• Photo of the Eisenhower Farm. Courtesy of Stan Cohen.


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ORIGINALLY POSTED: January, 13, 2014

Don Markle has been a member of the Eisenhower NHS volunteer staff, conducting talks and tours every Thursday afternoon, for 23 years. He grew up in the DC area, graduated from John Hopkins University, and was employed by the National Security Agency for 34 years. We sat down with Don last week and interrogated him about his years working intelligence, writing history, and conducting tours of President Eisenhower's home and farm.

What was it that attracted you to the volunteer program at Eisenhower NHS?

I've always had a strong affinity for Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the first president I voted for. I voted for him twice and I worked for him throughout his entire presidency. I actually met him the night of his second election. My wife and I crashed his victory party at the Wardman Park Hotel. We were there by the door when he walked in and had a several minute conversation with him. He was very friendly.

In a sense, I was also linked to Eisenhower through Maxwell Rabb. Rabb was the ambassador to Italy and was my boss when I worked for years at the American Embassy in Rome. Rabb had also served as Ike's cabinet secretary. He told me once how Ike ran his cabinet meetings. Ike would come with a problem that he advised everyone of beforehand. He went around the table and had everyone present their opinions. Everyone had to say something and he had no tolerance for yes men. He then left, weighed everyone 's opinions, and then returned with a decision.

Then there was also my good friend Ralph, still going strong at 102. He was Ike's intelligence chief during WWII.

What was it about Ike as president or general that appealed to you?

The man had control. You had great confidence in him. At that time, in the midst of the Cold War, I felt it was important to have a general in the White House. I might add too that he was the first president to really understand intelligence and take advantage of it. One disappointing aspect of his presidency though, was that he didn't do enough to stop McCarthy and his communist witch hunts.

During the war, I was around 12 -13 and lived in Washington, so as a kid I was very conscious of Eisenhower as Supreme Commander. You'd always see him in the March of Time newsreels when you went to the movies. Everyone thought very highly of him because he was so low key and liked to keep a low profile. He was no prima donna. Even as a kid, I could detect a difference between him and General MacArthur. Ike was much more appealing because he was a regular guy – modest and low key.

What aspect of volunteering do you enjoy the most?

I like when kids come visit. Most will rush through the house like a dose of salts. But some are gems and really seem to enjoy history and you can have some lovely discussions with them. I also enjoy interacting with Europeans. They have such great respect and reverence for Eisenhower and they often know our history better than we do.

What are visitors' typical impressions of Ike and his home?

The comment I've heard consistently throughout my twenty years of volunteering is, "Where's our Eisenhower today?" "We sure could use an Eisenhower now." Visiting WWII vets always speak very fondly of Ike. They'll say, "He was the right man for the job." What many visitors will ask is, "Tell me about Kay Summersby*." You get that all the time. *(Kay Summersby was General Eisenhower's driver during the war. According to rumor, she and Ike had an affair. Facts suggest otherwise.)

When I ask visitors, "What do you think of the house?" most will say something like, "It's great! It's lovely. It's such a reflection of the Eisenhowers' personality." But some will respond, "It's not a presidential house," in a tone of disappointment. They are somewhat upset that the house is so modest and doesn't meet their expectations.

Do you have a favorite piece in the house? One you might, if given the opportunity, select as a token of the park's appreciation for all your years of volunteer service?

The painting of Ike as chief of staff that hangs in the living room. It's an excellent painting of him.

Could you tell us a little about your years with the National Security Agency?

I worked 34 years for the Agency. I worked three years in England where I was integrated into British intelligence. In fact, the whole staff was British. Then I had two tours in Germany where I worked for NATO and with the Army. And then I worked for three years in Rome where I was assistant to the defense attache'.

What is/was the mission of the NSA, succinctly stated?

To collect intelligence data via communication systems as opposed to the CIA which collects it using a variety of methods and then analyzes it (and sometimes acts on it). Of course, there is a rivalry between the two agencies, the CIA often complaining the NSA is analyzing data which the CIA contends is beyond the scope of NSA duties.

Knowing what you knew at the time, do you feel you were much more aware than your average American of what dire straits the world was in?

Working in intelligence, I was, of course, much more aware of flash points and the escalating intensity of crises during those Cold War years than the public ever was. My experiences also provided me with a keen understanding of international politics and foreign policy. Today, when I read a newspaper story pertaining to international relations, I can come up with a pretty good assumption as to what is really going on.

What do you think of the Snowden leaks and the controversy over NSA spying?

All the furor over the leaked classified documents by Snowden of NSA spying on Allies… that's just our Allies expending a lot of hot air. Spying on Allies has always been going on. Everybody does it and everybody knows it. . Our Allies are only upset because we just happen to do it better than they do and they're embarrassed.

