Our Changing National Self-Image

I’ve been touristing around Washington all weekend and can at least share a few thoughts on how DC appears to have changed over time.

Mainly, on the changes to the Mall. I hadn’t previously been able to see the WWII and Korea Memorials; I also hadn’t seen the King Memorial, although I had seen FDR already.

I had a fairly mixed view of the WWII memorial…I really don’t have much of a problem with heroic, triumphant national self-celebration. Was it specific enough to the conflict? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure that the size was sustained by the content — it’s very large, that is, and yet it’s not entirely clear why.

I do find the placement of it, along with the Korea and Vietnam memorials, striking in how it almost completely upends the old feel of the Mall.

When I first visited Washington, none of those were there. The Mall was defined by Washington and Lincoln and, although he’s off to the side and only visible from a small area, by Jefferson; what’s more, it’s defined by Congress, on the other end from Lincoln, and then the White House, also only visible from a small area.

While the Smithsonian museums (fewer then) do take up a large amount of space, the addition of the war memorials does two things. On the one hand, it makes the national self-image seem far more obsessed with all things military. I really don’t like that at all. But there’s a second part to it: all three of those war memorials are focused mainly (and with Vietnam exclusively) on the ordinary people involved, not on generals and presidents. That’s a real contrast with the old Mall of Abe, George, Tom, the White House, and Congress. Add to that a heroic memorial to an advocate for social justice and a very populist memorial to FDR.

So: the theory is that since the 1970s the US self-image as seen in the National Mall is both more militaristic and more democratic.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.