June 2, 2004

June 2, 2004 | Commentary on

Just In Time

What a magnificent sight - hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans gathering in the sunshine on the Mall in Washington for a tribute that is long overdue. This is not a generation that is used to boast of its heroic achievements. They fought the war, won and moved on. Fuss and fanfare is not their thing.

All the more reason to be pleased that World War II veterans finally had their day in the sun, literally speaking, at the National World War II Memorial Dedication on Sunday. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only some 4 million are left to receive the nation's gratitude. Veterans are passing away at an estimated rate of 1,100 a day, so there was no time to lose. More than 400,000 Americans laid down their lives in Europe and in the Pacific between 1940 and 1945 to defend the freedom we all enjoy today.

"Raising up this memorial took skill and vision and patience," stated President Bush at the dedication. "Now the work is done, and it is a fitting tribute, open and expansive, like America; grand and enduring, like the achievements we honor.

"The years of World War II were a hard, heroic and gallant time in the life of our country. When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity. On this day, in their honor, we will raise the American flag over a monument that will stand as long as America itself."

Now, memorials have a way of running into politics here in Washington. The space on the Mall is limited and precious.

When L'Enfant laid out the street plan of Washington, he designated some 90 memorial sites, and that number is still what planners are working with. Regrettably, tempers often grow hot over how best to honor the heroes and victims of the past.

The Vietnam Memorial was initially deeply controversial.  Considered defeatist, it is now regarded among the most moving and popular. The FDR Memorial ran into a storm of controversy over whether the president should be portrayed sitting in a wheel chair or standing. The Holocaust Museum was stuck in limbo for years, and disputed by some as inappropriate in an American national memorial space. Most recently, as readers of this column will be aware, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism has been held up because of disputes over its location.

Some of us were similarly skeptical when the site for the World War II Memorial was first proposed. At first, the space around the Rainbow Pool seemed implausible, cutting up the vista between the Lincoln and Washington Monuments. Moreover, an underground museum was initially part of the proposed design.

This facility would actually have been below the Tidal Basin water table. (This impractical idea was fortunately dropped.) After the World War II Memorial was proposed in 1987, it took until 1995 before the site was approved and until 2001 before the groundbreaking finally took place.

There are still those who remain bitterly critical of the design. Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post, "The World War II Memorial has opened and it is indeed a failure. The good news is that the Mall survives. The bad news is that for all its attempted monumentality, the memorial is deeply inadequate - a busy vacuity, hollow to the core."

Others, like myself, have found the design not nearly as problematic as first advertised by its critics. While the style is indeed fairly bombastic, for a monument to military victory it's not inappropriate. The monument suggests none of the haunting self-doubt of the Vietnam or Korean Memorials, nor would that have been in the last suitable for a World War II memorial. It does not interrupt the vistas of the Mall, and, to be honest, the shabby area around the Rainbow Pool was in need of improvement.

But most of all, what has changed the equation now, is the joy of the veterans who find that after 60 years, they are truly appreciated. This is a memorial not just for the dead, not just for future generations of Americans to contemplate, but a tribute to a heroic generation. The veterans themselves have taken it to their hearts. As William Clay, 80, of Tulsa, Okla. told The Washington Times, "I think it's great. I wanted to see all of this. At my age, I might not get another chance." That's what really matters.


Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times