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The National World War II Memorial

The following is the introduction entitled, “The Power of Dog Tags”, from the book “Their Last Battle: The Fight for a National World War II Memorial” by Nicolaus Mills (Basic Books, 2004).

In the 1825 address he delivered at the laying of the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument, Daniel Webster made no effort to hide how moved he was by the sight of the Revolutionary War veterans at the head of the crowd of fifteen thousand, which, after a procession through the streets of Boston, gathered at Bunker Hill. It was fifty years to the day since the battle of Bunker Hill was fought, and the aging Revolutionary War veterans, including the frail Marquis de Lafayette, nearing the end of his farewell tour of America, had made an enormous effort to be present for the ceremony.

The keynote of Webster’s speech was America’s progress, but two centuries later what is most memorable about his speech is its poignancy. Time and again Webster voiced his concern that the Revolutionary War veterans, most of them in their seventies and eighties, were a vanishing generation. “Those who established our liberty and our government are daily dropping from among us,” he observed. “The great trust now descends to new hands.” Behind Webster’s description of the disappearing Revolutionary War generation was not just sadness, but generational envy, a belief that the “venerable men” whom the Bunker Hill Monument honored were superior to those of his own time. “We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all.” Webster concluded his speech by declaring, “Our proper business is improvement.”1

Today the language we use to describe the veterans of the World War II generation is strikingly similar to Webster’s language in 1825. We have as a nation come to accept NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s designation of the World War II generation as “the greatest generation,” and their accomplishments have left us feeling unequal to their patriotism and their capacity for sacrifice. As the historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in a 1998 essay describing the citizen-soldiers of World War II, “They were the sons of democracy, and they saved democracy. We owe them a debt we can never repay.” Most of all, with the veterans who won World War II now in their mortality years, we are aware that more will soon be leaving us. As one of their own, former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole noted during his speech at the November 11, 2000, groundbreaking ceremony for the National World War II Memorial, “Our generation has gone from the shade to the shadows. . . . our dwindling ranks will soon belong to the history books.”2

Why it took us, as it did Daniel Webster and his peers, so long to honor a war generation we admire is a complicated story. When it comes to healing memorials, those designed to deal with a war that went badly or a national trauma, we have in recent years managed to build in less than a decade memorials that give us comfort. In 1982, seven years after the end of the Vietnam War, construction on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial began, and within the year, the memorial opened to the public. In 1998, just three years after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, groundbreaking on the Oklahoma City National Memorial began, and two years later on April 19, 2000, the memorial officially opened. By contrast, with the exception of the Jefferson Memorial, on which work began more than one hundred years after Jefferson’s death, work on the great presidential memorials on the National Mall typically gets started around a half century after a president’s death, a time when the last generation with living memory of that president is itself passing from the scene. Construction on the Washington Monument began in 1848, forty-nine years after Washington’s death, and the Washington Monument opened to the public in 1885. Groundbreaking, followed by work on the subfoundation, on the Lincoln Memorial began in 1914, forty-nine years after Lincoln’s assassination, and the Lincoln Memorial opened to the public in 1922. Construction on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial began in 1994, forty-nine years after Roosevelt’s death, and the FDR Memorial opened to the public in 1997.3

In the case of the World War II veterans, in the period after the war there were efforts made to honor those who had died, as well as those returning, with traditional memorials. A plaster sculptural replica of Joe Rosenthal’s famous February 23, 1945, photograph of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi during the bloody battle for Iwo Jima quickly assumed iconic status. The replica by sculptor Felix de Weldon was used to help sell war bonds in 1945 and was briefly installed in Times Square on May 11, 1945, for the Treasury Department’s “Mighty Seventh” bond drive. Later that year on Veterans Day, de Weldon’s statue was given a more dignified home on Constitution Avenue within sight of the White House, where it remained until 1947, when it was moved to make room for the new Pan American Union Annex. Then seven years later, as a gigantic, 78-foot-high bronze sculpture, de Weldon’s statue, today known as the Marine Corps War Memorial, was given a permanent home in Arlington, Virginia, just north of Arlington Cemetery at the junction of Arlington Boulevard and Ridge Road, in a highly publicized November 10, 1954, dedication ceremony attended by President Dwight Eisenhower.4

