Washington DC is - to put it mildly - an important city. It is the seat of government of the US of A, the home of the POTUS, and the business of more or less running the western world goes on there daily. It is also the central capital for that diverse mixture of people that make up the Untied States. What to say, then, about a visit to that city? There is a lot of history here - the city on The Potomac has seen a great deal of the making of the United States. George Washington lived nearby. Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre. The Kennedys are buried at Arlington. The Pentagon was a 9/11 target.
It is, as is befitting for the capital of such a proud nation, a city of monuments. On my recent tourist-tour of a few of these, I was surprised at how recently built some are. They each have their own flavour, too - you might almost say ‘personality’. Join me a tour of just a few.
My favourite remains the Lincoln Memorial. It’s stature and proportions, its site at the end of The Mall, perched above the Reflecting Pool (sadly under ugly renovation when I was there), give the whole thing a certain pomp and presence. You can see the favoured neo-classical columns, and inside the great oversized statue of Lincoln seated, illustrating in stone the over-sized importance of the man and his times to the psyche of the American people. Engraved in over-sized letters (another favourite trope of the monument designers here) are the words of the Gettysburg Address on one wall, and Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Speech on the other, each in its own way able to transport you back instantly to the agonising time of the Civil War. But best of all, it is on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the people still gather to demonstrate and protest. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr made his extraordinary “I have a dream...” speech. The Lincoln Memorial is thus a real and vital part of the people’s experience, not just a great white monolith.
The Lincoln Memorial opened in 1922.
Further away, around the other side of the shore of the Tidal Pool, stands the also-neo-classical Jefferson Memorial. The white rotunda with its massive columns sits divinely surrounded by trees, aloofly perched across the water. Visually this is the most beautiful of the monuments, especially seen from afar - which it usually is, since it is quite a long walk to get to it, and an even longer one when you can’t get a cab back (there’s water on one side and a freeway on the other). Inside the ring of columns are engraved words from the Constitution, and there stands a double-life-sized statue of the slave-owning and constitution-writing president. But aloof he remains: a small sign at the Jefferson Memorial reminds visitors that this is a place of solemn contemplation and there are to be “No Demonstrations”. Not that anyone could get a bus there and back anyway.
The Jefferson Memorial opened in 1943, with the bronze statue added in 1947.
|Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial|
|Words worth carving in stone|
The words are a paraphrased version of a longer quote by King:
"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."Maya Angelou, a consultant on the memorial wants the carving changed: "The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit...It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was...It makes him seem an egotist." She also pointed out, "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."
The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial opened in August 2011.
The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial opened in 1997.
But aside from Presidents and other Great Men, there are memorials to war dead, and these need to be moving, don’t you think? The rather recent WWII Memorial on the Tidal Pool (completed in 1995) doesn’t really do much for me: it returns to the white stone an neo-classical columns, and adds some stone wreaths for good measure. The Iwo Jima Memorial (correctly, The Marine Corps War Memorial), situated away from The Mall at Arlington, famously and massively depicts brave soldiers in action, their and our focus on the Stars and Stripes they are holding and defending. The Iwo Jima Memorial was completed in 1954.
The Korean War Memorial is, I think, successful, if such a word is appropriate for a war memorial. Under the trees on the Tidal Pool, not far from Lincoln and his Civil War reminders, a dozen or so double-life-sized bronze soldiers struggle through the soft Washington greenery, which stands in for the mud and jungle of the Korean Peninsular. They are wearing helmets and great waterproof capes, their faces are serious to the point of anguish, they are intensely focussed, some looking around them cautiously, others with their eyes on the American flag that is their objective. The Korean War is said to have been fought by American soldiers “in a country they had never heard of, for a people they never knew”.
The Korean War Memorial opened in 1992.
|The Vietnam Memorial|
The Vietnam memorial also includes a statue of Three Soldiers, and the Women's Memorial, partly as a result of the controversy that surrounded the original design. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about that:
The unconventionality of the selected design was very controversial, especially among veterans. Many publicly voiced their displeasure, calling the wall "a black gash of shame." Two prominent early supporters of the project, H. Ross Perot and James Webb, withdrew their support once they saw the design. Said Webb, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan, initially refused to issue a building permit for the memorial due to the public outcry about the design.
Lin believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won". She received harassment after her ethnicity was revealed. Lin defended her design in front of the United States Congress, and eventually a compromise was reached. A bronze statue of a group of soldiers and an American flag was placed off to one side of the monument as a result.
Once the design was realized, the overwhelming majority of the design's critics came to appreciate the simple beauty and emotional power of the wall, and such controversy quickly evaporated. In the words of Scruggs, "It has become something of a shrine."
The Vietnam Memorial opened in 1982.
Iwo Jima image from: