The Last Page

The Last Page

The latest addition to the Mall in Washington, the new National World War II Memorial, is by architectural standards very modest. It deliberately defers to its more famous neighbors, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Its plaza, located on a 7.4-acre site surrounding the Rainbow Pool, is six feet below grade to ensure that the vista linking the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial remains unobstructed, and its tallest vertical elements, two 43-foot-high arches, are located off to the side, where they nestle under the Mall’s huge elms.

The Memorial is anything but modest, though, in the historical assertions it makes. By virtue of its placement, it alters the way America’s twentieth-century wars are viewed on the Mall. Its location on the central axis, rather than off to the side, gives it an importance that neither the Korean War Veterans Memorial nor the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has. The decision to align the World War II Memorial with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial challenges the idea that Vietnam represents the culmination of modern American history. In the Mall’s new visual continuum, World War II is linked to America’s Revolution and Civil War. By extension, the neoclassicism of the World War II Memorial’s design is put forward as the architectural language most suited to expressing the values that lie at the root of American life.

For Mall visitors, especially the World War II veterans and their families, this link between past and present has been easy to accept. The dedication of the World War II Memorial over the Memorial Day weekend was the largest celebration in the capital since the Bicentennial, and the Memorial has already become a stopping point for tourists taking the traditional walk between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Among critics, the World War II Memorial has, on the other hand, been viewed with disdain for its failure to reflect the modernism present in such contemporary memorials as James Ingo Freed’s Holocaust Memorial Museum and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But what is most telling, especially when one talks to critics on the left, is the resentment the World War II Memorial has drawn for its assertion of the benign uses of American power. It is as if only the lessons of Vietnam-and now Iraq-reflect what the United States is about, and any American memorial that does not begin in apology is guilty of deception.

Whether in the coming decades such a view of the World War II Memorial will prevail is hard to know. Memorials take on a life of their own. The Lincoln Memorial, with its visual links to Robert E. Lee’s home in Virginia and its segregated dedication ceremony, was originally conceived as a memorial to the reconciliation of North and South, not the emancipation of the slaves. Only later, thanks to Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King, Jr., did it take on a new meaning...