Q&A with Ralph Hauenstein

Grand Valley Magazine Interview, Winter 2002

The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies was established at Grand Valley with a gift from retired Grand Rapids businessman Ralph Hauenstein.  During World War II, Hauenstein left his post as city editor of the Grand Rapids Herald for military service.  As a colonel chief intelligence officer for the European theater and a top advisor to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hauenstein was profoundly influenced by the need to avoid armed conflict and the role of American leadership in affecting world peace.  The Hauenstein Center will feature forums, debates, and lectures for students, faculty, and international audiences, with the goal of influencing present and future leaders through the study of the American Presidency.  Hauenstein spoke with Grand Valley Magazine about his life and his new role with Grand Valley.

GVM: When you announced the gift to establish the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, you said you wanted the center to examine the relationship between the American presidency and world peace.  What are some strong examples of presidential leadership and policies, observed in your lifetime, that have contributed to peace?

HAUENSTEIN: I can think of a couple examples.  Truman, after World War II, was instrumental and really the moving force behind establishing the United Nations.  That certainly was an instrument for peace — for world peace (that was the whole concept) — and he was instrumental in promoting this.

Woodrow Wilson after World War I was an example of the opposite.  He finished his second term as a man who failed to carry out his commitment to keep us out of the war.  And then after founding the League of Nations, which was to establish world peace, he reneged on it — or at least he didn’t have the power or strength as president to lead us into the League of Nations.  As a result, the settlement brought about people like Hitler and Mussolini.

I think another man who was very responsible as a president in bringing about peace was Reagan, who got the Russians to knock down the [Berlin] Wall and brought about peace with Gorbachev.  I think it was a very important factor and has led to a great deal of harmony between our countries.

GVM: You served as chief of the intelligence branch for the European Theater of Operations, U.S. Army in World War II.  Historians, including the likes of Stephen Ambrose, have noted that your work contributed directly to shortening the war.  You swore never to discuss many aspects of your wartime experience, but can you tell us why you came away from your service so strongly committed to the avoidance of war?

HAUENSTEIN: You can’t have the leaderships of the world unite against war unless our own president is very keen in this area.  And I want very much to have presidents who have a sense of internationalism and, to that extent, they better have a sense of peace.  They go hand in hand.

GVM: During the Second World War, the vision of our enemies attacking on continental American soil was a strong motivator to support the war effort.  It didn’t happen then, and perhaps we grew numb over the subsequent years to what seemed a rather unlikely possibility.  What were your thoughts, nearly 60 years after Pearl Harbor, when those planes destroyed the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon?

HAUENSTEIN: When I first saw the pictures it was sort of deja vu.  I had served many, many months in London during the bombings.  I thought, “here we go again,” not knowing, of course, whether this was a foreign or a domestic terrorist. But when I found out that it was indeed a foreign terrorist, I couldn’t help but think that certainly this was an act of war.  And Bush so declared it, and properly so.

GVM: As a former senior American intelligence officer, do you think we should have, or could have, known more about terrorists moving about within our own country?

HAUENSTEIN: It’s a very difficult problem because, of course, there are too many constraints put on our security people. For example, even after the bombing of the Trade Center some years ago [the first time, in 1993], we still had difficulty in trying to get wires tapped because it had to be approved by certain people. You couldn’t take the agents — the ones that might be turned around to work for us — and pay them without first going to Washington for approval.  Whereas [in my day] you could meet these people on the lower level and arrange, by payment and other things, to have them work for you.  And, it just was too many and too much in the way of constraints for security people.

GVM: Who are your favorite American presidents?

HAUENSTEIN: There are two that I consider as really the greatest of all presidents.  Of course they are George Washington — because we have a country and wouldn’t have without him — and Abraham Lincoln, who kept us as a united country.  These two men were absolutely outstanding men in all respects.

GVM: Do you have strong recollections of General Eisenhower?

HAUENSTEIN: I have fewer recollections of him as a person than I do of the many things he had to accomplish during the war.  He was the Supreme Allied Commander.  You read mostly about the heroes of the war, and you inevitably come to a Patton or a Bradley, but you rarely read about Eisenhower being the great general — the Supreme Allied Commander.  He had a difficult job, really.  He always had to be looking over his shoulder at this man Montgomery [British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery].  Montgomery didn’t like Eisenhower, I don’t think there’s any question about it, and he was always trying to change things.

GVM: A few years from now, in order to say that the Hauenstein Center is a success, what kinds of things will have happened?

HAUENSTEIN: No, it’s gone way beyond my expectations.  I would never have believed that we could be what we are today.  I remember Grand Rapids back in the 30s: we were a city in trouble; we were having strikes; great unemployment.  There was no such thing as Social Security and there was very limited retirement pay, and we really were stagnant.  It was the Furniture Capital of America, but no one was buying furniture.

[Then] we got ourselves a certain man back from the capitol.  He’d been lieutenant governor in Lansing, and he came back to Grand Rapids where he became city manager and mayor.  He said, “We’ve got to do something to revitalize this town.  I want to build a big civic center or an auditorium here, because then we could bring people from all over the country for exhibits and conventions and we’ll get things moving.”

Everybody opposed him, saying “If you’ve got this kind of money, give it to the poor, or give it to the unemployed.”  Even the papers were reluctant to approve what he wanted to do, but George Welsh built the center downtown (the Welsh Auditorium), and of course in no time at all we were having conventions from all over the United States — and it just revitalized the whole city.

I think we’re going to have a similar resurgence with the convention center we’re now building. Grand Rapids is going to be an absolutely incredible city in the future.

HAUENSTEIN: First of all, I hope the student body can become very alert to what we’re talking about, and to the presidency itself  through discussions, [guest] lectures, debates, and so forth.  Secondly, I think that we will — on a national and international scale — bring together great debates and great leaders for discussions of the requirements of our presidency.

GVM: You had a successful career in business right here in Grand Rapids, and you were once the city editor of the Grand Rapids Herald.  You’ve observed much and been a part of the local scene for many years.  Has your city become what you might have hoped it would?

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