidential pen.  Hoover had his once-per-annum quota (which skewed just a bit) when he wrote to one or two lucky citizens.  But in Eisenhower’s case the pattern was unpredictable, with the President favoring, it would seem, only special situations.

Are there other reasons which might explain the scarcity of Eisenhower ALS’s as President?  You might remember in our study of Andrew Johnson that his right arm had been badly crushed in a serious rail accident in 1857, thus accounting for the rarity of Johnson’s handwritten letters (as well as Johnson’s preference for pencil when he felt the need to write notes in his own hand).  In Eisenhower’s case, perhaps there was also a medical reason to explain his scarcity.  On a recent trip to Seattle, someone brought to my attention that Eisenhower had a problem that prevented him from writing ALS’s during the middle and end of his presidency.  This seems interesting when you notice the dates of the four handwritten letters mentioned here.  All were written within one year of each other and only during the first year and a half of his presidency: August, 1953; December 14, 1953; February 25, 1954; and June 29, 1954.

Whether a medical problem explains why there are no ALS’s as President for the next six and one half years is speculation at this point, but something certainly worth following up on.

There are, therefore two ALS’s of Eisenhower by strict definition; four if you count (which we do) both the three-page letter on White House stationery signed “Ike” and the Hallmark note paper signed “Ike,” thus making three out of four written on some form of White House stationery.  The Autograph Draft Telegram (mentioned previously herein) on plain paper, undated (but interpreted as June 14, 1953), which sold at Sothebys in 1986, would not qualify under our guidelines despite its uniqueness and rarity.

Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1995.