Commemorating WWII: The Memorial as a Work of Public History

The central wall of Rochester's Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial
The central wall in Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial – Rochester, MN

While taking notes earlier this month at the Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial in Rochester, MN, I couldn’t help but overhear the following from another (rather loud) visitor:

Kids should come here and read all this stuff because they don’t teach [it] in school.

Yes, and no. (Well, more like: yes, and NO!)

Yes: there is something about coming out of a classroom and into a commemorative space that — to use an overused phrase — brings history to life. And if, as we always say, history isn’t just names and dates but has deeper meaning, then perhaps it’s usefully jarring to see it presented in stone and granite, with a variety of two- and three-dimensional images, rather than as black ink on a white textbook page, or as words coming out of my mouth. The Rochester memorial makes that case for itself, via an inscribed quotation from the conservative columnist George Will:

Given that the vast majority of Americans have never heard a shot fired in anger, the imaginative presentation of military history is vital, lest rising generations have no sense of the sacrifices of which they are beneficiaries.

Map of the European theater of operations at Rochester Veterans Memorial
Map of the European Theater – Rochester Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial

Or lest those generations underestimate the terrible cost of war and fail to ask good questions of elected leaders before they make decisions that risk the lives of soldiers and civilians, American and not. But I think there’s something to Will’s argument: kids (and others who have not known war) could stand to learn from memorials presented as public history. And on this level, I was happy to see that the original charge to the designers of the Rochester memorial insisted that it describe significant American military conflicts, include visual depictions of scenes from those wars, and in general, “Include a historic perspective from the United States point of view illustrating the significance that war has played in the development of our country.”

Indeed, the memorial is ringed by a series of tablets giving an account of American military history up through the end of the 20th century. It includes not just textual descriptions, but maps, statistics, and (on the reverse side of certain tablets) carved scenes from these wars.

But no, I would not want any schoolchild to base their understanding of that history on what they saw at the Rochester Veterans Memorial, which fails on a number of points.

First, while I guess I can live with a memorial constructed for an American public focusing on “the United States point of view,” the memorial was inconsistent in providing context to understand why and how the wars were fought. The World War II section was especially poor in this regard: unlike its neighbor on WWI, it included no explanation of background causes and simply leaped into the story with 12/7/1941. A separate section covered the war in Europe, but started with the American amphibious landing at Anzio in January 1944, which is not only more than four years into the European war but omits a substantial portion even of the relatively limited American participation in that hemisphere (North Africa, Sicily, day-night bombing of Germany). And, as I’ll explore more in a moment, the retelling of the war barely scratches the surface of Americans’ diverse experiences of that sprawling conflict.

MN WWII Memorial in St. Paul
The Minnesota World War II Memorial, with the state capitol in the background

Considerably better on this count — and generally much more impressive, though not unproblematic, as a work of public history — is the Minnesota World War II Memorial on the mall to the south of the state capitol in St. Paul. That memorial’s inscription emphasizes that “The stories of ordinary people within the great events of history are central to the design of this memorial,” with five free-standing displays arching out from each side of that inscription. Those ten panels are much more detailed than their equivalents in Rochester (so it’s not like memorial space is too cramped to permit the telling of a large, complicated story), incorporating timelines and statistics, plus photos and quotations from a wide array of “ordinary people.” While it seamlessly integrates Minnesota stories of the war (e.g, of the naval reserves from St. Paul who fired the first American shots of the war at Pearl Harbor — that gun, from the destroyer Ward, is in the southwest corner of the mall; the National Guardsmen from Brainerd who endured the Bataan Death March; or the remarkable Harold Stassen, who resigned as Minnesota’s governor in order to serve as a naval officer in the Pacific), the memorial tells a wider range of stories than the one in Rochester and situates the American experience more adequately within the larger tableau of a world war.

But on another count, the St. Paul memorial falls nearly as far short as the one in Rochester: in persisting in presenting a relatively uncomplicated fable of America’s WWII as “The Good War.”

