Sixty years after its founding, People to People International continues to work to promote individual and community connections around the world in the hope of fostering peace. That’s still the vision of the man who founded it, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“He was a military man who cherished peace,” said Mary Jean Eisenhower, CEO of People to People, granddaughter of the president and a resident of Independence.
The group turns 60 this Sunday, and a celebration at the Kansas City Muehlebach is set for Oct. 1. To learn more, go to ptpi.org, or call 816-531-4701.
One of the scheduled speakers is Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry Truman, who oversaw the end of World War II and ordered the use of two atomic bombs for force Japan’s surrender.
“He’s (Daniel) going to talk about his reconciliation work with Japan,” Eisenhower said.
She added, “He’s doing some amazing work.”
People to People is active in 130 countries, promoting cultural, educational and humanitarian efforts. Many members make repeated trips overseas, and chapters and people can form deep and lasting connections. For instance, the chapters in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Esslingen, Germany, have had a sister chapter relationship for 50 years.
“And that’s the whole idea, that it’ll catch on,” Eisenhower said.
Visitors will stay in in a home, and youngsters, for example, will get to see what school looks like elsewhere.
“You smell their spring. You eat their food. … You can’t get that from the internet,” she said.
The hope is that people come to understand other people and cultures, and Eisenhower said that educational role – reminding people to see individuals rather than groups – is still a vital role for her organization.
“There’s a difference between Nazis and Germans. … There’s a difference between ISIL and Islam,” she said.
60 years of effort
The program started in 1956, during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, and originally was tucked into the federal government.
Eisenhower, of course, is remembered as the commander of Allied forces in Europe in World War II, the head of NATO and president for eight years. His granddaughter stresses that his experiences in wartime left him convinced, especially with advances in technology, that humanity had to find a better way.
She offers a few lines from a speech he gave in London in June 1945, weeks after the fighting in Europe ended.
“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends,” the general said. “Conceivably a commander may have been professionally superior. He may have given everything of his heart and mind to meet the spiritual and physical needs of his comrades. He may have written a chapter that will glow forever in the pages of military history.”
“Still, even such a man, if he existed, would sadly face the fact that his honors cannot hide in his memories the crosses marking the resting places of the dead,” he said. “They cannot soothe the anguish of the widow or the orphan whose husband or whose father will not return.”
Mary Eisenhower says there’s the Eisenhower she knew as a grandfather and the Eisenhower she read about in history class.
“When I came to work for People to People, I met an entirely different man,” she said.
The group’s work, she said, is well summed up in one of Eisenhower’s most famous speeches, his farewell when he left the presidency in 1961.
“To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration,” he said. “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
But Eisenhower also knew that a group dependent on government funding would be on shaky ground.
“He said, this really has to belong to the people,” his granddaughter said.
Eisenhower went to three major foundations that turned him down. He turned next to a good friend, J.C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards, and that led the group here.
“We’ve made Kansas City our home since 1961,” she said, adding that the community has been supportive.
Eisenhower wanted a more peaceful world, but has the world changed substantially since those days?
“Not really,” she said. “We can’t let it sneak up on us. We have to heed his word on the possibility of World War III.”