Sometimes what Americans choose to memorialize is difficult to understand.
For instance, at the tail end of the National Mall, there are monuments to President Abraham Lincoln, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and President Franklin Roosevelt. It is not immediately apparent what these memorials have in common, but a closer look reveals some unhappy truths.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Lincoln has risen to the level of icon, primarily because he freed the slaves. Fair enough. But it is important to remember that every other nation in this hemisphere — from Argentina to Canada — freed their slaves in the first half of the 19th century (before the United States). And, without exception, none of them required bloodshed to do so.
It is, of course, not fair to blame Lincoln for the Civil War; that conflict had been brewing for a century. Nor is it fair to imagine that he was not, in some small part, responsible for it. Without a doubt, the Civil War was the single greatest public policy failure in American history. Yet as a nation, we choose to memorialize one who played an important part in that failure.
Let’s think about the memorial to Franklin Roosevelt. As president, Roosevelt either bumbled or managed America toward war in 1941 through his trade embargo on the Empire of Japan. Once engaged in the war, Roosevelt set up concentration camps and interned U.S. citizens in them. Toward the end of the war, he made it clear to our allies (the murderous and rapacious Soviet Union) that we would tolerate Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, which is especially odd, given that the entire purpose of the war in Europe was to prevent the Germans from setting up such a regime in the middle of the Continent.
The Eastern Europeans suffered under the Soviets for 40 years.
Yet as a nation, we choose to memorialize Roosevelt.
How about the memorial to the Korean War or the Vietnam War? In both instances, American foreign policy elites and the officer corps seemed largely indifferent to the idea of victory. Consequently, U.S. troops gave their lives in Korea to solidify what was supposed to be a temporary border between the south and north. In Vietnam, the accelerating moral corrosion of the elites and the unwillingness of the officer corps to alert the public to that corrosion led to absolute defeat. Both wars were dramatic failures of public policy generally and our political leadership specifically.
If you believe that these two memorials are testaments to the dead, you should also be certain that those who died in those wars would much rather have remained alive. Or, if their lot was to die, they would have preferred to die in a victorious effort.
You know who and what is not memorialized on the National Mall? There are no memorials to those who made this country truly great but who had the misfortune of not being politically powerful — Edison, Bell, the Wrights, Howe, Borlaug, Mitchell, Drake, Fulton, Whitney, Morse, McCormick, Eckert and Mauchly — the list could continue for pages. These were men (mostly) who invented things that made life better, richer and healthier. For the most part, they didn’t send anyone to their deaths, nor did they seek opportunities to exert their power over their fellow citizens.
We could just as easily include scholars, authors, artists, etc., in the list of those who are not memorialized.
So, the next time someone starts advocating yet another memorial to a public policy disaster that resulted in pointless fatalities — and it is only a matter of time before someone wants to erect a monument to our most recent disaster in the Middle East — maybe we should be contrary and suggest memorializing something better.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, co-hosts “The Unregulated Podcast.” He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.