It’s taken me years to be able to discuss the making of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, partly because I needed to move past it and partly because I had forgotten the process of getting it built. I would not discuss the controversy surrounding its construction and it wasn’t until I saw the documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision that I was able to remember that time in my life. But I wrote the body of this essay just as the memorial was being completed—in the fall of 1982. Then I put it away…until now.
I think the most important aspect of the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was that I had originally designed it for a class I was taking at Yale and not for the competition. In that sense, I had designed it for me—or, more exactly, for what I believed it should be. I never tried to second-guess a jury. And it wasn’t until after I had completed the design that I decided to enter it in the competition.
The design emerged from an architectural seminar I was taking during my senior year. The initial idea of a memorial had come from a notice posted at the school announcing a competition for a Vietnam veterans memorial. The class, which was on funereal architecture, had spent the semester studying how people, through the built form, express their attitudes toward death. As a class, we thought the memorial was an appropriate design idea for our program, so we adopted it as our final design project.
At that point, not much was known about the actual competition, so for the first half of the assignment we were left without concrete directions for what “they” were looking for or even who “they” were. Instead, we had to determine for ourselves what a Vietnam memorial should be. Since a previous project had been to design a memorial for World War III, I had already begun to ask the simple questions: What exactly is a memorial? What should it do?
My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.
I had studied earlier monuments and memorials while designing that memorial and I continued this research for the design of the Vietnam memorial. As I did more research on monuments, I realized most carried larger, more general messages about a leader’s victory or accomplishments rather than the lives lost. In fact, at the national level, individual lives were very seldom dealt with, until you arrived at the memorials for World War I. Many of these memorials included the names of those killed. Partly it was a practical need to list those whose bodies could not be identified—since dog tags as identification had not yet been adopted and, owing to the nature of the warfare, many killed were not identifiable—but I think as well the listing of names reflected a response by these designers to the horrors of World War I, to the immense loss of life.
The images of these monuments were extremely moving. They captured emotionally what I felt memorials should be: honest about the reality of war, about the loss of life in war, and about remembering those who served and especially those who died.
I made a conscious decision not to do any specific research on the Vietnam War and the political turmoil surrounding it. I felt that the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives. I wanted to create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war. The power of a name was very much with me at the time, partly because of the Memorial Rotunda at Yale. In Woolsey Hall, the walls are inscribed with the names of all the Yale alumni who have been killed in wars. I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names. Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me…the sense of the power of a name.
One memorial I came across also made a strong impression on me. It was a monument to the missing soldiers of the World War I Battle of the Somme by Sir Edwin Lutyens in Thiepval, France. The monument includes more than 100,000 names of people who were listed as missing because, without ID tags, it was impossible to identify the dead. (The cemetery contains the bodies of 70,000 dead.) To walk past those names and realize those lost lives—the effect of that is the strength of the design. This memorial acknowledged those lives without focusing on the war or on creating a political statement of victory or loss. This apolitical approach became the essential aim of my design; I did not want to civilize war by glorifying it or by forgetting the sacrifices involved. The price of human life in war should always be clearly remembered.
But on a personal level, I wanted to focus on the nature of accepting and coming to terms with a loved one’s death. Simple as it may seem, I remember feeling that accepting a person’s death is the first step in being able to overcome that loss.
I felt that as a culture we were extremely youth-oriented and not willing or able to accept death or dying as a part of life. The rites of mourning, which in more primitive and older cultures were very much a part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times. In the design of the memorial, a fundamental goal was to be honest about death, since we must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. The pain of the loss will always be there, it will always hurt, but we must acknowledge the death in order to move on.
What then would bring back the memory of a person? A specific object or image would be limiting. A realistic sculpture would be only one interpretation of that time. I wanted something that all people could relate to on a personal level. At this time I had as yet no form, no specific artistic image.
The use of names was a way to bring back everything someone could remember about a person. The strength in a name is something that has always made me wonder at the “abstraction” of the design; the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that per-son is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph, which captures a specific moment in time or a single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time.
Then someone in the class received the design program, which stated the basic philosophy of the memorial’s design and also its requirements: all the names of those missing and killed (57,000) must be a part of the memorial; the design must be apolitical, harmonious with the site, and conciliatory.
These were all the thoughts that were in my mind before I went to see the site.
Without having seen it, I couldn’t design the memorial, so a few of us traveled to Washington, D.C., and it was at the site that the idea for the design took shape. The site was a beautiful park surrounded by trees, with traffic and noise coming from one side—Constitution Avenue.
I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth.
I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface, much like the surface on a geode when you cut it and polish the edge. The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember.