At almost the same time a parallel effort to honor the veterans of World War II with a local memorial was taking place across the country in Omaha, Nebraska. In July 1944, just a month after D-Day, the Omaha World War II Memorial Park Association was formed and began making plans to erect a World War II Memorial on 65 acres of rolling grassland on what had been the Dundee Golf Course. The price for the undertaking was just over $262,000, but with fund-raising drives in the greater Omaha area, the park association was able to raise enough money from individual contributors to start construction on the memorial by October 1, 1945.

Everything else went equally quickly. By 1947 work was completed on the centerpiece of the memorial, a semi-circular, granite colonnade, 32 feet high, with reliefs of the various branches of the armed services along its top and bronze plates inscribed with the names of the nearly eight hundred Douglas County, Nebraska, World War II dead on its colonnades. Designed by Leo A. Daly, the father of Leo A. Daly III, the head of the firm (which continues to bear his family’s name) with the responsibility for the architect-engineer design services for the National World War II Memorial Project in Washington, the Omaha World War II Memorial won immediate acceptance. In 1946 the memorial was made part of the Omaha City park system by a unanimous vote of the Omaha City Council, and two years later at a June 5, 1948, ceremony presided over by President Harry Truman, the memorial was officially dedicated, following a parade through downtown Omaha that drew a crowd estimated at 160,000 people.5

In the years after World War II, the Marine Corps War Memorial and the Omaha World War II Memorial were, however, exceptions. There was great resistance at this time to creating World War II memorials that had the look of a traditional war memorial. A community might add the names of its World War II dead to an honor roll containing the names of its World War I dead, but that was usually as far as most cities and towns were prepared to go when it came to conventional memorials. Communities were, moreover, under no pressure from the returning veterans to do otherwise. Backed by the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, which promised government aid for higher education and home-buying, most vets were anxious to get back to “normal life” as soon as possible. Treated as heroes and helped by the $3.7 billion the G.I. Bill invested in them between 1945 and 1949, the returning vets of World War II did not see a national World War II memorial as a priority.6

In a 1945 Art News article, “War Memorials: What Aesthetic Price Glory?” Philip Johnson, whose own architecture — from his additions to the Museum of Modern Art to his work with John Burgee on the AT&T Building — would over the course of the next half century change the skyline of New York, captured the post-World War II attitude toward war memorials that would prevail for years. “Today the climate of opinion in this country is unfavorable to the concept of the traditional war memorial,” Johnson wrote. “One college president has suggested that we endow hospital beds instead. The Dean of Architecture at Harvard urges that we build playgrounds, schoolhouses, parks, anything rather than ‘to increase the dreadful population’ of our monuments ‘by so much as a single increment.’ Even returning GI’s are quoted as taking a stand against cast iron soldiers.”7

The postwar alternative to the traditional memorial was the useful memorial or the living memorial, and as Andrew Shanken observed in a recent Art Bulletin essay summarizing the subject, the postwar living memorial could range from a building as large as the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, a multipurpose auditorium and exhibition space for which planning began in November 1944, to a building as small as a local recreation center. The political support for living memorials during the late 1940s reflected the continuing New Deal belief that government money should be used to rebuild the country, and in the postwar years the Federal Security Agency, a New Deal agency created by the Reorganization Act of 1939, was able to mount a successful campaign for living memorials through its own publications and films as well as through its sponsorship of the American Commission for Living War Memorials.8

