Recovered Eisenhower Speech Underscores His Commitment to Save Art

“The welcome release from the fears and anxieties of war will, as always, be reflected in a resurgence of attention to cultural values.”

These were some of the words spoken by General Dwight D. Eisenhower on April 2, 1946, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to award him an Honorary Life Fellowship for being being a “soldier, diplomat and statesman, through whose wisdom and foresight irreplaceable art treasures were saved for future generations.”

Saving people and art

The award was to recognize Eisenhower’s unprecedented efforts and orders to American soldiers during World War II to preserve and protect as many art and cultural artifacts and monuments as they could in war-mongled Europe.  

In December, 1943, he ordered that soldiers were “bound to respect monuments so far as war allow.”  In May, 1944, before the American invasion of Northern Europe, he reiterated those same instructions, stating that “it is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.”

The “Monument Men”

He also oversaw the “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section,” a group of military personnel and civilians who salvaged hundreds of stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied buildings and returned them to their countries of origin.  The group is now better known as the Monuments Men

According to director Robert M. Edsel, “this was the most comprehensive effort in history by any army to fight a war while mitigating damage to cultural treasures and monuments.”

Met director Francis Henry Taylor, who was present at the ceremony, stated that Eisenhower, “more responsible than any other man, made it possible for the world in which great civilizations of the past could continue for future generations.”

Unexpected discovery

Though Eisenhower has long since died, the memory of him and this particular award resurfaced recently when Edsel recovered audio footage of the General’s acceptance speech that was recorded onto fragile lacquer discs in the Met’s Watson Library and Museum Archives.  

Monuments Men then gave the Met a grant to preserve, digitally remaster, and publish the speech, which is now available online as part of the museum’s digital collections.  Although the speech has always been available in transcript form, “when you have General Eisenhower saying it and when you hear his words, it’s electrifying,” Edsel pointed out.

“It’s a remarkable audiotape,” said Eisenhower Presidential Library director Karl Weissenbach, who also commented on its rarity in that the entire speech is dedicated to the topic of art.  “There’s always a difference between reading a transcript and hearing the general give a speech about the importance of art.”

The “value of art in our lives”

“The freedom enjoyed by this country from the desolation that has swept over so many others during the past years gives to America greater opportunity than ever before to become the greatest of the world’s repositories of art,” Eisenhower stated in his speech.  “The whole world will then have a right to look at us with grateful eyes; but we will fail unless we consciously appreciate the value of art in our lives and take practical steps to encourage the artist and preserve his works.”

Careless with our own artists?

Here, a voice long gone returns to comment on America’s shortfalls when it comes to supporting and preserving our own art and artists.  We talk about Egypt and the Middle East, casting angst over artifacts perishing amidst the uprisings, yet very few are seeing this same feared decay in our own country, where major museums are being censored by conservative politicians, arts endowments take the chopping block before any type of frivolous military spending, and museum visitors will even actively try to destroy a classic painting because its imagery happens to offend them.

Is this what our freedom of speech has come down to?  In a society where we are supposed to value plurality and intercultural exchange, art is not only helpful, it is critically vital to instigating dialogue and challenging us to progress beyond our comfort zones. 

And in Iran?

As I write about Iran, I ask artists what excites them the most about Tehran’s art scene, and I always get the same answer: the people who come to support it.  For the youth in Iran, going to see an art show is more than something to do; it’s a social rite of passage. 

Compared to them, the gallery crowds in the United States and even Europe are desolate, these artists tell me, and I can’t help but wonder if our abundance of options has blinded us to it, desensitizing us to difference and causing us to take the seemingly simple acts of choice and expression for granted.

“There are many lessons to be drawn from World War II, and no better instructor than General Eisenhower,” Edsel said.  “We as a nation should honor his leadership and basic decency, by demonstrating in all future conflicts no less concern and respect for the cultural heritage of others than in winning the peace we as a nation seek.” 

Follow Ike’s example

“I hope this extraordinary discovery, and the example set by General Eisenhower, will inspire our current leaders, most importantly the President of the United States, to do something no leader in the United States has done since World War II: restate our nation’s commitment to respect the cultural and artistic heritage of all people in our increasingly global community.”

It’s not enough to advocate for art.  We will fail if we don’t take it on as our responsibility.  If we allow support for it to dwindle away with every next budget cut, then we will only have ourselves to blame for an eventual cultural demise.

You can listen to Eisenhower’s speech in its entirety on both the Monuments Men and the Metropolitan Museum of Art websites.

Related Articles:

Why You Should Give a Damn About Arts Funding

Why Every Student Needs an Arts Education

Keep the Arts Alive: Today is Arts Advocacy Day

Photo courtesy of The National Archives via Wikicommons
General Eisenhower inspecting stolen artwork in the Merkers salt mines, 1945


Danielle Herie
Danielle Herie6 years ago


Sound Mind
Ronald E6 years ago

Ike was the ONLY good Republican President in the 20th Century. Nixon wasn't bad, just got caught. Since Nixon, corruption has been the only game in town for the rethugs. They even made it LEGAL!!

James D.
James D6 years ago

With every passing year, Eisenhower sounds more and more like a Progressive, especially in comparison to modern Republicans. He would be completely rejected by today's conservatives.

Vote Progressive!

Jo Zee
Jo Zimny6 years ago

This is why I Liked Ike, thought I wasn't around when her was saving art, I still admire the man, he was right in more then one of his beliefs. Whatever happened to a president with such convictions?

Mady Marantz
Mady m6 years ago

It is culture and arts that lead the way- MacDonalds and comic books dull down our society- there is no need to learn to even read!-Education and culture will lift us up.

Deborah Kampfer
Deborah Vitek6 years ago

The dumbing down of U.S. society started in the early 70's with cuts to arts education in public schools and now, almost all art is extra credit and most bands/orchestras are "clubs" and have to rehearse before or after school. Unfortunately, Canada is following this ideology.

It is so much easier to manipulate people who cannot think in a critical manner and the arts teaches that sort of thinking.

The people of both the U.S. and Canada need to realize this and DEMAND that arts education be put back in the schools. Of course, everyone is so busy making sure they have enough money to put gas in their new SUVs that the lack of arts education in the schools will go unnoticed......

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda6 years ago

Now I have even more respect for Eisenhower.

Wayne M.
Wayne M6 years ago

Unlike present day pseudo-conservatives (who may be on the social and political right wing, but are hardly true conservatives), Ike recognized the value of the arts and support for the arts to building a civilized society and culture. As proven by this and his warnings about the military-industrial complex, he was truly a man of vision.

Thomas Lee B.
Thomas Lee B6 years ago

Concerning "frivolous military spending," we should remember also that President Eisenhower warned us, in his "Cross of Iron" speech, against that also. Few people know, or care to know, that a Republican President and five-star general coined the phrase "military-industrial complex." In a rational society, when someone at the very peak of his profession warns us against his colleagues, that would get our attention. His warning has come all too true. Often, when an expensive military project is proposed, the major point of debate is not whether it's needed for defense, or even whether it will work, but how great it will be for the economy. Then Congress gets into the act with "earmarks" and "I'll vote for your boondoggle if you vote for mine," and away we go.

While we're talking about the preservation of cultural treasures during World War II, all us horse nuts know General George S. Patton and his Third Army deserve a special vote of thanks for saving the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna--an act not only of artistic significance but also kindness to a really extraordinary breed of animal. There is nothing else on Earth quite like the School or the Lipizzaner.

6 years ago