The Fight for the National World War II Memorial

By Nicolaus Mills. Basic. 268 pp. $26

The torturous 17-year struggle to create a National World War II Memorial in Washington was a battle of far longer duration than World War II itself. How, one might wonder, could a monument to honor the 16 million men and women who served in the war and the 400,000 Americans who died in history's deadliest conflict be the source of controversy? Yet when a junior congresswoman from Ohio introduced legislation in 1987 calling for a memorial in the nation's capital, her initiative set off a bitter dispute that embroiled a distinguished cast of architects, critics, historians, actors, politicians, veterans organizations, preservationist groups and cultural institutions. Although none of the participants, even the project's most vociferous critics, opposed the idea of a memorial, they battled over the site, the design, the construction, the funding, and over the site again. With WWII veterans dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, it took an act of Congress in 2001 to cut through the tangle of arguments and counterarguments and clear the way for construction to begin. In Their Last Battle, Nicolaus Mills does an admirable job of explaining just how it came to that.

He begins by providing a highly instructive historical perspective, reminding us that controversy and delay are the norm whenever art, politics, public memory and money collide, especially when the Washington Mall, "the most symbolic piece of political real estate" in the country," is involved. All such projects, not just the famously contested Vietnam and Korean War memorials of the 1980s, but the august Lincoln and Jefferson memorials as well, have inspired years of public strife -- and all revolved around problems of location, design and funding. The World War II Memorial was no different.

Mills then plunges his readers into the bewildering thicket of agencies, boards, commissions, committees and governmental departments through which the memorial project had to pass. It was a daunting process, if "process" does justice to the aesthetic wrangling, political intrigue and court proceedings involved. These details also make for exhausting -- at times exasperating -- reading, but they certainly support the author's point.

Every aspect of the project aroused controversy. After winning the competition, Frederich St. Florian's design continued to draw pointed criticism for years and was subjected to numerous revisions. Some detractors even suggested that the Austrian-born architect's plans bore stylistic similarities to the work of Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer. But the most acrimonious and protracted row was over the site. Those who spoke against the Mall location made two basic arguments. First, a memorial of any size located on the Mall's central axis would ruin the classical sight lines envisioned by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in the 18th century and reaffirmed by the McMillan Plan at the beginning of the 20th. Second, continued proliferation of memorials on the Mall would create "a theme park effect" that would undermine the Mall's existing memorials. Linked to these aesthetic arguments was a historical-cum-political one -- that the two defining moments of American history are the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, represented by the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial respectively, and a World War II memorial would break that thematic unity.

Supporters of the memorial argued that such views assumed implicitly that the formative experiences of the Republic had ended in 1865 and that the Mall was a static, completed work, not to be tampered with. They argued that the Mall -- like the country -- was, instead, a work in progress, and the Rainbow Pool site was, in fact, the most fitting location for a monument to commemorate the generation that fought World War II.

Mills is good at isolating the central issues and key players in the drama, and he gives all sides to the various disputes a fair hearing, but his sympathies are clearly with the project's supporters. Indeed, following the twists and turns of the controversy, readers come to share the author's obvious frustration as the project staggered from one board meeting to the next agency review to the subsequent public hearing and back again, while time was running out for a generation of Americans who, in the darkest days of the 20th century, fought and won a war to protect the very values on which the United States was founded.

In 2001, congressional intervention brought the seemingly endless rounds of wrangling to a halt and removed the last hurdles to construction of the National World War II Memorial. In a highly successful appeal for contributions to the Memorial, actor Tom Hanks summed up widespread public sentiment when he said: "It is time to say thank you" to that wartime generation.

And so -- at long last -- it is. *

Thomas Childers, the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor in History at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of "In the Shadows of War" and "Wings of Morning."