The living memorial movement of the late 1940s was, however, anything but a New Deal carryover that was rammed down the nation’s throat. The living memorial movement not only had the support of local politicians anxious to rebuild their communities; it had the support of serious thinkers in and out of the architecture community. They saw the utilitarianism of the living memorial as embodying America’s belief in the future in the way that no “dead” memorial could. “Let us then take as our first theme for memorials, destruction. Let us destroy the slum,” architect and city planner Percival Goodman wrote in a New York Herald Tribune article, in which he quoted with approval New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses’ call for memorials with year-round value. “Living trees and parks, lakes and clean streams,” not “dead stones and cast iron,” was what America needed, insisted Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louis Bromfield in an essay for Recreation that he titled, “Let’s Have Living Memorials.” Bromfield concluded his essay by observing of the returning vets, “All of them would prefer to be remembered by a forest or a game sanctuary or a lake than by some useless and possibly ugly cast iron statue.” For a nation anxious to put behind it the images of war, especially those revealed by newsreels of the Nazi death camps and the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, the living memorial also had the advantage of leaving out any references to the horrors of World War II. As painter John Scott Williams asked in the October 1945 Art Digest article that cited gyms, lakes, and bridges as worthy memorials, “Why should there be War Memorials when most people wish to forget the tragedies of war and turn to the more hopeful occupation of peace and prosperity?”9

The virtues of the living memorial movement that, beginning in the middle 1940s, had such a powerful influence on America over the next decade were also its limitations. In focusing so much attention on the practical issues of community and the future, the living memorial avoided directly dealing with death and sacrifice as well as the task of commemorating the individual lives lost in World War II.

With the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on Memorial Day weekend 2004, we have at last begun to make up for not honoring our World War II veterans with a memorial fifty-nine years ago. That by itself is a historic act, and its significance is heightened still further by the placement of the National World War II Memorial on the central spine of the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. No other place in the country more dramatically symbolizes who we believe ourselves to be as a people.

How the National World War II Memorial came into being is inescapably a story of art and architecture. Just as we cannot understand the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial without understanding their designers, Robert Mills and Henry Bacon, we cannot hope to make sense of the National World War II Memorial without understanding its designer, Friedrich St.Florian. But as a series of contemporary memorial historians have made clear in recent years, the story of a memorial is not only about art and architecture. The origins of a memorial, the political and cultural battles that bring a memorial into being, are as central to its meaning as its stone and marble.10

As James E. Young has argued in his study of Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory, we do not come to a memorial, as we come to the art in a museum or a gallery, primarily because it is novel or fascinating. We may be enthralled or repelled by the design of a memorial, but we do not visit a memorial to engage in a critique of it. Instead, we bring a sense of history with us when we come to a memorial, and we expect that as public art, the memorial will lead us beyond its own materiality and back in time to the persons or events it commemorates.11

In this regard the National World War II Memorial is no different from other memorials. Not only does its biography involve a fifty-nine-year delay between the war it commemorates and its dedication, but it also entails the history of the land on which the memorial rests. We need to remember that the Mall on which the National World War II Memorial sits has its eighteenth-century roots in the decision of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who fought in the American Revolution, to adapt the landscape schemes of Versailles and Paris, designed for the benefit of French royalty, to the New World. The specific acreage on which the National World War II Memorial now sits, West Potomac Park, did not exist when Washington was made the nation’s capital; in fact the Potomac River then flowed very close to the present site of the Washington Monument. West Potomac Park was created through a massive Army Corps of Engineers project that between 1882 and 1900 added more than 700 acres to the Mall by reclaiming the tidal flats of the Potomac River that lay to the west and south of the Washington Monument.12