The NSA's so-called phone tapping is absolutely constitutional. They're collecting phone numbers, they aren't listening to or looking at the texts of phone conversations. And they aren't checking on who is talking to whom. If a known terrorist happens to call a number, then the NSA goes to the FBI and gets permission to look at the text of the conversation.

Can you share a memorable experience or two from your years with the Agency?

I can remember when Khrushchev was coming to the United States by ship from Minsk. This was when he pounded his shoe at the UN. I was working in England at the time … His ship was in the English Channel when suddenly all communications out of the Soviet Union went down. Absolutely nothing coming out of the Soviet Union. Considering the timing – Khrushchev's ship in the Channel – we were frantically trying to figure out why. For four hours… It turns out that the Soviets had changed their call signs which would happen fairly regularly. But those four hours were worrisome.

I worked as a code breaker. You know no better thrill than breaking a code! I knew people who tried for 30 years while with the Agency, and never did. I was lucky and did it a couple times. I remember working on a Russian code with 14 others for a year with no results. A week later we broke it...

Don, since you've been volunteering with us, you've published several books on assorted historical subjects. What inspired you to launch a writing career?

I owe it to my volunteering at Ike's farm. Since I gave talks and tours at the Farm, I was asked if I would like to teach a class on Eisenhower for Elder Hostel. Then they asked me to do a module on the Civil War. Since my background is intelligence, I naturally included a segment on intelligence in the Civil War. One of the folks attending the session suggested that I should consider writing a book on the subject, and that's what I did: Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War.

Of the five books you've written, do you have a favorite?

Intelligence Was My Line, about Ike's intelligence chief during the war. First of all because it was about my generation, it was like reliving my own past. And secondly, because it led to a great friendship.

The idea for the book came out of a session on the history of U. S. intelligence I was doing for Elder Hostel. One of the students said they knew of someone in Grand Rapids, Michigan that I should talk to who had worked in intelligence during the war. The gentleman, Ralph Hauenstein, had never shared any of his stories though. I got in touch with him and proposed doing a book on his experiences. At first he was very reluctant, but his family finally convinced him. My time with Ralph gave birth to the book and our friendship. Ralph is 102 and still going strong.

Ralph was the first American to set foot in the Dachau concentration camp. He was issued a pass from Ike that allowed him to go anywhere, do anything, and appropriate any supplies. He liked to tell the story of how he took a jeep away from General Patton – his needs as Ike's intelligence officer had priority.

When the war ended Ralph was upset that De Gaulle didn't award him the Legion of Honour medal as he did to other American officers during a ceremony at the Arc de Triumph. And it was because – due to Ralph's line of work – De Gaulle was just not aware of his contributions to the war effort. What my wife and I did, we petitioned the French government and several years ago Ralph finally received the long overdue honor.

After the war, Ralph became wealthy working in the import-export business. He was the creator of those Goldfish crackers, was a delegate to the Second Vatican Council, and worked on special assignments for the Eisenhower administration.

My relationship with Ralph led to me donate my 500 book library on intelligence to Grand Valley State University in Michigan. And then together, Ralph and I convinced the school to start offering a class on intelligence. It's become a very popular and successful class.

What do you find most rewarding as well as most frustrating about writing history?

Most frustrating is trying to read the damn handwriting on primary source material. It's slave labor. Half the time you know the info you need is there, but you just can't find it. Most rewarding is when a reader is encouraged by your book to go and read more, to seek out more information on the subject.

Any more books in the pipeline?

Coming out next month as a matter of fact – The Fox and the Hound – intelligence activities during the Revolutionary War. George Washington was a master of intelligence. He appreciated the value of intelligence, as did Eisenhower. What I like to do when writing history is focus on the personal stories – the people. That's what I do in this book. Every chapter is devoted to a different military department and each focuses on a particular individual in that department and their story.

You know, there is a book in Eisenhower's personal library about General Patton, written by Patton's chief of staff, Brenton Wallace. The printer's proof was sent to Ike for his assessment. On the front, Ike writes that Patton wasn't a strategic planner, he was an executor. Ike edited the book severely throughout, making notations in the margins. The meeting between Ike and Patton at the Battle of the Bulge that became a famous scene in the Patton movie - Ike writes that it never happened! But nothing in the published edition was changed. Now that in itself could be the makings of a book!

To wrap up… When you finally retire from your post as Thursday afternoon volunteer at the Eisenhower farm, how would you like most to be remembered?

I'd like to be remembered as one who always enjoyed his time at the President's farm and did it out of great respect for the people who lived there. What I've always tried to do is convey the personalities of Ike and Mamie. I'd like to be remembered as one who did his best to humanize them.

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Did You Know?

David Eisenhower

President Eisenhower named Camp David after his grandson. Despite all his renovations to the official presidential retreat, Eisenhower preferred to spend his time 18 miles down the road at his Gettysburg Farm.