Dwight D. Eisenhower founded The American Assembly, a public policy institute dedicated to illuminating issues of national importance, during his time as president of Columbia University. He envisioned it as an experiment in democratic citizenship — one that would address key challenges facing our country and address issues of national importance through the reconciliation of divergent views and interests. It is the oldest legacy organization created by Eisenhower, and his principal legacy as an educator.
In the late 1940s, only a handful of public policy institutions existed and structured conferences were a new and evolving form of exchange. Deeply concerned about the social, economic, and political quandaries we faced as a country after World War II, Eisenhower sought to create a place and a process that would bring together the nation’s brightest minds to address difficult issues and identify effective solutions.
Through the establishment of The American Assembly, Eisenhower helped create a rigorous framework that could marshal intellectual power across a range of public and private sectors. Though he is most often remembered as a preeminent military strategist and political leader, Eisenhower’s passionate advocacy to create The American Assembly reveals a broader commitment to key issues of democracy and the important role of educational institutions in protecting the democratic process.
He claimed: “The basic values of democracy have been won only through sacrifice, and it is essential to explore, thoroughly, all the facts and factors involved in the problems of democracy.”
During his final public speech as 34th President of the United States, Eisenhower emphasized a theme that would become one of the central tenants of The American Assembly: the need for an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry in a democratic society.
He once famously said: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwanted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Eisenhower proposed a plan for “America’s First Conference Center” and imagined bringing together citizens who represented a spectrum of views from business, labor, politics, finance, higher education—among others—to cooperate for the greater good.
In 1951, Arden House was given to Columbia University by W. Averell Harriman. At the dedication ceremony, he said, "It is a matter of pride that at the very time when people in some other countries are being jailed or executed for deviating from proscribed ways of thinking, we, in in this country, have established this meeting place where differences of opinion can be explored in complete freedom.”
For more than 60 years, The American Assembly has held over 100 convenings on topics ranging from prison reform to health care to nuclear disarmament, and continues to foster non-partisan public policy discussions through convening, research, and publication.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s deeply held beliefs and a mandate to protect democratic society continue to define the work of The American Assembly today. The tradition of fostering non-partisan, cross-sector public-policy discussion is still very much alive in Assembly work on a host of issues from information policy to financial regulation, and particularly in its Legacy Cities program.
Legacy cities are places that have changed dramatically since the mid-20th century. Older, formerly-industrial urban areas primarily in the Midwest and Northeast, legacy cities have experienced significant population loss and are facing the challenges associated with vacant properties and diminished resources.
The American Assembly works to advance public policy discussion around this unique set of fifty cities through the Legacy Cities Partnership project.
Despite real challenges, legacy cities also have numerous assets — from strong cultural fabric to abundant historic architecture — that serve local communities and strengthen them as centers of their metropolitan regions. Many legacy cities are becoming hubs of innovation, as leaders develop new, cross-cutting solutions to the challenges at hand.
The Legacy Cities Partnership aims to reverse the trend of neglect among a class of distressed cities by building the capacity of a growing community of people and organizations working together to revitalize legacy cities. Through traditional and updated methods of Assembly-style gatherings, we promote the exchange of resources, information, policy interventions, tools, and programs among local, state and national leaders.