Friday, October 26, 2007

The World War II Memorial

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal
Richard Allen Hyde

October 26, 2007

I spent a lot of time on the National Mall during this warm and almost rainless summer of 2007. Every day was a good day for bicycling around the city and the great central park at its heart. I did not particularly like The World War II Memorial when it replaced the old the Rainbow Pool, just off 17th Street directly west of the Washington Monument, several years ago.

Nonetheless I found myself visiting it often and finding that it gave rise to a lot of thought. The fountains are beautiful and the old Rainbow Pool certainly needed fixing up. It attracts a lot of visitors, including, touchingly, World War II veterans, increasingly frail, having their photographs taken with loved ones and the memorial as a backdrop. With the passing of time, the surrounding trees have gentled the vertical forms of the memorial into the environment and it does not look so shockingly new.

Nonetheless, this memorial has problems. The major problem dates back to the enabling legislation in 1993 that called for a memorial to the efforts of World War II veterans and the nation. Such a memorial would be appropriate for any number of sites in Washington, in or at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, near the Roosevelt Memorial, or some other site off the central axis of the Mall. The current site, which no one in 1993 even considered, cries out for a lot more than a veterans memorial.

The focus of a war memorial on this site, should not be on veterans, or the nation, or on the war itself, but on the overarching meaning and purpose of the Second World War. The focus of the Lincoln Memorial is not on the Civil War itself, and certainly not on its battlefields (the architectural focus of the World War II Memorial), which are well-preserved and memorialized elsewhere; but on Abraham Lincoln and his words, chiseled in stone, that articulate the meaning of that war for all people and generations to come.

No memorial can do justice to those who have sacrificed in war. Memorials are for the living. Memorials should instruct the living in the reasons for the sacrifice, inspiring us to live our lives in a way that honors those who died. Lincoln said at Gettysburg,

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they [those fallen in battle] did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

The National Mall is defined by the Capitol on the east, the Lincoln Memorial on the west and the Washington Monument in the middle. John Hay, who served as personal secretary to Lincoln and later as Secretary of State, well articulated the importance of the area west of the Washington Monument: "As I understand it, the place of honor is on the main axis of the [MacMillan] plan. Lincoln of all Americans next to Washington deserves this place of honor. He was of the immortals. You must not approach too close to the immortals. His monument should stand alone, remote from the common habitations of man, apart from the business and turmoil of the city; isolated, distinguished and serene." Lincoln gets this position because his life and words so clearly enunciated the broader significance of that great civil war. His memorial, fittingly, is not an arch of triumph, which was proposed, but a temple of unity and freedom, which are clearly celebrated in the speeches chiseled in the stone walls and in the murals above.

The practice of American democracy is a constant negotiation between unity and freedom. To the Lincoln statue's right, across the Tidal Basin, rests another temple of unity and freedom: Jefferson’s. The two temples constantly put forth the noble words, a philosophical anchor to the often rancorous debates within Congress and between Congress and the President. At the center of the architectural debate is the Washington Monument, around which the other buildings revolve in perpetual conversation.

Anything that gets between these five buildings must have something terribly important to say. It must do more than congratulate the nation for having won a war and thank its veterans in particular for having done the heaviest lifting. It must articulate, in the way the Lincoln Memorial does, not just the national, but the universal significance of this victory. This would be the case whatever the war. It is even more the case for World War II, which was an allied effort from start to finish. We fought the Civil War to save democracy as an appropriate form of government for a great power. Four score years later, we fought another war for the same reason, when democracy was even more threatened.

Of course, the debate over the meaning, not to mention the purposes and causes of World War II, will reverberate through chancelleries, universities, newspapers, bars and coffeehouses for centuries to come. Some see it as the defeat of fascism, or militarism, or Nazism. Some see it as the triumph of democracy over a much graver threat than the royalism that attempted to strangle infant American democracy in the crib. Some see it as the finest hour of the British Empire or the pivotal event of the American Century. Some combine these latter two views to proclaim World War II, Soviet participation notwithstanding, as the triumph of the English-speaking peoples, and Anglo-Saxon notions of government.

These views all merit consideration, but only one deserves a stone monument in the nation’s front yard: the triumph of democracy through collective security. It was not at all clear during the decade of the 1930s that democratic governments would survive the threat of totalitarian regimes of both the right and the left. At the beginning of the war, it was widely wondered -- quite justifiably so -- whether the world’s remaining democracies could work together to defeat a common foe. Thus World War II tested a proposition as profoundly as the Civil War did: whether nations conceived in liberty could long endure. Allied leaders, sobered by the near failure of this proposition, decided to found the United Nations before the war was even over, and no decent, sober person anywhere, wanted the United States to stay out of this League of Nations, Round Two.

Almost all political commentators agree that the United States of America is the world’s only superpower. It does America no good, however, to make this point too loudly or too often. There is considerable debate today, as there long has been and well should be, about unilateralism and multilateralism in American foreign policy. Whatever the merits of each, World War II was incontrovertibly a multilateral effort. The United States did not defeat fascism, militarism and Nazism by itself. It behooves us to clearly celebrate this fact in any national World War II Memorial, especially one in such a prominent place. The triumph of democracy through collective security should be the theme of this memorial. Our soldiers died not just for one nation free and interdependent, but a globe covered with nations free and interdependent. As after the Civil War, out of this struggle demanding allied unity should come a new birth of freedom. A World War II memorial in this place should clearly articulate this faith.