It would be an interface, between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. I chose black granite in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful. I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side. The mirrored effect would double the size of the park, creating two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter. The two walls were positioned so that one pointed to the Lincoln Memorial and the other pointed to the Washington Monument. By linking these two strong symbols for the country, I wanted to create a unity between the nation’s past and present.
The idea of destroying the park to create something that by its very nature should commemorate life seemed hypocritical, nor was it in my nature. I wanted my design to work with the land, to make something with the site, not to fight it or dominate it. I see my works and their relationship to the landscape as being an additive rather than a combative process.
On our return to Yale, I quickly sketched my idea up, and it almost seemed too simple, too little. I toyed with adding some large flat slabs that would appear to lead into the memorial, but they didn’t belong. The image was so simple that anything added to it began to detract from it.
I always wanted the names to be chronological, to make it so that those who served and returned from the war could find their place in the memorial. I initially had the names beginning on the left side and ending on the right. In a preliminary critique, a professor asked what importance that left for the apex, and I, too, thought it was a weak point, so I changed the design for the final critique. Now the chronological sequence began and ended at the apex so that the time line would circle back to itself and close the sequence. A progression in time is memorialized. The design is not just a list of the dead. To find one name, chances are you will see the others close by, and you will see yourself reflected through them.
The memorial was designed before I decided to enter the competition. I didn’t even consider that it might win. When I submitted the project, I had the greatest difficulty trying to describe it in just one page. It took longer, in fact, to write the statement that I felt was needed to accompany the required drawings than to design the memorial. The description was critical to understanding the design since the memorial worked more on an emotional level than a formal level.
Coincidentally, at the time, I was taking a course with Professor Vincent Scully, in which he focused, just happened to focus, on the same memorial I had been so moved by—the Lutyens memorial to the missing. Professor Scully described one’s experience of that piece as a passage or journey through a yawning archway. As he described it, it resembled a gaping scream; after you passed through, you were left looking out on a simple graveyard with the crosses and tombstones of the French and the English. It was a journey to an awareness of immeasurable loss, with the names of the missing carved on every surface of this immense archway.
I started writing furiously in Scully’s class. I think he has always been puzzled by my connection to the Lutyens memorial. Formally the two memorials could not be more different. But for me, the experiences of these two memorials describe a similar passage to an awareness about loss.
The competition required drawings, along with the option to include a written description. As the deadline for submission approached, I created a series of simple drawings. The only thing left was to complete the essay, which I instinctively knew was the only way to get anyone to understand the design, the form of which was deceptively simple. I kept reworking and reediting the final description. I actually never quite finished it. I ended up at the last minute writing freehand directly onto the presentation boards (you can see a few misprints on the actual page), and then I sent the project in, never expecting to hear about it again.
The drawings were in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings. One of the comments made by a juror was “He must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naive” (italics mine). But ultimately, I think it was the written description that convinced the jurors to select my design.
On my last day of classes my roommate, Liz Perry, came to retrieve me from one of my classes, telling me a call from Washington had come in and that it was from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund; they needed to talk to me and would call back with a few questions about the design. When they called back, they merely said they needed to ask me a few questions and wanted to fly up to New Haven to talk to me. I was convinced that I was number 100 and they were only going to question me about drainage and other technical issues. It never occurred to me that I might have won the competition. It was still, in my mind, an exercise—as competitions customarily are for architecture students.
And even after three officers of the fund were seated in my college dorm room, explaining to me that it was the largest competition of its kind, with more than 1,400 entries, and Colonel Schaet, who was talking, without missing a beat calmly added that I had won (I think my roommate’s face showed more emotion than mine did at the time), it still hadn’t registered. I don’t think it did for almost a year. Having studied the nature of competitions, especially in Washington (for instance, the FDR Memorial, still unbuilt in 1981, nearly forty years after it was first proposed, or the artwork Robert Venturi and Richard Serra collaborated on for L’Enfant Plaza, which was completely modified as it went through the required Washington design process of approvals), my attitude about unusual projects getting built in Washington was not optimistic. Partly it’s my nature—I never get my hopes up—and partly I assumed the simplicity of the design, and its atypical form and color, would afford it a difficult time through the various governmental-approval agencies.
After the design had been chosen, it was subject to approval by various governmental agencies at both the conceptual and design development phases. I moved to Washington and stayed there throughout these phases. I expected the design to be debated within the design-approval agencies; I never expected the politics that constantly surrounded its development and fabrication.I was driven down to Washington the day of my college graduation, and I immediately became part of an internal struggle for control of the design. I think my age made it seem apparent to some that I was too young to understand what I had done or to see it through to completion. To bring the design into reality would require that I associate with an architect of record, a qualified firm that would work with me to realize the design. I had a very difficult time convincing the fund in charge of the memorial—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund—of the importance of selecting a qualified firm that had experience both in architecture and landscape-integrated solutions, and that would be sympathetic to the design.
