Mary Jean Eisenhower grew up listening to her grandad talk on and on about world peace.
“OK, so what’s for dessert?” she remembers thinking when she was barely a teen.
Today, Eisenhower is president and chief executive officer of Kansas City-based People to People International, an organization President Dwight D. Eisenhower created 60 years ago. It was the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the president, who had organized the successful D-Day invasion against Nazi-occupied France in World War II, was passionate about bridging the divides between people of different nations, cultures, religions and ideologies.
He was inspired by a meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
“The subject that took most of my attention was the possibility of increased visits overseas by the citizens of one country into the territory of the other nation,” the president later recalled.
People to People International began as a part of the former U.S. Information Agency, a propaganda effort. With the help of Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall, the organization moved to the private sector with headquarters in Kansas City. President Eisenhower felt everyday citizens could attain peace more effectively without government interference, merely by appreciating what unites them.
Eisenhower died in 1969 when his granddaughter Mary was 14. The organization he created, now a non-governmental and nonprofit institution, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary with a gala that, Mary Jean Eisenhower says, has rejuvenated the spirit of the organization.
It works through youth conferences and scholarships as well as adult travel programs. A Global Youth Forum is planned for 2017 in Kansas City.
The organization now has about 85,000 members and volunteers with programs or chapters in 132 countries. According to its 2014 tax filing, it had program and investment revenue of $2.78 million.
Mary Jean Eisenhower recently sat with The Kansas City Star at her office at Crown Center to discuss the origins and future of People to People International. The office is adorned with photographs and artwork from around the world. Eisenhower also spoke about a recent compromise that opened the way for progress on a monument to her grandfather in Washington D.C. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: It’s not just a travel agency.
A: Not at all. When you refer to a travel agency, of course you think of sightseeing and all that and there is that, too, because there’s the cultural end of it. But our mission is basically three-pronged: educational, cultural and humanitarian. The whole idea is our programs are common threads, if you will, where you don’t have to speak the same language to have the same concerns. We do connect people and we work on projects together.
For example, we’ve had peace camps throughout the world where children from many different nations get together and discuss the currents of the time and how it’s affecting them in their country. And they learn from each other that way. They also put together supply bags for the under-served in the country that they’re in, and I’ve actually seen under-served children exclaiming with delight because they’re empowered to help other under-served children.
The whole idea when my grandfather founded this was if you and I just get together and we talk and we understand that our hearts are very similar, we would find a way to live together in peace, because we all basically want the same things.
Q: Tell me about the first Peace Camp in Egypt in 2003.
A: There were two youths from Israel and two from Palestine. They made a beeline for each other like they had radar. The four of them were almost inseparable the whole time. They decided that the kid from Siberia or the student from Vietnam may not understand what’s going on in the Middle East, so they got together to write the history of the situation and then at the end they presented it to the group. They’d been using dry markers and when they finished they threw their markers down and said, “We inherited this fight. We don’t want to fight anymore.” That’s the kind of thing you hope will happen.
Q: How does this translate into action?
A: It’s very hard to quantify exactly what impact we make. In Sri Lanka we got very involved in the global humanitarian eradication of land mines, and so there were scores of people who left refugee camps and got to go back onto their own property. It’s hard to quantify exactly how many you touch, but you hope it will have a ripple effect and that other people will become interested, and that does happen. Of course, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Q: How did this begin?
A: My grandfather founded it on Sept. 11, 1956. It was really one of his passions. He saw it as a solution to the Cold War. If people will just get together then nations will, eventually.
In 1960 when grandad was about to leave office he said that if we were totally beholden to a government he didn’t feel like it would work. He thought it had to be grass-roots, so he went about trying to get it into the private sector. He called several foundation leaders who were friends of his. It was right on the coattails of the McCarthy era and they turned him down. I guess they thought the whole peace-through-understanding thing was propaganda.
He (Eisenhower) was coming through Kansas City on his way to (hometown) Abilene but he stopped here to see his good friend, J.C. Hall. Hall said, “I’ll finance it but I don’t do anything outside of Kansas City.” That’s how we ended up with our headquarters here. I thinks it’s more sustainable. It’s not like a government program.”
Q: How well did you know your grandfather?
A: When he retired to Gettysburg we lived on the edge of his farm, in a little converted one-room schoolhouse. We saw him everyday. It was fun. My dad was on the staff of the White House. My dad was his aide through life. I was very lucky.
Q: How did you become part of People to People International?
A: I was raising children and I was not involved as an adult. The organizers asked me to come out and speak to a worldwide conference in Newport Beach, Calif. They wanted to hear what granddad’s thoughts were. I had heard it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The night before I was supposed to speak somebody grabbed my arm and said, “Mary, there’s somebody here you have to meet.” And I looked across the room and I knew exactly who it was because I’d met his father as a kid. It was Sergei Khrushchev.
My first reaction was why is an organization that my grandfather cherished so much putting me with somebody like him? (laughs) I was really aghast. But I was also trained to be polite, so I went over and put my hand out and he took my hand and he pulled me close and said, “My dear, I hope you’re not as uncomfortable as I am.”
We laughed and we had one of the most congenial, wonderful conversations I’ve ever had with anybody from any country for about the next 45 minutes. I walked away elated because I’d just met one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the world. I went home, quit my job and committed myself to People to People. My grandfather’s biggest adversary’s son changed my life completely. That was 1996. It’s been 20 years now. Hard to believe.
Q: Your siblings were not pleased with the initial design by Frank Gehry for an Eisenhower monument in Washington. Recently a compromise was announced and fund-raising has resumed to complete it by the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.
A: It stalled a little bit. I kind of kept out of that. We’re all now members of the advisory board and the differences have been compromised and settled. The concern was my grandfather was represented as a stand-alone figure of a boy in the park. While we were very, very proud of the fact that granddad came from Kansas, and he was very grass-roots and all that, he was kind of a citizen of the world by the time he passed on. We felt more of that needed to be represented. That has been satisfied.
I do like what they’ve come up with. I’m sorry it took so long to get there.
Q: Does the future of People to People International look good?
A: It’s kind of a timeless mission. Of course you want a lasting world peace, and I’m not entirely convinced I’m going to see the whole world at peace in my lifetime, but I’m hoping my grandson will. It’s got to start somewhere. We’re just as capable of being peaceful as we are of being violent, and we’ve got to start more peaceful ways.
I hope that People to People and organizations that think like People to People will be able to become a condition of heart. A lot of times people learn the lesson we’re trying to teach, but it’s after something horrible has happened. Nobody’s going to agree at all times, but you can be respectful about it and there can be dignity involved. I hope that will be the impulse as opposed to picking up arms against each other.