Washington Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal

Richard Allen Hyde
October 20, 2007

It has been a dry summer in Washington. There may have been two inches of rain since May. Grass that has not been watered turned brown in early August. The humidity has generally been low by Washington standards, although, of course, there have been days when your skin felt like it had thousands of tiny insects dancing on it within minutes of stepping outside. Now with leaves slowly turning and still no rain, the weather reminds me of Califonia, where late summer fades imperceptibly into fall and fall seems like it will last forever. In Asia they call this monsoon weather: Dry, dry, dry. Finally it rains.

Yes, it has also been hot. It is always hot in Washington in the summer. This summer was about normal in that respect. But it has not rained. The grass on the National Mall is in desperate need of rain. I am told that there is no money in the National Park Service’s budget for watering.

Literature majors know that this is the background of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. Even non-majors probably know that too much has been made of that poem already. Nonetheless, it has never been more apt. Weather is not the only dry phenomenon in Washington these days. Washington waits for a new president as anxiously as farmers await the rain; people here are just as surly as when the rain does not come and the crops are ruined. The rain, the actual, physical rain, will come a lot sooner than the change of government, probably before even the first primary election, which is still months off.

The Bush Presidency staggers on. Everyone, including Republicans, is sick of it. As in some species of ants, the main body is long since dead, but the stinger, the vaunted public relations team, keeps on fighting. Elsewhere, the whole political apparatus is afflicted with the dry heaves. Politicians keep opening their mouths to speak, but nothing comes out.

Yet unselfish acts occasionally take place in this city. The Bush administration announced stronger sanctions against and froze the assets of the weird generals who run Burma. President and members of Congress warmly welcomed the Dalai Lama and gave him a medal, which left the Chinese government fuming. Acts like this remind us that freedom is still the name of the game in Washington, and throughout America. Our government, like all government, everywhere, makes compromises. Likewise, it makes clear occasionally what it ultimately values. In this country, it’s freedom.

I have been reading David McCullough’s biography of President Truman, the unremarkable man who became FDR’s third vice-president after the charming and personable Henry Wallace became just a bit too loopy to be vice-president to an obviously ailing President Roosevelt. The unremarkable Truman became a remarkable president.

When he first arrived in Washington, as a senator, in 1935, he generally walked from his apartment on upper Connecticut Avenue to the Capitol (over five miles), arriving so early that he was issued a special key to get to his office. As President, he made momentous decisions. He was his own chief of staff. He was the last president to write his own speeches and the last with only a high school education. He reorganized the entire foreign policy apparatus of the government, combining the War and Navy Departments to make the Defense Department. His Secretaries of State, George Marshall and Dean Acheson, were perhaps the best ever to hold the office. The Marshall Plan, which loaned or gave Europe billions of dollars when a billion was still a large number, has been characterized as one of the most unselfish acts ever undertaken by a government. It was also one of the wisest. Europe is free today because of it. Where would we be without it? Truman held 324 press conferences.

Harry Truman certainly waged the most remarkable election campaign for president in the history of the office. After being counted out by pundits and pollsters from beginning to end, he won the popular vote by over two million. His party won both houses of Congress by wide margins. Disregarding the polls, the people spoke. Democracy worked.

The often-overlooked fact of this storybook campaign is that a shift of less than 50,000 votes in Illinois and California would have given the election to his opponent, Thomas Dewey. This is something to ponder, for it is quite possible that the popular vote winner of this coming election in 2008 will lose the election. There is no telling at this point whether the disgruntled winner/loser will be a Republican or Democrat.

Let us assume that Hillary Clinton and Rudolf Giuliani, both of whom are intensely disliked by members of the opposite party, will be the nominees. It will certainly be a close, hard-fought election. How will the supporters of either of these candidates feel about winning the popular vote yet losing the election in the electoral college? It is not clear who will be more insufferable, as winner or loser, with such a result. George Bush won a contested election and has not had a popular presidency. Can we afford to do this again?

Let’s face it: the electoral college has long outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any to begin with. The primary system worked fairly well, for a while, but now it is time for it to go as well. It is high time for a complete federal election overhaul: one national primary day and abolishing the electoral college. Federal election standards, and funding, for all elections. I believe it is in the interest of both parties and the entire electorate to do this.

I know the argument for primaries: it gives at least a few voters the opportunity to see candidates up close and ask questions. But why should this privilege go to voters in the same states year after year? Further, I submit that the system no longer works to give lesser-known candidates a chance. The candidate with the most money and backing from party leaders usually wins, and that candidate has often been a second-rate candidate. We have had numerous chances for a fresh faces: Gary Hart in 1984 (four years before he self-destructed), Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean and John McCain in 2004 all would have been more interesting candidates than what we ultimately got. They ultimately were done in by superior funding, powerful backers and television. Bill Clinton is the notable exception. Can anyone even name whom he was running against in 1992?

So why bother with the charade? Either reform the primary system or let the party leaders and a few super-rich folks get together and choose the candidates in a beautiful, air-conditioned corporate retreat center (the proverbial smoke-filled room is long gone) in July and start the campaign right afterward. Save everyone a lot of time and trouble.

Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde