Memorial Day is a day to honor those who died in military service to our country. It is extended today to all who serve. And this month, just before Memorial Day, the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum was dedicated in New York City. Somewhat like the Pearl Harbor Memorial over the sunken Arizona, this 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers commemorates a premeditated attack upon the United States, which launched us into wars on the other side of the world. In this latter case, more than 3,000 victims were civilians and first responders, not military personnel. This beautifully designed monument commemorates the lives of fellow citizens and the character of the nation in response to that terrible terrorist event.
This Memorial Day is the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Symbolizing the spirit, sacrifice and commitment of our nation’s people, it commemorates the defining event of the 20th century. It honors the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces, the more than 400 thousand who died, and all who supported the war effort from home. Fittingly, it is the only 20th century event commemorated on the National Mall’s central axis.
The coincidental celebration this year around these two memorials causes us to pause and reflect upon the respective wars, sacrifices and effects more than half a century apart.

The National WWII Memorial
I had not visited Washington for more than a decade. I always enjoy visiting all the principal national monuments and museums in the capitol. But I was awed by the quiet dignity and majestic grandeur of this beautiful and inspiring memorial.
Walking the mall on our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we passed the Washington Memorial obelisk. Still closed for earthquake repairs, it has only just opened again in time for Memorial Day.
Typically we walked down the mall, turning off at the long reflecting pool, then onward to the farther memorial. This time, however, we came upon the new monument at the foot of the Lincoln reflecting pool. From the Washington monument we look down on the WWII memorial, below and in front of the pool; so that these three monuments are links of three centuries in our history.

The Memorial
From the lawn across the street, one takes in the scope of this monument, designed by Friedrich St. Florian, with the long rectangular reflecting pool above and behind it, extending to the Lincoln Memorial — so, this memorial complements the scope of that one.
At the center before the WWII monument is this inscription: “Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the eighteenth century father and the other the nineteenth century preserver of our nation, we honor those twentieth century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: A nation conceived in liberty and justice.”
This memorial ramps down six feet, leading from the street level down to a large oval pool at both foci of which are a tall jet of water. Smaller jets encircle these emphasizing the pool’s shape which fills the center of the monumental oval. A large semi-circle surrounds this oval from the street to the back wall, centering one’s attention to that back wall where 4,048 gold stars cluster in a field across the dark wall, each marking 100 dead or MIA in this conflict. The plaque in front of Freedom Wall states that “the 405,399 American dead and missing from World War II are second only to the loss of more than 620,000 Americans during our Civil War.”
At either side leading to the path of pillars and arches, twin U.S. flags fly from their flagpoles, at the base of which it states that we fought against worldwide tyranny, not to conquer territory but to preserve liberty. On either side of this broad entrance in a semicircle around the long ends of the oval pool is a wall surmounted by 56 17-foot tall wreathed pillars (one for each of the states and territories that fought) and at the center of each semicircle of pillars is a 43-foot tall rectangular triumphal arched pavilion, one for the Atlantic theater, the other for the Pacific. Inside, beneath the hollow skylight above, the suspended baldacchino consists of a bronze eagle at each of the four cornices bearing a bronze wreath of victory. The hollow skylight above, through the wreath, highlights a victory seal on the floor below.
On the walls flanking this elipse are etched memorable insights by our leaders and some GI graffiti: “Kilroy was here!” Other than the pillars and arches, two-thirds of this stunning and stately monument is landscaping and water, establishing the tranquility by which to appreciate the effort and the sacrifice.
Two dozen bas-relief bronze panels, created by sculptor Ray Kaskey are set into the ceremonial entrance walls. They depict the total mobilization of America’s agricultural, industrial, military and civilian commitment and might dedicated to this war. The Atlantic Front (south balustrade) depicts Lend Lease; Bond Drives; Women in the Military; Rosie the Riveter in factories as well as specific battles and services. The Pacific Front to the north moves from Pearl Harbor, Enlistment, and Embarkation, through battles to Liberation, and V-Day.

This Memorial Day you could do more than grill hotdogs and guzzle beer. If you take a moment to go online to the National WWII Memorial or to Google images of it (or to the 9/11 Memorial), I think that you too will be moved enough to reflect upon that unity in this time of national political disunity. You might even want to read some of the speeches from the WWII Memorial’s dedication, each has moments of great eloquence.
This World War II Memorial, standing between the Washington and Lincoln monuments may summon Lincoln’s conclusion at Gettysburg: “It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

