Planning Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II

Article excerpt

One month after atomic bombs annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Philip Johnson proposed a memorial for World War II. In "War Memorials: What Aesthetic Price Glory?" Johnson critically reviewed the range of possibilities, only to settle on a massive mound of dirt.1 "The mound," he wrote, "offers a unique opportunity for that most American of modern tools, the bulldozer, which could build mounds many times the size of the prehistoric ones in considerably less time. . ."2 At first glance, Johnson's proposal appears to be an early ironic submission in the postwar debate over how to memorialize World War II. In reality, the mound of dirt capped a long and wide-ranging wartime debate over memorials that for two years had filled the pages of art and architecture magazines, the popular press, trade, and even scholarly journals. The strange wartime debate revived a similar one waged at the end of World War I. On one side stood those who advocated traditional forms of memorials such as statues, obelisks, triumphal arches, and other commemorative structures, those forms of memorials whose sole purpose is to serve as a memorial. On the other side of the debate stood those who supported "living memorials," useful projects such as community centers, libraries, forests, and even highways that were marked in some fashion, usually with plaques, as memorials.

Proponents of traditional memorials overwhelmingly lost this debate. While some living memorial advocates fluidly incorporated traditional memorial strategies, many starkly polarized the difference between traditional and living memorials, couching it in terms of national identity. Choosing a form of memorial was tantamount to choosing a form of society. Critics condemned traditional memorials as "tawdry 'monumental' monstrosities."3 Building a victory column or a triumphal arch was anathema at a moment when many Americans experienced a compelling drive to move on and to forget war and the society that had fought two of them in quick succession. To its sponsors, living memorials presented a way out of this dilemma, a means of folding the sacrifices of war into the pattern of democratic community life, gently kneading the past into the present, in the process altering the relation between public space and memory. By the end of the war, living memorial advocates could claim a rhetorical victory, having routed their opponents, if only in pure word volume. The results of the immediate postwar years reinforce the rhetorical victory. Most communities favored living memorials. The preponderance of traditional memorials that did get built were additive, quietly appended to preexisting memorial sites. In many cases names were simply added to earlier memorials. While the rhetoric of the debate set the two forms of commemoration in opposition, in reality the two strategies commingled after the war. Rather than supplanting conventional memorials, living memorials complicated memorialization.4

In spite of its importance, since World War II the living memorial remains a scholarly lacuna.5 The terms and the significance of the World War II debate over memorials are little understood, and yet they are of great consequence to the present moment. As the recent acrimony over the National Memorial to World War II in Washington, D.C., makes evident, Americans have a memorial problem, a typological quandary that points to a deep discomfort with memorials and memorial practices as they have developed since World War II. This essay explores the roots of this discomfort through an analysis of the wartime debate on memorials, in particular, the rhetoric of living memorial advocates. Living memorials offered a positive alternative to traditional memorials, in which memorial practice was blended with civic projects in a search for an almost mythic sense of lost community. Rhetorically, the term living memorial resonated with Depression-era and wartime slogans, such as "better living" and what Warren Susman identified as the "American Way of Life," converting both the spirit of New Deal projects and the mobilizations of the home front into a way of life after the war. …