Commemorate failures of the ruling class on the National Mall

Sometimes what Americans choose to commemorate is difficult to understand.

For example, at the end of the National Mall, there are monuments to President Abraham Lincoln, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and President Franklin Roosevelt. It’s not immediately clear what these memorials have in common, but a closer look reveals some unfortunate truths.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Lincoln rose to iconic status primarily because he freed slaves. Fair enough. But it’s 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 needed bloodshed to do so.

It is of course not fair to blame Lincoln for the Civil War; this conflict had been brewing for a century. Nor is it fair to imagine that he was not partly responsible for it. Without a doubt, the Civil War was the greatest public policy failure in American history. Yet, as a nation, we choose to commemorate the one who played a significant role in this failure.

Think of the Franklin Roosevelt memorial. As president, Roosevelt hindered or steered America toward war in 1941 through his trade embargo on the Empire of Japan. Once engaged in the war, Roosevelt established concentration camps and interned American citizens there. Towards 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 particularly strange, given that the aim of the war in Europe was to prevent the Germans from setting up such a regime in the middle of the Continent.

Eastern Europeans suffered under the Soviets for 40 years.

Yet, as a nation, we choose to commemorate Roosevelt.

How about the Korean War Memorial or the Vietnam War Memorial? Either way, America’s foreign policy elites and the officer corps seemed largely indifferent to the prospect of victory. Consequently, American troops gave their lives in Korea to solidify what was supposed to be a temporary border between south and north. In Vietnam, the accelerating moral corrosion of the elites and the reluctance of the officer corps to alert the public to this corrosion led to absolute defeat. Both wars were dramatic failures of public policy in general and of our political leaders in particular.

If you believe that these two memorials are testimonies of the dead, you must also be certain that those who died in these wars would have much preferred to remain alive. Or, if their fate was to die, they would have preferred to die in a victorious effort.

You know who and what is not commemorated on the National Mall? There are no memorials to those who made this country truly great but were unfortunate enough not to be politically powerful – Edison, Bell, the Wrights, Howe, Borlaug, Mitchell, Drake, Fulton, Whitney, Morse, McCormick, Eckert and Mauchly – the list could go on for pages. It was men (mostly) who invented things that made life better, richer and healthier. For the most part, they did not send anyone to their death and did not seek to exert their power over their fellow citizens.

One could just as well include scholars, authors, artists, etc., in the list of those who are not memorialized.

So the next time someone starts advocating another memorial for a public policy disaster that resulted in needless deaths – and it’s only a matter of time before someone wants to erect a monument to our latest catastrophe in the Middle East – maybe we should go against it and suggest something better commemorated.

• Michael McKenna, columnist for the Washington Times, co-hosts “The Unregulated Podcast”. He was most recently Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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