The beauty of the landscape and the two memorials surrounding the National World War II Memorial have a similarly complex history. As the architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson has noted, during its early years the Mall was “an unkempt gardenesque park, with no particular symbolic value.” For much of the nineteenth century the Mall was burdened with a smelly canal — “a dirty, stinking, filthy ditch,” in the words of President Andrew Jackson — along its northern border, and after the canal was removed in 1872, there were still unsightly railroad tracks and a train station, which remained until 1907. Even the memorials and monuments on the Mall that we now regard as sacred were not always seen in that light. After construction on the Washington Monument came to a halt in 1854 as a result of political and financial problems encountered by the Washington Monument Society, the unfinished Washington Monument shaft was allowed to stand for decades, looking like nothing so much as a factory chimney, until in 1876 Congress finally appropriated enough money for the monument to be completed eight years later. As for the landfill on which the Lincoln Memorial rests, its marshy origins and its distance from the Washington Monument prompted Joe Cannon, the powerful Speaker of the House, to deride it as a “God damned swamp” in his campaign to get the Lincoln Memorial built elsewhere.13

Only with this background in mind can we gain historic perspective on the public battles that arose over the National World War II Memorial during the seventeen years between 1987, when the first legislation to build the National World War II Memorial was proposed, and 2004, when the memorial officially opened to the public. And even this historic perspective stops short of revealing all we need to know before we look at the memorial itself. When we think of the National World War II Memorial, we constantly need to bear in mind its birth order. Logically, the National World War II Memorial should have been built before, not after, the memorials to the veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars. As a consequence, comparisons were inevitable. From the start, the question surrounding the National World War II Memorial was, Did it not have to be more architecturally significant and more centrally located than the memorials to the two lesser wars that came after World War II?

As for the history of the National World War II Memorial, not only does it span four presidencies, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it has all the twists and turns of a movie plot and more than fulfills the observation of Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey that “creating major national memorials is always tricky, often messy, and sometimes ugly.”14

The men and women who dominated the media coverage of the battle over the National World War II Memorial reflect the scope of the struggle to build it. The initial proponent of a National World War II Memorial, Roger Durbin, was a rural mail carrier and a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, who, except for a Frank Capra-like faith in the American political system, had no reason to believe that his wish for a World War II Memorial in Washington would ever become a reality. The politician who from 1987 to 1993 led the congressional fight for a National World War II Memorial was not, as we would expect, a good old boy from the South with years of political seniority. She was Marcy Kaptur, a liberal Democrat from Toledo, Ohio, who was first elected to Congress in 1982. The designer of the National World War II Memorial, Friedrich St.Florian, was not in 1997, the year he was announced as the winner of the National World War II Memorial design competition, a famous architect with an international reputation. He was a former dean of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, known mostly in academic circles for his avant-garde work.15

The political figure most linked in the public’s mind with the National World War II Memorial, Bob Dole, was present at the White House for the unveiling of the winning design for the memorial because the president, who had just defeated him in the 1996 election, decided to use the ceremony to award Dole the Medal of Freedom. The movie star and two-time Academy Award winner, Tom Hanks, who became the spokesman for the National World War II Memorial public-service advertising campaign, was born long after World War II ended. It was his role in the 1998 hit film about World War II, Saving Private Ryan, that gave him the credibility to be an advocate for the memorial. Senator Bob Kerrey, the figure most closely associated with the early opposition to the National World War II Memorial, was an effective memorial critic because of his service as a U.S. Navy SEAL in the Vietnam War, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Washington insider and chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, J. Carter Brown, who until his death in 2002 was the most influential advocate for the National World War II Memorial within the Washington art establishment, had a decade earlier put his reputation on the line to champion Maya Lin’s untraditional Vietnam Veterans Memorial.16

The group that mounted the most effective opposition to the National World War II Memorial, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, did not even exist at the time the memorial was being proposed, but under the leadership of Judy Scott Feldman it quickly surpassed the traditional Washington preservationist organizations in influence and has become a permanent force in the capital today. Congress, not the arts and planning commissions whose primary business includes approving memorials on federal land in Washington, is the institution responsible for the fact that construction on the National World War II Memorial began in August 2001 rather than years later. Exasperated by the opponents of the memorial, the members of the House and the Senate took matters into their own hands in May 2001 and passed special legislation stating that the memorial site and design approvals granted to the National World War II Memorial by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission by the end of 2000 were final and not subject to judicial review.17

What follows from this biography of the National World War II Memorial is, however, not only the story of how the memorial went from an idea to a reality. The biography of the National World War II Memorial also forces us to re-examine a series of prevailing assumptions about the Mall and its memorials.

