Papers may shed light on Eisenhower's civil rights stance

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Archivists have released tens of thousands of pages of documents from Dwight Eisenhower's administration that could refine historians' understanding of the president's positions on civil rights and national security.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan., announced Thursday that 40,000 pages of previously classified documents on a variety of subjects were being made public. That follows the library's recent release of 7,000 pages specifically related to the Eisenhower administration's civil rights policy.

The two-term Republican led the country from 1953 to 1961, during which the first two civil rights acts since Reconstruction were passed and the president used troops to uphold the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in Little Rock, Ark. Despite that, Eisenhower has not been widely viewed as a strong civil rights advocate, though historians say the release of new documents on the subject could change that.

"Eisenhower's often criticized for not being more forthcoming on civil rights," said Fred Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton University whose 1982 book "The Hidden Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader" helped change perceptions of the politician. "We may learn that there are quite different stories."

The civil rights papers acquired by the library were among the collection of Maxwell Rabb, associate counsel and secretary to the cabinet in the Eisenhower administration.

Karl Weissenbach, the library's assistant director and supervisory archivist, said they largely pertain to black and Jewish issues, with a small number of documents related to Native American relations. Rabb's papers include everything from citizen letters to annotated news clippings to official White House correspondence dealing with issues from military integration to the appointment of minorities to administration jobs to school desegregation.

"It demonstrates that Eisenhower was keenly aware of the issues and he was a hands-on president when it came to civil rights issues," said Weissenbach, who from 1991 until last year oversaw the processing of materials from the Nixon administration for the Office of Presidential Libraries in Washington.

The Rabb collection also includes publications with anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-United Nations viewpoints, which Weissenbach said likely were used by the White House to understand fringe opinions.

The other collection of documents — which come from White House archives and a number of donated collections — include papers chronicling topics including J. Edgar Hoover's intelligence operation, psychological warfare used during World War II and the Cold War, construction of the Berlin Wall and Middle East policy.

Chester Pach, an Ohio University professor who authored "Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower," said historians have many unanswered questions about the president, including his role in planning the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, a coup that overthrew the Guatemalan government, and an operation that put a shah back in power in Iran.

"There are always gaps, I think, in our knowledge of a presidency," Pach said.

Eisenhower was known first as the general who launched the D-Day invasion of France and led the Allied forces to victory in World War II. But the public understanding of his presidency, it seems, has been changing ever since he left office.

Historians say Eisenhower was seen as a grandfather figure at first, but as more was learned about his administration, he was seen as a more hands-on politician.

"The Eisenhower presidency was much like an iceberg — so much of it was below the surface that we didn't know the extent of it," said David Guth, an associate journalism dean at the University of Kansas who has studied the former president. "He was the grandfather up front but he was the CEO behind the scenes."

There was criticism of Eisenhower, for example, for not publicly condemning Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts in the 1950s. But presidential papers later showed Eisenhower had a secret campaign to undermine the Wisconsin senator.

Guth said Eisenhower's image could morph again with the new documents, among more than 26 million pages now available through the library in Eisenhower's small hometown.

"What will be interesting to know," Guth said, "is just how much of his heart was in the civil rights movement."

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