From the President column of the October 2007 Perspectives

Washington for Historians

Barbara Weinstein, October 2007

For the past seven years, until a recent move to Manhattan, I lived in a "near-in" suburb of Washington, D.C. Having grown up in Brooklyn and spent almost my entire adult life, when not in Brazil, living in or around New York City, I made the move to the Washington area with some trepidation. To my relief, I quickly discovered that there's something quite special about being a historian and living in the nation's capital. Since many Perspectives readers will soon be paying a visit to "the District" for the January 2008 AHA meeting, I thought I might share some of my reflections on being a historian in the Washington area.

One attraction for the historian living in Washington, D.C., is the opportunity—perhaps more imagined than real—to offer one's scholarly expertise in the hopes of influencing public policy, or at least of contributing to a better-informed process of policy-making. Even if those in the upper echelons of government have a tin ear for historical analysis, once one goes further down the political strata to levels where longtime federal employees or newly minted legislative advisers dwell, the possibility of influencing policy decisions (by providing historical context) is more promising. At the same time, proximity to power poses risks, or at least challenges. It can tempt us to make our knowledge more "relevant" by understating the complexities of the past or underestimating the ease with which our audience can re- or misinterpret what we are saying.

Washington is also a prime location for scholars who seek to offer their historically informed opinions outside of the formal political arena. During my time in the region I had the privilege of participating in demonstrations on the National Mall—whether the counter-inauguration in January 2001, the massive March for Women in April 2004, or the many anti-war rallies that I've joined on a depressingly regular basis starting several months before the invasion of Iraq. To be sure, in most of these I was participating primarily as a citizen, not as a historian; but during the most recent major anti-war protest, I did have the pleasure of marching with Historians Against the War, and I like to imagine that other protesters, seeing our banner, felt that we marched with a special knowledge, wisdom, and authority.

Then there are the incredible resources for historical research. In that regard Washington, D.C., is like a candy store for a little kid, stocked with so many goodies that it's hard to know what to sample first. The Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park are the two behemoths of Washington-area research sites, but it's also notable how many smaller, specialized libraries and archives are located in the capital area: the National Library of Medicine, the Folger Shakespeare Library, Dumbarton Oaks, the Oliveira Lima Library at Catholic University, the Archives of American Art, and the list goes on (Editor's note: see the article by Barbara Bair for a detailed description of many of the research resources in the city).

My online dictionary illustrates the meaning of metonym with the example "Washington is a metonym for the United States government." All major cities have some sort of symbolic image or identity, but this is especially so in Washington's case. Its role as the national capital and the key locus of political power is central to the kind of urban center it has become, and the way we think about it as a city. But it also has a historical dynamic that is not reducible to its status as the nation's capital. With a service economy that held little attraction for European immigrants, Washington has a long history as a predominantly African American metropolis, with neighborhoods and schools that have nurtured eminent cultural figures like Duke Ellington, and an African American elite whose Tudor-style mansions along 16th Street attest to the complexity and heterogeneity of Washington's black community. There are also familiar histories of racism, segregation, and disempowerment still visible in the sharply disparate rates of crime and poverty from one quadrant of the city to another. But the unusual mix of a white population that was often just passing through and a black community firmly rooted in the area has meant that historically much of the area's civic and cultural life, if not the political sphere, has been dominated by Washington's African Americans.

In most cities all public history, like politics, is local, but this definitely does not apply to either politics or public history in the District of Columbia. Indeed the local history of Washington is often overshadowed by the explicitly national-historical enterprise. The Washington area is definitely the premier showplace for the nation's history; at any particular moment there are multiple expositions available to the public that contain a historical dimension and reflect the knowledge and creativity of the capital's public historians. Especially impressive is their ability to sustain a variety of bold and thought-provoking exhibitions even with a federal government that has little commitment to funding artistic or historical projects, and little sympathy for historical displays that exhibit any challenging or "revisionist" elements. Living in Washington did not necessarily raise my opinion of the politicians who dominate public life, but it did give me a much greater appreciation of those who do public history.

Despite my growing interest in the capital area's local history, what most engaged my imagination during my seven years in residence was Washington's symbolic role, and especially its function as a gallery of visual cues for historical memory. It is hard to envision a city more replete with statues, monuments, and memorials evoking some historical figure or event than the District of Columbia. A few are the products of very public and often heated discussions, such as the debate over whether Franklin D. Roosevelt should be portrayed with his disability showing. The compromise yielded two representations of FDR, one of which is a monumental statue that uses his signature cape to cover the chair in which he is seated, coyly revealing only one small wheel in the rear. The other, right at the entrance, is life-size and shows a relaxed and jovial FDR seated in a wheelchair at ground level. Though the monumental rendering of FDR might seem the dominant representation, from my observations, it is the advocates for representing him as disabled that won this particular war of images. Children entering the memorial routinely scamper onto the lap of the life-size FDR in the wheelchair and spontaneously give him a hug—a very different mode of interaction than the ones provoked by the stern patriarchs portrayed in the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials or by the giant obelisk that represents "the father of our country." Living in the Washington area, a historian not only can pay a visit to these monuments from time to time, but also observe who else visits them and how the visitors relate to these sites.