The Mall is a completed urban work of art that should have its cross-axis protected by a no-build zone. Now officially the law of the land as a result of a 2003 amendment to the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, this idea was first explored in 1996 by the Memorials Task Force of the National Capital Planning Commission. By January 2000 a Joint Task Force on Memorials, composed of representatives from the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Memorial Commission, reached the conclusion that the area on the Mall formed by the cross-axis that links the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial in one direction and the White House and the Jefferson Memorial in the other should be a no-build reserve. The theory behind this thinking — namely, that proliferation of memorials on the Mall is certain to create a theme-park effect that will undermine the Mall’s existing memorials — is impossible to deny. The space around any memorial is crucial to its uniqueness and its capacity to elicit awe, as the Lincoln Memorial Commission argued at the turn of the last century. But as the National World War II Memorial shows, strict enforcement of a no-build policy for the Mall’s great cross-axis exacts an enormous price. Without meaning to, such a policy forever locks the Mall into the past. It implicitly says that no contemporary figure or future event in American life can ever be as worthy of commemoration on the Mall as those of the past.18

Preservation of the Mall’s existing spaces and structures should control decisions over future building on it. For any number of Washington preservationist groups, “protecting the historic and scenic integrity of the Mall” is, to quote Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a “high priority.” The difficulty comes when this priority is combined with the belief that the Mall is, in the words of Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s congressional delegate and a persistent critic of the National World War II Memorial, “the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon.” What follows, as the battle over whether to build the National World War II Memorial at the site of the historic Rainbow Pool showed, is the notion that virtually nothing on the Mall should be modified, because the Mall itself is a timeless natural wonder. When such thinking is applied, it does not matter that the original Rainbow Pool, architecturally problematic from the start, was for years generally ignored and allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. Nor does it matter that the history of the Mall is a history of dramatic change. The controversy surrounding the National World War II Memorial demonstrates that such preservationist fundamentalism puts the entire Mall at risk. It turns historic preservation from a process of controlling change and dealing with competing claims into what J. Carter Brown, the longtime head of the Commission of Fine Arts, called an excuse for “freezing and embalming everything.”19

A memorial’s design should reflect the architecture of its time, not that from a bygone period. In the 1930s this conviction was at the center of the attacks on John Russell Pope’s Pantheon-like Jefferson Memorial. Pope’s detractors, from Frank Lloyd Wright to the faculty at Columbia’s School of Architecture, which called Pope’s design a “lamentable misfit in time and space,” saw the classical design of the Jefferson Memorial paying false homage to Roman architecture in an age of modernism. Today, parallel arguments have surfaced with regard to the National World War II Memorial. These arguments were stated bluntly by a letter writer to the Washington Post who asked, “Cannot our memorial take advantage of contemporary vision, contemporary taste, contemporary design?” But in subtler form these same arguments were also made by the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp in a front-page article, written before construction began, in which he attacked the memorial’s design architect, Friedrich St.Florian, for “copying period styles” and criticized the memorial for being unequal to the innovative work done in postwar Washington by I. M. Pei on the East Wing of the National Galley, Maya Lin on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and James Ingo Freed on the United States Holocaust Museum that “developed abstract geometry into complex formal vocabularies.” What the completed National World War II Memorial suggests, by contrast, are the virtues of taking a more pluralistic approach to contemporary memorial design. By its use of an aesthetic borrowed from the 1930s and 1940s, the National World War II Memorial is not only able to allude to the period it commemorates but to extend rather than ignore the historic neoclassicism of the Mall’s architecture.20

