National Mall Morphing Into a Monument of Monstrosity

Noting the recent groundbreaking on a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Radley Balko reflects on the proliferation of monuments on the National Mall.

Plans are also in the works for an African-American History Museum on the National Mall and a memorial to President Eisenhower. And it’s probably just a matter of time before conservatives in Congress again begin agitating for a Ronald Reagan Memorial. It’s likely that we’ll also get a memorial to Sept. 11, and/or to the victims of, and the war on, terrorism.

The National Mall, originally envisioned by Washington, D.C.’s planner and architect Pierre L’Enfant (that’s right, the man who built our nation’s capital was French!) as a serene place for public celebration and quiet contemplation, is quickly turning into a kind of kitchy amusement park for aggrieved parties and special interests.

Recent additions — the FDR Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the National Museum of the American Indian — have added more clutter, more traffic, and further obstructed the serene views L’Enfant intended.


Times change, of course. And it’s certainly understandable why Congress might want to add more recent events of significance to the roster of history and collective memory that lines the Mall. But we’re to the point now where some groups — some deserving, some not — have come to see a slice of real estate in America’s backyard as a symbol of how seriously we take their grievances, significance or contribution.

The mall in many ways presents a tidy symbol of what’s happened to the federal government over the last half-century, all the more appropriate given that it’s owned by the federal government, and lies between the Capitol in the White House.

Another analogy is to Halls of Fame. Once a mediocrity is allowed in, the bar is forever lowered with the argument that “If George Harrison (or Phil Rizzuto) is in, then by God _________ deserves to be in!”

But Balko is right. No one disputes that Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln deserve monuments. There might be more debate over FDR but just barely. But Eisenhower? He was largely unremarkable as president. And we’ve already got a WWII Memorial where he can be honored.

I understand the rationale behind the Vietnam Memorial and it has undeniably been a success. It’s one of the biggest draws in town. Yet it’s creation led to a Korea Memorial. Which led to a WWII Memorial. Which led to a Women Veterans Memorial. Why not African American Veterans? Or the Navajo Code Talkers? Or U.S. Marines? Paratroopers? Arguably, all are more significant in national military affairs than women. Certainly, blacks and Indians have a stronger claim of mistreatment.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    “Mall” indeed.

  2. To part of the issue is how obtrusive they are. The Viet Nam, Korea and FDR memorials really didn’t alter the Mall itself while the WWII monument quite clearly did.

    Still, I concur that one can go well overboard–which is where we are headed.

  3. Tano says:

    Actually, I am not all the sympathetic to this argument. Time passes, history happens, we have more and more things to remember. So what? The mall is not going to look the way L’Enfant originally envisioned it. The nation as a whole would be unrecognizable in some ways to Jefferson and Madison. Thats a good thing. We are a dynamic, growing, changing country, and the National Mall is going to reflect that evolution.

    Anyway, lots of the monuments you mention are not on the Mall per se (which is only the area east of the Washington Monument). They are on land that was a swamp in L’Enfant’s day.

  4. I wondered about this. King already has a memorial. It’s in Atlanta. I live next door to it.

  5. madmatt says:

    “Arguably, all are more significant in national military affairs than women.”

    That is an awful lot of sons, husbands and fathers to have died and say with a straight face that women contribute nothing…especially as there are plenty of women that have seen more combat than the Fighting Keyboardists…where is that memorial again?

  6. James Joyner says:

    matt: If you’re going to make silly arguments, at least do them in context.

    Why not African American Veterans? Or the Navajo Code Talkers? Or U.S. Marines? Paratroopers? Arguably, all are more significant in national military affairs than women.

    Which, of those, do you think have contributed less militarily to the United States than women? Until incredibly recently, women were not allowed to serve in anything that could reasonably called combat at all.

  7. James,

    Just to prove that you can take a sows ear and make a silk purse, I will take madmatt’s statement and make a rational argument out of it.

