Before he leaves office, President Clinton hopes to break ground for a suitable memorial to the veterans of World War II, who are dwindling in number with each passing day. The veterans of that brutal and pivotal conflict, so important to the protection of democratic freedoms everywhere, richly deserve such a memorial. But neither their memory nor Mr. Clinton’s legacy will be well served by the proposed memorial approved Thursday by the National Capital Planning Commission.Since 1993, when Congress approved and Mr. Clinton signed the enabling legislation, the $100 million project has gone through one revision after another, without acquiring anything approaching a consensus in its favor. It has powerful friends, including Bob Dole, who is helping to raise money for the memorial. It also has powerful enemies, including many prominent architects and even some of Mr. Clinton’s advisers, and will surely produce lawsuits.
The one person who could halt the project now – or at least call a time out – is Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior, who must sign the con struction permits. But he is unlikely to take such a step without some signal from the president, who would be well advised to review the design to see whether this is really what he had in mind in 1993.
The latest version suffers from the same fundamental defects that led this page to oppose a slightly more grandiose version in 1997. The design calls for sunken stone plaza, flanked by 56 17-foot pillars representing the states and territories during the war. There will also be two triumphal arches, one symbolizing the European theater, the other the Pacific. It is, in short, a weighty structure, complete with decorative touches like bronze eagles and wreaths. Some critics have compared it to the totalitarian architecture of the old Soviet Union or – the unkindest cut of all – the Third Reich. Still missing is the centerpiece of the memorial, a sculpture that has yet to be designed.
Even more disqualifying is the location -smack dab on the axis that runs for two largely uninterrupted miles down the Mall from the Capitol through the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Unlike the memorials to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which stand rather quietly in the wings to the south and north of the Lincoln Memorial, this one will occupy center stage. It will not only mar a glorious piece of open space, but also break the visual connection between the monuments to Washington and Lincoln memorializing the two events that did the most to shape this Republic, th Revolution and the Civil War. America’s participation in World War II, of course, was also supremely important in the life of this nation. Indeed, the memorial’s proponents argue that only a central location on the Mall’s axis can do World War II justice and give it the hierarchical recognition it deserves. This argument is powerful but insufficient, and the administration should ask the commission to find another location. One earlier suggestion was a site known as Constitution Gardens, on the Mall but just to the side. Another site, potentially grander than Constitution Gardens, is an unused circle at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia side of the Potomac. World War II’s centrality deserves an eloquent memorial, but not one that diminishes two of the nation’s most treasured icons.
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