National World War II Memorial

Margo Turner’s Column


A tribute to the more than 11 million living veterans of World War II is shrouded in controversy over the project’s design and its location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Plans for the National World War II Memorial include two 43-foot-high granite arches and a sunken pond on 7.4 acres of land at the foot of the Reflecting Pool in the Mall, which is maintained and protected by the National Park Service. The memorial would be directly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

The memorial will be built with $140 million raised through a nationwide campaign spearheaded by former Republican presidential candidate and senator Bob Dole, actor Tom Hanks and FedEx chief executive officer Fred Smith. Supporters envision the memorial as an inspiration to future generations of Americans and to deepen their appreciation of what the World War II generation accomplished in securing freedom and democracy.

Congress authorized the establishment of a World War II memorial eight years ago. The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a federal agency, proposed a memorial site at Constitution Gardens, a wooded area adjoining the Mall in May 1995. The following month, J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), also part of the federal government, recommended the site at the end of the Reflecting Pool. The CFA rejected the ABMC proposal and approved the Rainbow Pool site.

The same day the CFA met, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approved the Rainbow Pool site with the stipulation that the design of the memorial must not intrude on the Mall setting and vistas. The NCPC, the central planning agency for the federal government, reviews federal construction proposals and evaluates federal improvement projects for the Office of Management and Budget.

Last September, the NCPC approved the final design for the memorial. A groundbreaking ceremony was held at the memorial site on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Construction of the memorial has been delayed because of questions raised by the National Coalition to Save Our Mall and the Department of Justice (DOJ) about the way in the NCPC approved the World War II Memorial last September. The NCPC will hold a special public hearing on June 14 to review the commission’s actions on the World War II Memorial, according to Richard Friedman, the commission chairman. At its regularly scheduled public meeting on May 3, the commission will announce the procedures it will follow at the June 14 hearing.

Harvey Gnatt, who was in his second term as NCPC chairman, presided at the commission’s meeting last September. Gnatt often voted in support of the memorial during his two terms. He cast the deciding vote on the memorial in September.

Gnatt was appointed chairman of the NCPC under a term that expired on Jan. 1, 1999, Friedman explained. “In keeping with the long-standing practice of commission members to serve until replaced, he continued his duties as chairman after the expiration of his term, until the appointment of his successor in December 2000. The commission reaffirms its belief that all actions taken during this period were taken in conformance with all past practices and policies.”

The June 14 hearing comes after the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, which represents citizen and advocacy groups, challenged the NCPC’s action in approving the memorial. In a federal court on March 8, the coalition requested a temporary restraining order to prevent the start of the memorial’s construction. The DOJ also raised concerns during the court hearing about the legality of the NCPC voting.

The World War II Memorial has the backing of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other war veterans organizations. While it supports a World War memorial, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall opposes the proposed memorial site because the ABMC did not follow proper procedure when the commission adopted the location. The coalition claims the DOJ failed to carry out environmental studies, which are required by federal law.

Syndicated columnist George Will jumped into the fray on April 8 with an eloquent appeal against the World War II Memorial on “ABC-TV This Week with Sam Donaldson.” A regular panelist on the show, Will also expressed opposition to a memorial on the Mall honoring former President Reagan. Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) proposes such a memorial in his bill, H.R. 452, which is under consideration by the House Governmental Affairs Committee.

“People should stand on the Mall and look around to see the great institutions that won the war,” Will said. “And that should be enough.”

In an effort to push the World War II Memorial forward, Sen. Tom Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a memorial support in Congress, introduced this past March a bill, S. 580, which calls for exempting the project from any federal law that might prohibit it. Speaking on the Senate floor on March 30, Hutchinson said opponents of the World War II Memorial had the opportunity to argue their case before 22 public hearings over the last five years.

“Regrettably, it is now clear that legislation will be needed if the World War II Memorial is to be constructed before all the patriots who fought in defense of liberty have passed on,” he said. “The ugly truth is that every day we lose more than a thousand members of our greatest generation. How many more will be deprived of the joy of seeing this richly deserved tribute to their heroic service completed?”

The Hutchinson bill is before the Senate Government Affairs Committee. If the panel approves S. 580, the legislation would become part of the Health Care and Benefits Act, which has wide support in the Senate.

Coalition Chairman Judy Scott Feldman sees the bill as an attempt to nullify federal law. “To nullify all laws indicates our case is a very strong one,” Feldman said.