Victims of Communism Memorial

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

May 26, 2004



Washington — The centerpiece of the new World War II Memorial here — set to open formally on Saturday — is called Freedom’s Wall. It bears 4,000 gold stars commemorating the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in the conflict. “Here we mark the price of freedom,” says an engraving.

Nearly two miles to the east, on the other side of the Capitol, there soon may rise a memorial that marks the price of tyranny — specifically, the 100 million people said to have died during the Cold War. If a federal planning board approves the site in July, the Victims of Communism Memorial finally may have a home at the intersection of Constitution and Maryland Avenues, NE.

The original idea, hatched about 10 years ago, called for something much grander than a 10-foot statue on a quarter-acre triangle of land. “We wanted to raise $100 million for an entire museum,” says Lee Edwards, director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. “The Holocaust Memorial Museum was our model, and it had brought in much more than that. We thought a dollar for every person killed in the Cold War was a reasonable goal.”

Like a production estimate in one of the Soviet Union’s five-year plans, however, that number turned out to be far too ambitious. The foundation failed to raise a budget of seven figures, let alone nine, even though the memorial received blessings from Congress and President Clinton. “We kept waiting for a billionaire to show up and write us a big check,” says Mr. Edwards. “After a while, it became clear this wasn’t going to happen.”

So they scaled back, drastically. The memorial will now consist of a replica of the Goddess of Liberty erected by the martyred Chinese students of Tiananmen Square. Theirs was white, and this version will be built of bronze but covered with a white patina so that it doesn’t turn green over time. An eternal flame will burn in front. On either side, bronze tablets will display quotations from the likes of Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan, as well as Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. Sculptor Thomas Marsh has offered to work for free. The total cost will be about a half million dollars.

Private sources will supply the cash; the federal government, the land. Most of the money has arrived in dribs and drabs, often from people who can claim to be victims of communism themselves. Earlier this year, several hundred Vietnamese Americans held a fund-raiser in northern Virginia and pitched in $35,000. “That was critical in helping us make our budget,” Mr. Edwards says.

Yet money hasn’t been the only challenge. This being Washington, any would-be memorial must hack its way through a thicket of bureaucracy. If the National Capital Memorial Commission signs off on the plan, the memorial will still have to receive additional nods from two more federal panels, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. Authorization for the site and the design are normally separate processes, though in the case of this simple memorial they may be combined.

None of these approvals comes automatically. A typical year sees only one or two memorials pass muster. In December, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation appeared before the NCMC and asked for a plot of land just north of the Capitol, across the street from a carillon dedicated to the memory of Robert A. Taft, one of America’s first Cold Warriors. Mr. Edwards, an aide to Barry Goldwater back in the day, loved the symbolism.

But the planning board was unsure. “We felt the site they wanted, so close to the Capitol, was precious and should be reserved for a truly American story,” says John Parsons, chairman of the NCMC. Another problem was that it sat beside a memorial dedicated to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Mr. Edwards thought this provided bonus synergy. The board members seemed to think it was an awful lot of victimhood to cram into a small space.

They didn’t vote down the request, but they sent a discouraging message. Mr. Edwards was worried that his memorial might be condemned to the hinterlands of Embassy Row, where a statue of Mahatma Gandhi went up a few years ago — far from where most tourists choose to tread. He considered calling in congressional allies and raising a stink. Who were a bunch of federal busybodies to say the Cold War wasn’t “a truly American story”?

Then Mr. Edwards learned of the new parcel. About a block behind the Supreme Court, it’s across the street from the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters — a nifty bit of symbolism in its own right. Mr. Parsons said that he considered this a much better location. Mr. Edwards agreed that it was acceptable.

And so they appear to have reached a point of detente. Mr. Edwards is hopeful that his organization will receive all the approvals it needs over the next few months. Once that happens, he speculates that construction will proceed rapidly. Perhaps as early as next summer, the Victims of Communism Memorial will become a reality.

Yet Mr. Edwards always keeps in mind a friendly warning Mr. Parsons gave him a decade ago: “This is going to take a lot longer than you think.”

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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