Memorials to war Paeans to Peace

- John L. Silva () - April 3, 2005 - 12:00am
Editor’s note: The nation marks Bataan Day on Saturday, April 9, on which day in 1942 the Allied stronghold fell to the Japanese, a crucial turning point of the war in the Pacific. STARweek contributing writer John Silva, on a recent trip the US, visited three exhibits that commemorate the second world war. His report on those memorials makes a fitting testimonial as we observe Bataan Day.

Divergent points of view help sustain an interest in history, as in the case of the ongoing Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit entitled, "The Price of Freedom: Americans At War." Important historical events can be remembered with honor, such as the new World War II Memorial which opened to the public in April 2004 on Washington, DC’s National Mall. A tribute to great leaders can be stirring as is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial opened in 1997 on the Mall’s Tidal Basin. A recent visit to all three sites enabled me to reflect on the importance of recording history and ensuring that its information and truths are not forgotten by later generations.

The National Museum of American History which is the exhibition site of "Americans At War" is an older Smithsonian building on the Mall and, for the past decade, has been bypassed by visitors for the newer, more modern museum additions. However, this $16 million exhibition required a major renovation to the museum’s top floor, and a modern exhibition design. "Americans At War" has become a major draw for the Smithsonian since its opening in late 2004.

Displaying over 800 artifacts, from George Washington’s sword to Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, the exhibition gingerly walks through important conflicts that the people of the United States have gone through, either domestically or abroad. American history in the past was myopic, with views limited to the concerns and viewpoints of the ruling white upper class and their corporations.

In the late 60s and early 70s, ethnic and women’s studies and more progressive interpretations of American history developed on many American campuses and began to seep into and expand or even shatter orthodox historical theory. The result has been a more complex, a more inclusive, and certainly a more interesting retelling of American history.

I bypassed the American Revolution section, the Indian Wars, the Civil War and zeroed in on the gallery entitled the Spanish-American War. Old history books centered mostly on the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine docked in Havana Harbor, the war against Spain which followed and the eventual takeover of Spain’s colonies Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines, the latter a purchase for $20 million–all very neat and seamless.

When I taught Philippine-American history at UC-Berkeley in the early 70s and had the Filipino-American War as compulsory reading, the Filipino community was not amused. They accused me of making up a war and, even if there was some truth to the matter, why, they growled, should I be ungrateful to the American government.

I felt vindicated seeing this exhibit with wall texts acknowledging America’s expansionist ambitions leading to the war against the fledgling government of President Emilio Aguinaldo and the considerable opposition in the United States to the war.

A photo of Aguinaldo (a flattering one compared to the political cartoons then portraying him as a half-Chinese, half-Malay heathen) has a quote from him below dispelling prevailing mis-information that he had wanted American annexation. It reads, "General Otis is proclaimed the military governor of the Philippines and I protest a thousand times and with all the force in my soul… I solemnly declare that neither in Singapore, nor Hong Kong nor in Manila did I agree to recognize verbally nor in writing, American domination over our beloved country."

Even more interesting is an actual proclamation, on parchment and signed by President Aguinaldo. The parchment is erroneously described as a message to the Filipino people. Written in English, the proclamation is addressed to American soldiers. Aguinaldo announces several articles: No American soldier will be harmed when he surrenders to the revolutionary army. If the soldier surrenders with a rifle and bullets, he will receive an $80 reward. A surrendered soldier will be allowed to live in the liberated area if he wishes, but will not be allowed to be part of the revolutionary army.

Along with a captured Moslem Sultanate flag, a grim photo of dead Filipino revolutionaries, and several more wall texts that admit to "…tactics of pacification… and brutal military strikes" in the Filipino-American War, I felt I was back in my Berkeley classroom telling a surprised student audience that yes, your forefathers valiantly fought the American government in a gruesome war that lasted four years.

The World War II section is also interesting to Filipino visitors for it covers the Pacific War and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. One section is devoted to the 1945 American rescue of 2,000 civilian internees held in a Japanese internment camp in Los Baños, Laguna. In another part of the gallery there is a photograph of Guillermo Rumingan, a guerrilla, with his account of the torture committed by the Japanese military on fellow prisoners.

In one section, hanging prominently from a ceiling, is an original Willys Jeep, the vehicle that would see service in the latter part of the war. The vehicle was seen by Filipinos for the very first time when American liberation forces drove them ashore on Leyte in October 1944. It would be love at first sight. After the war, thousands of Willys jeeps were left behind. The love affair heightened and soon thereafter, begat a jeepney. The rest is history.

As one approaches the new World War II Memorial on the National Mall, 56 granite pillars rise up 17 feet from the ground to form an oval, giving the feeling of entering a coliseum. The Memorial is the first national site to honor the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the United States in World War II and the over 400,000 who died in that war.

