The U.S. National WWII Memorial and the 2013 Federal Shutdown: Politics, Culture, and Public History

Courtesy of Amanda Tewes

By: Samuel J. Redman, Assistant Professor of History

In the days following the October 2013 government shutdown, streams of
veterans passed through barricades and walked through the grounds of
the National World War II Memorial. The memorial is managed by the
National Park Service, a federal agency mostly shuttered during the
recent political budgetary battles that led to the shutdown of the
federal government. Students in a recent meeting of Introduction to
Public History — an undergraduate course here at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst — considered how historical monuments and
memorials emerge as political tools shaped by the evolving contexts
and discourses of the day. The National WWII Memorial, students
suggested, became the most prominent flashpoint in the political
rhetoric surrounding the recent federal shutdown and budgetary crisis
because “The Greatest Generation” and Second World War are often
positioned as nostalgic icons of the United States of the mid-century.
The post-war era, popular memory suggests, was marked by the nation’s
global ascendancy to world superpower. The era also represented
perceived social and political unity, economic affluence, and
confidence in government to confront challenges and solve problems. In
a way, these ideas become manifest in the memorial to the war that
sits prominently — indeed, erected as a tangible symbol of
remembrance — on the National Mall.

Historical monuments and other sites of cultural memory such as
battlefields, historic houses, and historical reenactments
occasionally emerge as important contact zones between contesting
factions of our society. These factions work to cloak their own
political sentiments in charged rhetoric about the past. But why the
National World War II Memorial, I asked our group, and not one of the
many other monuments or historical site in Washington D.C. or beyond?
Other locations, such as the Liberty Bell and battlefield and massacre
sites have also witnessed heated contests over the nature of their
memorialization in recent years — what, then, imbues a particular
monument with performative symbolism in a particular time? Referring
to recent events on the National Mall, students pointed to the visual
or aesthetic appeal of the WWII monument as an relatively prominent
and open space. Also important are the advanced ages of the veterans
allowing for greater emotional connection, the proximity of the
monument to Capitol Hill where important political decisions are made,
and the nature of the media spectacle as possible influencing factors.

As a class, we watched and read as elected officials used the shutdown
as an opportunity to blame their political opponents, and students
pointed out obvious logical flaws in the rhetoric espoused by the
politicians. Students in the class confronted the contested and
hardening divisions in our political culture and argued that nostalgia
for wartime unity serves to stand in sharp contrast to today’s
disputatious Congress and larger political climate.

The nearby Vietnam War Memorial and Korean War Memorial, students
suggested, were absent in recent protests for several illuminating
reasons. In a context of a crisis in Syria and in the lingering
response to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called “Good
War” continues to serve as convenient rallying points for
international and domestic political agendas.

But who pays to clean up the litter that occasionally appears on
monument grounds, especially after a large gathering of people? Who
collects the mementos and memorials left behind at spaces such as
those along the National Mall? What happens when we lose the educators
and interpreters that make history come alive at these places,
cancelling tours and shuttering museum lobbies?

Nearly 800,000 federal employees — including the staff of agencies
that maintain many of our nation’s most cherished monuments and
historic sites, the National Park Service — have been furloughed.
Meanwhile, members of Congress continue to be paid during the
government shutdown.

The shutdown helps reveal how truly consequential (and at times
contentious) museums, monuments, and historic sites are for our
society. The shutdown also reveals, however, that this deep and
frequently contested meaning over past events is sometimes extended
into the present and manipulated as a political tool. Monuments to
past events can be manipulated into political tools serving our
contemporary needs and desires. These events frequently smooth over
the more difficult aspects of past events, simplifying their meaning
to create lasting popular impressions. Learning to think critically
about the nature of the events as they have occurred in the past make
us better aware of the dynamic meaning of these incidences as they
unfold in our world. These events remind us that history is indelibly
part of the present, so much so that it continually becomes critically
enmeshed within the contexts of the social, cultural, and indeed
political questions of the day.

This contest over history extends beyond just scholarly literature,
creating fraught meaning in American history as it appears in public
culture. If the past is indeed present, students at the University of
Massachusetts are learning to critically consider the implications of
its contested meanings in spaces outside of the classroom.

Courtesy of Amanda Tewes

Relevant links:

  1. There was a video clip making the rounds on Facebook recently, of a Texas congressman with a net worth of $12 million, telling a government employee at the WWII memorial how he was appalled that she wasn’t letting the public view the memorial. Apparently, furloughed park workers were donating their time to make sure actual WWII vets who’d travelled to DC would be able to see the memorial, despite the fact it was closed to the public. This earned the woman a televised attack from the Texas millionaire. An iconic moment at an iconic place.

  2. gpcox said:

    Seeing the memorials empty make me feel those men are forgotten and disregarded by the government. How many of our politicians were in combat?

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