Other "lieux de mémoire," such as the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II, seem to crop up very suddenly and with relatively little fanfare, even though one knows that years of lobbying, negotiation, planning, fundraising, and creativity must have been invested in such a site. Located midway between Union Station and the east wing of the National Gallery, this memorial has two features that set it apart from the majority of the monuments on and around the National Mall. First it commemorates victims and heroes in the same site—the low walls on one side of the memorial bear the names of the 10 camps where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, while other walls list the names of the Japanese Americans who lost their lives in combat during the war. Directly linked to this fusing of different "categories" is the memorial's second distinctive feature: whatever the intentions of its conceptualizers, it presents a complicated and variegated portrait of the war that sharply contrasts with the straightforward and unambiguous celebration of heroism and sacrifice embodied by the new World War II memorial located smack in the middle of the National Mall. The didactic purposes of the latter monument are evident and limited. We are to feel joyful that we won and grateful to the many whose ultimate sacrifice made that victory possible. But what lessons are we to derive from the National Japanese American Memorial? The commingling of the victims of the internment camps with the fallen combat heroes undoubtedly was intended to assert the unquestionable patriotism of Japanese Americans, thus setting into sharper relief the injustice and irrationality of their internment. But perhaps it was also deemed too "negative" to devote a memorial exclusively to the victims of the "relocation" camps. Does the inclusion of those who died in combat somehow allow this monument to reassure its visitors of the rightness of the nationalist spirit (as well as the goodness of Japanese Americans) since even those who were deprived of their most basic rights by the federal government couldn't resist the nation's patriotic appeal? Or does it move us to meditate on the irrational nature of patriotism itself, a sentiment so powerful that even its victims can succumb to its attractions? Unlike the World War II memorial, with its unreflective perspective on war and the nation, the National Japanese American Memorial invites us, intentionally or not, to reflect on the meanings and consequences of patriotism.

During my many rambles around the district, I found myself intrigued, even more than the famous memorials, by the multitude of statues and plaques depicting national and international figures—some of them quite obscure (at least to me). Aside from the requisite complement of hearty men on horseback and the usual assortment of lesser founding fathers and presidents, there are monuments to Samuel Gompers, Mary McLeod Bethune, Albert Einstein, Edmund Burke, Simón Bolívar, Benito Juárez, Julia Ward Howe, Lajos Kossuth, and Sonny Bono (really), among many others. And there's no necessary relationship between the size and splendor of a monument and a subject's relative fame or obscurity. Thus there are quite lavish monuments to Samuel Hahnemann, the father of homeopathy, and John Ericsson, a Swedish-born naval engineer who "perfected the screw propeller, a revolutionary means of moving heavy ships through water." Of course I looked that up. Even the most knowledgeable historian is unlikely to be able to identify many, if not most, of the subjects of these monuments. Often, "who in the world is that?" is the first question that comes to mind. But there are many other questions, equally intriguing to consider. Why is this person being commemorated? Who raised the money for the statue or plaque? Does anybody really notice this memorial or recognize the name of the person being memorialized? As a Latin Americanist, I'm not the least bit surprised that there are statues of Simón Bolívar (the "George Washington of South American independence"), or Benito Juárez, the great Mexican liberal leader. But why is there an impressive statue of José Artigas, a relatively obscure independence leader from the Banda Oriental, latterly Uruguay, just west of the White House?

Assuming that most visitors would be hard-pressed to identify even some of the figures well-known to historians, it crossed my mind that the district might want to recruit volunteers who could adopt a favorite statue or monument and serve as an impromptu docent for passersby, gently accosting them as they zip past the memorial in question and asking them if they would like an explanation of who the person was, what that person had done, and why he or she was there. If I still lived in the area, I might want to volunteer my services, but not for the statues of Bolívar, Juárez, Artigas, or even Pablo Neruda. Instead, I would "adopt" a memorial located on the perimeter of Sheridan Circle, one that is easily overlooked in favor of the quintessential "man on horseback" monument to Civil War General Philip Sheridan that dominates the circle. The memorial I would favor consists of a medallion mounted on a small stone conical base, and it displays two faces. The one in the foreground is that of Orlando Letelier, Chilean foreign minister under President Salvador Allende; the woman in profile slightly behind him is Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a U.S. citizen and Letelier's assistant during his exile following the violent overthrow of Allende by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and supported by the U.S. government. Letelier and Moffitt were killed in 1976 when a bomb, planted by agents of the Pinochet regime, blew up their car just yards away from where the memorial stands today. There are many sites of remembrance in Washington dedicated to people who died as a result of a political conflict, but Letelier and Moffitt are among the few who were killed right on the streets of the city in an unprecedented act of terrorism. The immediate perpetrators of their assassinations were eventually brought to trial and convicted, but declassified documents indicate that CIA officials knew Letelier was in danger and did nothing to warn him. And the trials specifically avoided any imputation of guilt on the part of the Pinochet regime for the murder of Letelier and Moffitt.

So there I would stand, near the modest monument to their memory, and I imagine myself asking unsuspecting passersby, "Do you know who they are? Do you know why they are here?" Alas, I assume that most would simply regard me as one of those slightly deranged but harmless individuals that abound in our urban centers. In any case, there are things that the average person didn't want to know in the first place, never mind remember. But not historians; we want to remember. So I hope some of my fellow historians, while visiting the nation's capital for the AHA meeting, will take a walk through Embassy Row and make a stop at the memorial on Sheridan Circle.

—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.