The pillars represent the unity of the American states and its territories against the Axis powers. The Philippines, as a former colony, is inscribed on one of the pillars between the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

In this open air memorial there is a long pool with tall towers on either end, representing the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of military operations. On these towers are large bronze eagles, their wings unfolding and ready to soar. At the base of the towers are fountain copings and engraved are locations that figured in key battle settings. On the Pacific side the names "Manila, Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, and the Philippine Sea" appear. On my visit, a framed photograph of an American soldier had been placed below the carved "Manila."

From the Pacific Tower, there is a sweeping view of the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the tall Washington Monument on the other. It was a hot summer day and many visitors sat by the pool, some dipping their feet and frolicking. The Americans, in their jeans and t-shirts and their regulation water bottles, gave the memorial an informal air. But the solemnity of the place was not lost on them. In various sections of the memorial are large carved quotations from the civilian and military leaders of that period. The words of soldier/orator General Douglas MacArthur is the most poignant of all as it describes, in sparse lines, the aftermath of a horrific war.
The War’s End
Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce — men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. — General Douglas MacArthur

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered the most important American president in modern history and his stature raised to the level of past presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In 1901, when a plan was approved to erect three more presidential memorials to join the existing Washington Monument on the mall, there was no contest that the first two would be erected for Jefferson and Lincoln. In 1955, ten years after World War II, a joint resolution of Congress approved that the last memorial be erected for President Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt led America through one of its most difficult periods: the Great Depression, natural calamities, and a major war that had to be fought in Europe and Asia. For Filipinos, Roosevelt was the president when the Philippines became a commonwealth for ten years, leading eventually to the promised independence. When he died suddenly on April 12, 1945, after four terms in office, and with an allied victory imminent, America went into deep mourning.

The FDR memorial located by the Tidal Basin is a series of four garden spaces linked by passageways with large granite blocks arranged as walls. In some spaces, water flows from these walls and in others, the blocks are arranged to provide the setting for the President’s engraved quotations. Four renowned sculptors were chosen to create pieces that represented historical highlights during his presidency.

In keeping with the President’s deep interest in conservation and reforestation, the memorial is profusely planted with flowering trees, shrubs, and groundcovers.

The selected quotations, chiseled on granite using a sans serif letterform widely used in the 30s, are poignant, powerful and evocative. In his first inauguration speech, in the depths of the Depression, he would utter the famous line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Repeating the verb "fear" as a harmless noun showed his skill in speech writing and his unwavering confidence that any obstacles could be surmounted.

Repeating a word and transforming it, rephrasing a phrase and other techniques that Roosevelt used in his speeches and writings simplified complex ideas and gained him much public support. In his second inaugural speech, mindful that the country still had not overcome the Depression, he addressed his audience and told them, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

In the third garden are his words showing his abhorrence to war despite the fact that he led his country through the most painful one in recorded history. You can almost hear Roosevelt’s exhortative voice.

"I have seen war.

I have seen war on land and sea.

I have seen blood running from the wounded...

I have seen dead in the mud.

I have seen Cities destroyed...

I have seen children starving.

I have seen the agony of mothers and wives.

I hate war."

Months before the war ended, Roosevelt pressed upon his allies to develop a structure for world peace, a prefiguring of the United Nations. He was prescient in recognizing that a lasting peace could only be ensured if all nations recognized and strove for it. On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt suffered a heart attack and died while preparing a speech about peace that he was to deliver the next day. His last words expresses a continued optimism with man’s destiny.

"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

Leaving the memorial, I was saddened that the world today no longer has eloquent and charismatic leaders like Roosevelt. Roosevelt transcended his class background, confronted big business, aided America’s poor and unemployed and extricated the country from a harrowing Depression. He exhorted his countrymen to fight and win a war, while at the same time finding ways to "prevent the beginnings of war."

I contrast that to President George Bush who has reneged on almost all of the goals that President Roosevelt strove for, from social justice, protecting the environment, to achieving world peace. In Roosevelt’s time, America was loved and looked up to as a beacon of democracy. One cannot say, feel, or wish the same for that country any longer. The goodwill that Roosevelt created throughout the world has long been expended and wasted.

The "Americans at War" Smithsonian exhibit, the World War II and the FDR Memorials resonate with the hope that the American people learn from its past historical conflicts, disavow its unbecoming posture as the world’s bully and reclaim its leadership in brokering and seeking a lasting peace. President Roosevelt would have the final word on the matter, engraved on the last garden wall of his inspiring memorial:

"We have faith that future generations will know that here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of goodwill found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

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