Huffpost Arts
Nicolaus Mills Headshot

Monumental Differences

Posted: Updated:

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 now off the front pages, it is time for a sober look at what the 9/11 memorial building tells us. The news, unfortunately, is not good when we compare our own era with that of post-World War II years.

In a 1945 essay for Art News, Philip Johnson, then at the start of his architectural career, observed, "Today the climate of opinion in this country is unfavorable to the concept of the traditional war memorial."

Johnson was right. At the end of World War II, the memorials that held America's interest were "living memorials," such as buildings and parks, that could be put to practical use. Before it ever became the Marine Corps War Memorial, Felix de Weldon's sculpture of Joe Rosenthal's famous picture of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima was used to raise money for a nationwide bond drive.

We have come a long way from the late 1940s as far as memorials go, and the differences between now and then reflect a sea change in American taste and politics.

Over the last decade, America has built memorials to honor the victims of 9/11 as rapidly as possible. Just a few months after 9/11, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his final address in office by talking about the need for a soaring memorial at Ground Zero. Giuliani got his way, and his thinking about 9/11 memorials has come to represent that of the nation.

In addition to Michael Arad's National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York, we now have 9/11 memorials at the Pentagon in Washington and in the meadows of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed after its passengers fought back against their hijackers.

The new memorials, with their minimalist design and names of the dead, reflect the influence of Maya's Lin's 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but at the core of the differences between the memorials of today and the forties lie more than architectural choices. Even more important is the thinking of two wartime presidents who could not have been more unalike in their goals.

In his 1944 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Roosevelt prepared the way for the post-World War II world he wanted America to have by putting forth what he called a second Bill of Rights. At the heart of Roosevelt's speech was the idea that security from foreign enemies was only meaningful if it meant economic security on the home front.

"Necessitous men are not free men," FDR told Congress as went on to outline a Bill of Rights that included the right to a useful and remunerative job, the right to a decent home, and the right to enjoy good health. The nation had sacrificed during the war, subordinating "individual or group selfishness to the national good," and it needed to keep the national good in mind after the war, Roosevelt believed.

Roosevelt's death in April 1945 stopped him from presiding over the postwar America that he dreamed about, but the G.I. Bill he signed into law in June 1944 helped set the political tone for what was best about late forties. The G.I. Bill allowed 4.3 million vets to purchase homes with low-interest loans the government guaranteed, and 2.2 million vets to attend college with government assistance. When President Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces in 1948 and got Congress to pass the National Housing Act of 1949, he was, above all else, continuing FDR's legacy of increasing opportunity for all.

Six decades later President George W. Bush set the stage for a post-9/11 world that is radically different from that of the late forties. In contrast to FDR, who during World War II insisted "ahead their lies sacrifice for all of us," George Bush took the opposite stance in response to the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Just four days after 9/11, Bush was asked by a reporter what kinds of sacrifices ordinary Americans could be expected to make in the coming years. "Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever," Bush replied. "We would like to see life return to normal in America."

A month later Bush was still giving the same advice. Following his second visit to Ground Zero in New York, he declared, "The average American must not be afraid to travel. Go to restaurants. Go to ball games."

During Bush's two terms in office, his advice on how individual Americans should be living after 9/11 translated into cutting taxes twice during the Iraq War and putting forth the idea that what FDR called the "national good" could best be achieved by looking out for oneself.

Today, the consequences of President Bush's thinking continue to shape America's political landscape. In the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression, Social Security is under siege and so is the Affordable Health Care Act that Congress passed in 2010.

Even vets from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are now having it tougher when they try to go to college. This year Columbia University has been forced to increase its General Studies financing by $200,000 in order to accommodate returning vets who have had their G.I. Bill benefits cut.

The irony is that for the vets of World War II, who in the 1940s came back to an America that sought to make their lives better, the last decade has been a good one. Three years after 9/11, they got their long-overdue memorial. On Memorial Day weekend in 2004, Friedrich St. Florian's triumphal National World War II Memorial was unveiled on the main axis of the Mall directly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

The vets, the majority of them in their eighties, were gratified by this turn of events. But those vets who lived to see the memorial completed were lucky in another way as well. They never had to answer the question of what it would have been like for them and their generation if the America they settled back into was replete with war memorials but couldn't be bothered helping them get an education or find work.