Groundbreaking, of Sorts, for a Contested War Memorial (The New York Times)

By Jeff Gerth, The New York Times

Fifty-five years after the end of the war, and 13 years after Congress first took up the idea of a monument to it, President Clinton and other dignitaries broke ground here today for the National World War II Memorial on the Mall.

The capital’s newest memorial is planned for a 7.4-acre site halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

But because of a legal challenge, today’s groundbreaking ceremony was largely symbolic: President Clinton and others, including former Republican Senator Bob Dole and the actor Torn Hanks shoveled dirt from a box. Opponents of the memorial had obtained a federal court order delaying actual construction.

The opposition is based on the monument’s location, not its concept. On Friday the National Coalition to Save Our Mall held a protest and pressed for a new site to be selected.

The protesters included some vet-erans and an architecture historian, Judy Scott Feldman. She said the current plan would “change forever the magnificent open spaces and vista” of the Mall.

Not so, says the group behind the memorial, which includes 450 veterans’ organizations. They say the design is open and preserves views in all directions. Most of the site will involve trees, grass and fountains at what is now known as the Rainbow Pool. The pool is to be rebuilt and surrounded by granite pillars.

Mr. Clinton actually dedicated the World War II Memorial in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the conflict. He used the occasion to praise the World War II generation, sometimes called the “greatest generation,” saying it “stood with its allies and reached out to its former adversaries to cement the partnerships and create the institutions that secured a half-century of unparalleled prosperity in the West.”

The four-year conflict took the lives of 400,000 Americans. About a third of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are alive today.

The $100 million memorial is scheduled to be completed by 2003. It is financed largely by private donations, and the fund-raising campaign has been led by Mr. Dole and Frederick W. Smith, the chief executive officer of the FedEx Corporation.

The idea for the memorial arose in 1987 when a Battle of the Bulge survivor asked his Congresswoman, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, why there was nothing commemorating the war. That year, Ms. Kaptur, a Democrat, introduced legislation proposing a memorial. Today, she said the memorial was a “tribute long overdue.”

Mr. Dole, addressing the audience, explained the rationale for building a memorial 55 years after the war. In another 55 years,” he said, “there won¹t be anyone around to bear witness” to the conflict.

Mr. Clinton spoke briefly, paying tribute to Japanese-Americans who served in World War II under a “cloud of unjust suspicion” and, perhaps most poignantly, Mr. Dole, the man he defeated in his last election.

The memorial, Mr. Clinton said, was meant to “keep the memory of the greatest generation warm in the hearts of every new generation of Americans.”

Earlier today, Mr. Clinton gave his last Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. He lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and honored three Navy soldiers who died last month of a result of the bombing of the destroyer Cole and were recently interred at the Arlington cemetery.

“We shall not rest until those who carried out this cruel act are held to account,” Mr. Clinton said.