This visit caused me to ponder. How interesting that memorials to the fallen in the Vietnam and Korean Wars were erected before this one to “the Greatest Generation,” who never forgot but often did not speak of their horrors.
What struck me most that day standing amidst this line of three memorials was how they each marked one of the top three traditionally most revered American presidents: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of these, Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” His two successors did not live to wage the peace. FDR has his own memorial. But those of his two predecessors each mark not merely the man but a revolutionary war in our history. Or rather, each war marked a revolution in our country, retaining the purpose and principles of the republic but separating us from our immediate past and committing us to continue to create a more perfect union in our future. In all three, our nation was fully committed, however divisive initially.
But most significantly, this WWII Memorial is not merely a remembrance of our war dead. It is rather a commitment to the legacy they and their generation bequeathed us. It has and may take us many more years, if ever, to reach our ideals and to incrementally perfect the union, but that is our task. After Pearl Harbor, many signed up to wage war abroad; others committed to support them here. Those who returned did not return to the same country.
Everyone hoped for and thought they could put those intervening years behind and get on with their lives. Instead they entered a new world forged by the unity and aims of the war as much as by the Depression that preceded it. All know that FDR’s commitment to making America the Arsenal of Democracy, even before we were attacked and entered the war, broke the back of the most harrowing and risky financial period for average Americans throughout the nation. Overcoming cries for isolationism, this effort not merely provided full employment, long working hours and increased GDP, but also greater productivity and efficiency while binding the nation beyond subordinate issues.
Rosie the Riveter demonstrated that just as women had won the vote, they were equally capable in industry and business. With business and government needing ever more workers, because so many were off at war, this brought in seniors, students, immigrants and blacks — many of whom had been shunned before. Between the wars there had been an emphasis on management, now there was equally an emphasis on technology, precision, productivity and on research. With this full-time full employment came many restrictions: wages were controlled but so were prices; durable goods were scarce; meat, clothing and gasoline were all rationed for the war effort; and people lived together as typical housing dried up. So, Americans saved much more than at any time in the century, since no one knew the future. While the period saw some tolerance as more diverse people were thrown together, it also saw terrible discrimination against Americans of Japanese descent, who were forcibly herded into concentration camps. As in World War I, all foreign languages were discouraged, so as to be patriotic Americans.
After the war was won, returning veterans yearned for the idyllic traditional roles in the family. The migration to cities, now changed into a migration to the suburbs, even as cities grew. Women’s vote in the secrecy of the ballot increasingly reflected issues championed by women. Now not merely in business and the professions but also in politics women could advocate for their aspirations.
Mass consumerism returned to satisfy all the pent-up desires; mass advertising and national brands whetted this appetite. Advertising’s staple media of the past — newspapers, magazines, radio and the movies — became magnified with the advent first of mass-broadcast television (three major networks) and a quarter century later by subscription channels, and in the last quarter of the century by the computer and Internet. Mass sports, both commercial and collegiate, thrived because of colleges, the media and advertising.
All of these media divided the audience by interests but informed and unified them of national and international events as well as about the latest trends or goods, until today we have become part of a worldwide audience and purchasing public.
The GI Bill transformed rural Joes and urban Jims into professionals. The Space Race did for primary and secondary education what the war did for college. Now everyone was expected to go to college, as a rite of passage. The war had made many in the military aware of new lands, peoples and languages. It had fueled hate against an enemy but appreciation for those countries where they were lauded at liberating heroes. It also made comrades in arms diverse by race, religion or region, buddies afterwards.
As the hot war had united allies against the common foe, the Cold War divided the world into allied rival camps. Even as the founding of the UN in San Francisco heralded a more stable and enduring peace, the Korean and Vietnam wars mocked the very meaning of nations united to prevent war.
Increasing college attendance caused the growth of universities, state colleges, community colleges and private colleges, where students were learning more about the world, about diversity and about tolerance for different cultures and perspectives. JFK’s Peace Corps extended this education, doing much the same for a new generation of Americans as the war had done for many hometown kids — introducing them, their family and friends to nations around the world — even at the very time we were waging a war abroad. The turmoil at the colleges created a new generation that tackled Civil Rights, a War on Poverty, and economic and social justice, with gains both legislatively and judicially, as well as martyrs to these causes. This was not a world that many World War II veterans and their families foresaw nor understood. From the American Indian Movement, to the Farm Workers, and the Women’s Movement; from federal laws on equal pay, education, opportunities and equal funding in collegiate sports; to state laws on ERA, marriage and abortion, not to mention environmentalism, this was not pre-war America.
Reaganism hearkened back to the WWII generation’s values, but this oldest president and his WWII vice president were succeeded by one of the youngest, just as JFK had succeeded Ike. Today, surprise-attacked at the Twin Towers as we had been at Pearl Harbor, we waged two wars, concluding one and still withdrawing from another. No one in 1941 nor 1945 could have predicted the changes wrought by that war, but all of these seeds were surely planted then. Truman’s integrating the armed forces, kindled the hope that led to Civil Rights. And the causes and consequences of our Great Recession harmonize with those of the Great Depression.
We have not completed perfecting our union — and the political intransigence makes one wonder when we’ll harmonize — but a view to these national monuments makes one stop and remember (after all, that’s their purpose). Reflecting upon the history of even these three epochs, gives us cause for hope and for thanks to all these generations who went before. They were as limited in their foresight as we are today as together we strive to perfect this union hoping for peace with liberty and justice for all.
I will never look at those three monuments the same again. They are not merely monuments to leaders and war dead; they commemorate our entire nation’s commitment; they are milestones toward our national goals.

Ted Olsson
San Francisco, May2014