The most important audience for a memorial will be drawn from future generations. This is certainly true of any memorial that is going to endure, but it is a view that is typically advanced, as with the National World War II Memorial, in order to criticize a memorial for being too tied to the generation associated with it. In the case of the National World War II Memorial, this generational view was put forward both by architect Roger Lewis, in a highly critical Washington Post essay he subtitled “Trying to See the World War II Memorial from a Future Perspective,” and a year later by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, in a lengthy feature article in which, after dismissing the National World War II Memorial as high kitsch, he asserted that “great art outlasts historical memory” and that the National World War II Memorial was unfortunately a “forgettable memorial.” Nothing about the National World War II Memorial contradicts the certitude that within a few decades none of its visitors will either have fought in World War II or have been alive during the 1940s. But what the National World War II Memorial design does do is make the point that there is much greater value than we now concede in building a memorial with deep generational roots. Just as the Lincoln Memorial is enhanced by its thirty-six columns representing the number of states reunited in 1865, so the National World War II Memorial is enhanced by its relief panels based on 1940s news photos and its Field of Stars with its direct reference to the individual gold star that a family who had lost someone in the war hung on a banner in the window. Such time-bound references help us and future memorial visitors to see World War II, as we ordinarily would not, through the eyes of those who experienced it.21

A memorial should be privately financed. In recent decades this thinking has become the conventional wisdom, despite the fact that it was money from the federal government, not the private sector, that was either the only source or most important source of funding for the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. In the case of the National World War II Memorial, money was from the start a deep worry for Fred Woerner, the retired four-star U.S. Army general, who during the crucial fund-raising years served as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the agency Congress made responsible for establishing the National World War II Memorial. The startup funds that the government supplied the American Battle Monuments Commission were minimal, and only after the ABMC was able to put together a financial team that, in addition to its own staff, included Bob Dole, Federal Express CEO Fred Smith, and actor Tom Hanks, was the commission able to get the donations it needed (in the end, over $194 million). The example of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s success in raising money does not, however, settle the memorial economics question so much as make it more imperative than ever for us to find a way of making sure all federal memorials, especially those that may be less appealing to corporate donors, receive the support they need and are not forced to have their architecture determined by the ability of their backers to pay for it.22

In telling the story of the National World War II Memorial, it is essential for a book like Their Last Battle to look at the big picture. At the same time it is crucial to remember that this big picture is composed of numerous small pictures, often no more than snapshots, and that these small pictures contain a life of their own. Their importance was driven home to me time and again when I did interviews with the men and women working on the National World War II Memorial, but at no point so deeply as on a spring day in 2002 when I walked through a muddy memorial site with Jim McCloskey, the general superintendent for the project. As we got near the spot where the northern arch of the National World War II Memorial was going to be built, McCloskey asked me to turn off my tape recorder, and he began telling me about the World War II veteran who had come by his office trailer earlier in the week.

“He wanted me to bury his dog tags in the foundation,” McCloskey said. “He was the third vet who asked me this year, and I didn’t tell him, like I didn’t tell the others, that it was against government rules. I just took the dog tags and said I’d bury them under one of the arches.” McCloskey, who had started out in the construction business forty years earlier as a carpenter’s apprentice, was not impressed with his own willingness to break the rules. What impressed him was the significance that the memorial had taken on for the vet, who had spent two days driving on his own just to get to Washington.

In succeeding years, when the significance of the National World War II Memorial in American life is debated, I do not imagine those buried dog tags will figure in many discussions. Jim McCloskey, who died of an aneurysm before the National World War II Memorial was completed, was not much of a talker, and he did not think that it was his business to ask the veteran his name or to find out if the veteran had any family. Still those dog tags at the bottom of the memorial do speak to us, and what they say about the National World War II Memorial and its ability to reach across generations does matter — as much as anything we will ever learn from going to the Mall ourselves.23


Copyright © 2004 Nicolaus Mills. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web by special arrangement with the publisher.

“Their Last Battle: The Fight for a National World War II Memorial” is available from Amazon.