When Lou Galambos began work as editor of the papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, he was a 40-year-old, station wagon-driving professor who that year went to his first Vietnam protest, wearing a tie. It was 1971.
Two weeks ago today, Galambos, a professor of history, rose early and tackled more of the project that has consumed so many years of his life. He sat down and edited correspondence of the nation's 34th president.
"At 8:44 in the morning I finished 29 years of [my] work on the papers of Dwight David Eisenhower," Galambos said a few days afterward. "I still have an introduction to write, but it was quite a moment, to finish the last paper."
The final letter that Galambos edited was the final letter of the Eisenhower administration, dated Jan. 19, 1961. It was addressed to Richard Milhous Nixon.
As Galambos is quick to point out, while his part of the project is mainly over, the staff of the Eisenhower Papers are busy preparing the manuscripts for the last four books of the 21-volume project for the Johns Hopkins University Press.
If all goes well, those volumes, which cover Eisenhower's second term as president, will be published by Oct. 14, 2001, the 111th anniversary of Ike's birth.
But the magnitude of completing the edited papers of a U.S. president is becoming almost a historical event in and of itself. Before the 16-volume series of Andrew Johnson's papers, begun in the late 1950s, was finished earlier this year, the last set to be completed was that covering Woodrow Wilson, an effort that lasted 35 years.
The Eisenhower project began in 1963, in an effort that was organized partly by the president's brother, Milton S. Eisenhower, who at that time was president of Johns Hopkins. The first editor was Alfred D. Chandler, then a professor of history at Hopkins. Galambos took over in 1971.
John Y. Simon, a history professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, well appreciates the milestone that Galambos and his staff have reached. Simon has been editing the papers of Ulysses S. Grant since 1962. And he doesn't expect to finish until 2010.
"I'm green with envy; I can tell you that," Simon said of the Hopkins-based project's finishing the Eisenhower Papers. "They've accomplished something that is substantial. They've done the world of scholarship a great service. They should feel a great deal of satisfaction in what they've done."
To get a sense of the magnitude of the endeavor, consider this: Daun van Ee, co-editor of the papers, estimates that for the period in Eisenhower's life that is covered, between 1941 and 1961, more than 35 million documents were "turned over" or considered.
Of those, some 10,700 Eisenhower documents made it into the set, he said.
Unlike some presidential papers projects, especially of early presidents, where all incoming and outgoing correspondence was included, Eisenhower oversaw very complex organizations, and if they had adopted that approach, "we would have never finished," Galambos said.
So the staff of researchers and editors, who unearthed documents at libraries and from collections around the country, including many that had previously been classified, limited themselves to letters they knew Eisenhower wrote, dictated or had a strong hand in writing or editing.
"We had to select from large numbers of documents in various archives," Galambos said. "Let me give you an example. Anyone who is in an important position declines an enormous number of invitations--the number of organizations in our society is just incredible--and so we would print an example of a declination every once in awhile."
The final volumes of the set show Eisenhower working diligently to preserve the alliance between the United States, Germany, France and England, something the Soviets were constantly attempting to weaken, Galambos said.
"So Eisenhower had to nurse along the British all the time, while he was trying to keep the French in and keep the French and Germans happy together," Galambos said. "It was a difficult time. And so his efforts along those lines were extremely interesting to me, and the papers are quite revealing of that."
Getting to know the correspondence of a person is getting to know him, Galambos said. And some aspects of Eisenhower surprised Galambos, the more he got to know him. He was an extremely disciplined man who strove for absolute control of himself, but he also had a violent temper. "He was a volatile man," Galambos said. "He has this genial kind of media persona, but actually he had a very strong temper and he constantly had to control it. That personal aspect came out in the papers."
Another surprising thing Galambos found was that Eisenhower "was very meticulous about what he wrote. I know he's not remembered for being particularly articulate, because of the news conferences. But on paper, he was very good. I think I developed substantial admiration for that ability on his part, to say exactly what he wanted."
As a historical figure, Eisenhower is extremely important, Galambos said, for he helped to forge the military strategy that led the Allies to victory in World War II. He also worked hard at forming the Cold War policy of containment, which later led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he helped foster Republican ideas of less reliance on government, privatization and the marketplace that had major influences on the country over the years.
For van Ee, the co-editor, there was a sense of relief in having the final paper edited, but thinking about the project was also "a little humbling." Trying to describe what it was like to read all that correspondence had him thinking of the television show West Wing.
"There's just so much that is below the surface," van Ee said. "There's just an enormous number of events, all happening at the same time. It's not like you can say, This week we're going to focus on the economy."
Both van Ee and Galambos said they couldn't imagine tackling the job of editing the papers of a president like Bill Clinton, with e-mail and faxes and all the other electronic communication. "I don't think it will ever be done," Galambos said.
Finishing the Eisenhower papers in 37 years is fast, by standards of presidential papers, but Galambos said he was helped by having great staff "continuity." Van Ee was on the project for 26 years, and Elizabeth Hughes, the executive editor, has been working on the project for 28 years.
Asked if she thought the project would last as long as it did, Hughes laughed. "Oh, no. Lou [Galambos] told me it would end on Oct. 10, 1992," which is the day she planned to retire. But she doesn't seem unhappy with the extra eight years.