To be fair, the one in Rochester is far worse. Its panel on “Homefront World War II” makes no mention of the internment of Japanese-Americans (or the treatment of German-Americans in 1917-1918, for that matter) or the continuing segregation of the military. It goes without any mention that American bombers killed tens of thousands of civilians long before August 1945, and then the brief statement on Hiroshima and Nagasaki does no more than acknowledge a disparity in official American and Japanese estimates of the deaths resulting from the atomic bomb attacks on those cities.

That closing episode is a bit more nuanced at the WWII Memorial in St. Paul, which acknowledges how the use of such weapons “forever changed the landscape of international conflict” and incorporates a starkly moving photo of a Nagasaki family taking shelter against the backdrop of an apocalyptic cityscape. Otherwise, however, the St. Paul memorial avoids the moral ambiguities of how America fought that war; instead, it simply asserts, with quiet pride, that “over 320,000 Minnesota servicemen and women joined the fight against Fascism and tyranny.”

Concluding panel from the MN WWII Memorial in St. Paul
Concluding panel from the MN World War II Memorial

The patriotism is more restrained than in Rochester, but still pristine. The WWII remembered in these two Minnesota memorials would have been unrecognizable to the Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who could summon no more enthusiasm for the Second World War than this quatrain (from “Where Are The War Poets?” — soon to be the title of a separate post):

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

All of which reminds me again of the contrast that Tony Judt drew between memory and history. While the former “confirms and reinforces itself,” the latter “contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive…” (Postwar, p. 830). I’m not a public historian, but I imagine that this is a central dilemma in that field: can a military memorial serve the purposes of both memory and history?

WWII seems like the hardest test: it’s a remarkable enchantment that so many remember a war that took tens of millions of lives (most of them civilians) as “good,” one not easily, or recklessly, to be disrupted by public historians who see themselves as collaborating with the public — and even “sharing authority” with it.

As a postscript, then, it’s interesting to see how differently the Vietnam War, which no one would mistake for a good war, is treated in both Rochester and near the Minnesota capitol.

The Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial (west of the one for WWII) centers on a wall naming the 1120 Minnesota killed or missing in that war, below the simple refrain of Archibald MacLeish’s 1948 poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak“:

Wall of honor at MN Vietnam Veterans Memorial

“We leave you our deaths. Give them meaning,” wrote MacLeish, in the line preceding the one quoted here. But this memorial goes out of its way not to tell the visitor just what that meaning could or should be.

As I wrote in my last post, I generally think that’s the appropriate move for commemoration in a pluralistic society. But here…

To the left of the wall of honor there’s a copy of the commemorative booklet produced for the site’s dedication in 1992. Under “Why We Are Here Today” one reads:

We are not here to make political statements about the war, to say whether it was good or bad, right or wrong. We are here, rather, to accept that the war happened.

Facade of house at MN Vietnam Veterans MemorialThe implication, of course, is that the meaning of those hundreds of deaths was bitterly contested. There is no “good war” myth to defuse, but there is plenty of unrest and controversy to avoid mentioning.

Surprisingly, it’s the Rochester memorial that offers panels about antiwar opposition (starting in 1964), the Tet Offensive, the role of US bombing in having “contributed to the rise of a Communist government in Laos” and sparking protests when it expanded to Cambodia, and even the problem of Americans dying from friendly fire (the story of Hill 875 at the Battle of Dak To in 1967). None of that appears in St. Paul, where the most divisive war in American history is commemorated with as anodyne theme as you’ll find: not just the facade of a house, but “Pools, streams and native Minnesota trees and shrubs add to the sense of coming home.”

Granted, this is a veterans memorial, so it’s understandable that it would emphasize the 66,000+ Minnesotans who made it back. But it’s still a strange effect: the memorial is supposed to help us “accept that the war happened,” but without providing either the self-reinforcing affirmation of memory nor the disruptive disenchantment of history.

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