    The African American Veterans (Go red ball express and Tuskegee airmen), Navajo Code Talkers (Can we include the guy who survived the Bataan death march and then was tortured to try and break the code within a code of the Navajo talkers), U.S. Marines (Semper Fi, nuff said) and Paratroopers (leaving perfectly good airplanes while in flight for over 60 years) all had one thing in common. They wouldn’t have been around to do their feats of derring do with out women. Each was born of a woman.

    Of course we can get a twofer and save some mall space honoring the male contribution to the birth of these fighting men by just a small alteration to the Washington monument. Just imagine the neon signs pointing the way to the memorial honoring the father of our country and the fathers of our veterans. We might even be able to help balance the budget with a discrete ‘Adult store’ annex.

  8. Steven Plunk says:

    The situation on the mall seems to reflect what is happening in our national government, the inability to say no. Well, not just our national government but government in general.

    That inability to say no has resulted in programs that don’t work, run away spending, and political correctness. I believe these are all things we could do without.

    Until we have leaders who can say no to the requests for unending monuments expect more of this mall pollution. I wouldn’t expect that change anytime soon.

  9. Wickedpinto says:

    Or U.S. Marines?

    Eroo? The Iwo flag raising thingy is a Marines Memorial. It references every conflict and dates that the Marines were involved in. I even think it gets updated.

  10. Mark says:

    Aren’t they also placing a marker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his “I have a dream” speech?

    Also, I find there is a glaring lack of hispanic representation as far as memorials on the mall go, so we need one for Ceasar Chavez!

  11. James Joyner says:

    Pinto: I didn’t realize the Iwo Jima memorial was dedicated to the Marines in general; I thought it was event specific.

  12. I was under the impression that the Iwo Jima monument was, in fact, a Marines-specific monument,

  13. DC Loser says:

    I think Iwo is Marine specific, and that’s how the Air Force got their way with that monstrocity they built by the Navy Annex.

  14. The Thomas says:

    If they need a monument for Ike, I just say just put plaques on each of the Interstate entrance ramps in the DC area that list you as entering the “Dwight D Eisenhower Memorial Interstate and Defense Highways” and be done with it.

    I would say that a “memorial” that stretches from sea to shining sea ought to be enough.

  15. Christopher says:

    I visited DC for the fist time last spring with my son’s middle school class for an 11 day historic tour. I thought the mall was great! The bus or underground or taxi drops you off and tourists can walk pretty much the entire thing, so not such a bad impact on traffic. The WWII memorial wasn’t that great-the monuments greatest feature? The water fountains, which remain off most of the year due to the cold we were told. LOL!

    FDR monument really not part of the “mall” but its kinda not so great either. Oh yea and the fountains there were off there as well!

    Word of advice: if you go to the top of the Washington Monument, leave time to walk down. The inside is as interesting as the view-you will not be disappointed.

  16. Wickedpinto says:

    yeah it’s also called “the US Marine War Memorial”

  17. Ferg says:

    1. Iwo Jima is a memorial to the Marines, not to the event of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, though that event probably is the most famous and powerful marine symbol. For the record 5 of the flag raisers were Marines, the 6th man was a Navy medic.

    2. Several have said FDR isn’t technically on the Mall. That is true. Neither is Jefferson for that matter. They are both on the Tidal Basin in what is called East Potomac Park.

    3. The Tidal Basin is where they dredged to get land to fill the swamp where the Lincoln memorial now sits. That area of former swampland is now known as West Potomac Park.

    4. The National Mall is the area between the west front of the Capitol and the Washinton Monument between Constituntion Avenue on the north and Independance Avenue on the south. West Potomac Park includes the area between Independance and Constitution stretching westward from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln, the back side of which is against the Potomac River.

    5. This means that the WWII, Vietnam, Lincoln and Korean memorials, and Constitution Gardens, are not technically on the National Mall but west of it in West Potomac Park.

    6. Most people don’t differentiate between West Potomac Park and the National Mall. The entire two mile stretch between Lincoln and the Capitol is generally considered to be “The Mall” though that isn’t technically accurate.

    Just a few clarifying facts from a licensed DC tour guide.