I had gone to Cesar Pelli, then dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, for the names of some firms that could handle the job. A firm by the name of Cooper-Lecky was the one he recommended, and I presented its name to the fund, unaware that the competition’s adviser was the fund’s choice as architect of record. I was told by the fund that this person was the architect of record, and that was that.
After a few weeks of tense and hostile negotiations (in which at one point I was warned that I would regret these actions, and that I would “come crawling back on my hands and knees”), I was finally able to convince the fund to go through a legitimate process of selecting a firm to become the architect of record. The then architecture critic for The Washington Post, Wolf Von Eckardt, was instrumental in pressing the fund to listen to me. But the struggle left a considerable amount of ill will and mistrust between the veterans and myself.
Through the remaining phases of the project I worked with the Cooper-Lecky architectural firm. We worked on the practical details of the design, from the addition of a safety curb to a sidewalk to the problems in inscribing the names. Many of the issues we dealt with were connected to the text and my decision to list the names chronologically. People felt it would be an inconvenience to have to search out a name in a book and then find its panel location and thought that an alphabetical listing would be more convenient—until a tally of how many Smiths had died made it clear that an alphabetical listing wouldn’t be feasible. The MIA groups wanted their list of the missing separated out and listed alphabetically. I knew this would break the strength of the time line, interrupting the real-time experience of the piece, so I fought hard to maintain the chronological listing. I ended up convincing the groups that the time in which an individual was noted as missing was the emotionally compelling time for family members. A system of noting these names with a symbol that could be modified to signify if the veteran was later found alive or officially declared dead would appease the concerns of the MIA groups without breaking the time line. I knew the time line was key to the experience of the memorial: a returning veteran would be able to find his or her time of service when finding a friend’s name.
The text of the memorial and the fact that I had left out everything except the names led to a fight about what else needed to be said about the war. The apex is the memorial’s strongest point; I argued against the addition of text at that point for fear that a politically charged statement, one that would force a specific reading, would destroy the apolitical nature of the design. Throughout this time I was very careful not to discuss my political beliefs; I played it extremely naive about politics, instead turning the issue into a strictly aesthetic one. Text could be added, but whatever was said needed to fit in three lines—to match the height of the dates “1959” and “1975” that it would be adjacent to. The veterans approved this graphic parameter, and the statements became a simple prologue and epilogue.
The memorial is analogous to a book in many ways. Note that on the right-hand panels the pages are set ragged right and on the left they are set ragged left, creating a spine at the apex as in a book. Another issue was scale; the text type is the smallest that we had come across, less than half an inch, which is unheard of in monument type sizing. What it does is create a very intimate reading in a very public space, the difference in intimacy between reading a billboard and reading a book.
The only other issue was the polished black granite and how it should be detailed, over which I remember having a few arguments with the architects of record. The architects could not understand my choice of a reflective, highly polished black granite. One of them felt I was making a mistake and the polished surface would be “too feminine.” Also puzzling to them was my choice of detailing the monument as a thin veneer with barely any thickness at its top edge. They wanted to make the monument’s walls read as a massive, thick stone wall, which was not my intention at all. I always saw the wall as pure surface, an interface between light and dark, where I cut the earth and polished its open edge. The wall dematerializes as a form and allows the names to become the object, a pure and reflective surface that would allow visitors the chance to see themselves with the names. I do not think I thought of the color black as a color, more as the idea of a dark mirror into a shadowed mirrored image of the space, a space we cannot enter and from which the names separate us, an interface between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
One aspect that made the project unusual was its politicized building process. For instance, the granite could not come from Canada or Sweden. Though those countries had beautiful black granites, draft evaders went to both countries, so the veterans felt that we could not consider their granites as options. The actual building process went smoothly for the most part, and the memorial was built very close to my original intentions.
As far as all of the controversy is concerned, I really never wanted to go into it too much. The memorial’s starkness, its being below grade, being black, and how much my age, gender, and race played a part in the controversy, we’ll never quite know. I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built. From the very beginning I often wondered, if it had not been an anonymous entry 1026 but rather an entry by Maya Lin, would I have been selected?
I remember at the very first press conference a reporter asking me if I did not find it ironic that the memorial was for the Vietnam War and that I was of Asian descent. I was righteous in my response that my race was completely irrelevant. It took me almost nine months to ask the VVMF, in charge of building the memorial, if my race was at all an issue. It had never occurred to me that it would be, and I think they had taken all the measures they could to shield me from such comments about a “gook” designing the memorial.
I remember reading the article that appeared in The Washington Post referring to “An Asian Memorial for an Asian War” and I knew we were in trouble. The controversy exploded in Washington after that article. Ironically, one side attacked the design for being “too Asian,” while others saw its simplicity and understatement, not as an intention to create a more Eastern, meditative space, but as a minimalist statement which they interpreted as being nonreferential and disconnected from human experience.
This left the opinion in many that the piece emanated from a series of intellectualized aesthetic decisions, which automatically pitted artist against veterans. The fact that I was from an Ivy League college and had hair down to my knees further fueled this distrust of the design and suspicions of a hippie college liberal or aesthetic elitist forcing her art and commentary upon them.
Perhaps it was an empathetic response to the idea about war that had led me to cut open the earth—an initial violence that heals in time but leaves a memory, like a scar. But this imagery, which some detractors would later describe as “a black gash of shame and sorrow” in which the color black was called the “universal color of shame and dishonor,” would prove incredibly difficult to defend. The mis-reading of the design as a negative political statement that in some way was meant to reflect upon the service of the veterans was in part fueled by a cultural prejudice against the color black as well as by the misreading or misinformation that led some veterans to imagine the design as a ditch or a hole. It took a prominent four-star general, Brigadier General George Price, who happened to be black, testifying before one of the countless subcommittee hearings and defending the color black, before the design could move forward.
But the distrust, the fact that no veterans had been on the jury, the unconventionality of the design and the designer, and a very radical requirement made by the Vietnam veterans to include all the names of those killed made it inevitable that the project would become controversial. I think ultimately that much of the negative response goes back to the very natural response to cover up or not acknowledge that which is painful or unpleasant. The very fact that the veterans themselves had required the listing and therefore the acknowledgment of the more than 57,000 casualties, which is a landmark in our country in terms of seeing a war through the individual lives lost, was very hard for many to face. I remember Ross Perot when he was trying to persuade the veterans that it was an inappropriate design, asking me if I truly didn’t feel that the veterans would prefer a parade instead, something happy or uplifting, and I can remember thinking that a parade would not in the long term help them to overcome the enormous trauma of the politics of that war.
I do not think I fully realized until the dedication and homecoming parade that the veterans needed both. In effect the veterans gave themselves their own homecoming. In November 1982, I was in tears watching these men welcoming themselves home after almost ten years of not being acknowledged by their country for their service, their sacrifice.
But until the memorial was built I don’t think they realized that the design was experiential and cathartic, and, most importantly, designed not for me, but for them. They didn’t see that the chronology of the names allowed a returning veteran the ability to find his or her own time frame on the wall and created a psychological space for them that directly focused on human response and feeling. I remember one of the veterans asking me before the wall was built what I thought people’s reaction to it would be. I realized then that these veterans were willing to defend a design they really didn’t quite understand. I was too afraid to tell him what I was thinking, that I knew a returning veteran would cry.
An architect once told me to look always at what was originally envisioned and try to keep it. I left Washington before ground-breaking. I had to. The fund and I knew that we had to accept a compromise. The closer you watch something grow, the less able you are to notice changes in it. When I saw the site again, the granite panels were being put up and the place was frighteningly close to what I thought it should be. It terrified me. It was a strange feeling, to have had an idea that was solely yours be no longer a part of your mind but totally public, no longer yours.
There was always the expectation that since the war had been controversial, the memorial must be also. It wasn’t so much an artistic dispute as a political one. The choice to make an apolitical memorial was in itself political to those who felt only a positive statement about the war would make up for the earlier antiwar days, a past swing to the left now to be balanced. It was extremely naive of me to think that I could produce a neutral statement that would not become politically controversial simply because it chose not to take sides.
Anyway, the push, as one congressman put it, to “politicize” the design didn’t really affect the memorial in this way. The addition of the statue of infantrymen and then the addition of the female statue to make them equal are to me sad indicators that some politicians believe that you can please all of the people all of the time by compromise and conglomerate works. These statues leave only the false reading that the wall is for the dead and they are for the living, when the design I made was for the returning veterans and equally names all who served regardless of race, creed, or sex. I am only glad that the three infantrymen are not where they had been originally intended to be, right in the center of the memorial, heads sticking up higher than the walls, converting the walls to a backdrop and violating that private contemplative space. Ironically, the compromise memorializes the conflict in the building of the piece.
People cannot resolve that war, nor can they separate the issues, the politics, from it. As for me, the first time I visited the memorial after it was completed I found myself searching out the name of a friend’s father and touching it. It was strange to realize that I was another visitor and I was reacting to it as I had designed it.
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.