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Grand Reunion

For the dedication of a new World War II memorial on the Mall, the Smithsonian will stage a four-day festival of reminiscence

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"No man and no force can abolish memory," wrote President Franklin Roosevelt in May 1942, six months after Americans had taken up arms against men and forces making a furious attempt to do just that. The memory of that fateful worldwide encounter lives on, in photographs and films, in the written word and the spoken recollection, at sites consecrated by blood and sites hallowed by custom. On the Mall here in Washington this Memorial Day weekend, just shy of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the nation will dedicate a new site to the memory of World War II and its warriors, the 16 million men and women who served in the armed forces during the conflict, of whom more than 400,000 gave their lives. The National World War II Memorial is situated on a portion of the Mall between the WashingtonMonument and the Lincoln Memorial. The dome of the Capitol rises in the distance to the east and ArlingtonCemetery lies directly across the Potomac to the west. In the majestic alignment of all of those monuments over the miles of earth, you can read the steady purpose of a nation.

For the weekend of the memorial's dedication, the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is organizing a grand public gathering, in partnership with the American Battle Monuments Commission, and we hope that hundreds of thousands of guests will attend—veterans who knew the war firsthand and a great crowd of their families, friends and admirers. We're calling the occasion "Tribute to a Generation: National World War II Reunion," and for four days it will transform a stretch of the Mall adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum into a setting for warm and lively reminiscence. The events—outdoors and in pavilions—will include something for visitors of every age. For the veterans, drawn together by the memory of the mighty enterprise in which they all once shared, the most welcome attraction is likely to be Reunion Hall, where a message board with the names of individual military units will encourage the renewal of associations and friendships.

Elsewhere, on two large stages, we'll re-create the sweet, swinging rhythms of the era's music and dance. Other pavilions will feature interviews and panel discussions with veterans and war workers; exhibitions from the Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress; an exhibition on the planning and building of the World War II memorial itself; and hands-on activities for families and children (learn how to crack an encoded message or, a greater challenge, learn how to Lindy). Conservation experts will advise veterans and their families how best to save the material evidence of the war years in their possession—the letters, photographs, scrapbooks, maps, medals and such that are irreplaceable links to the era. And in the time-honored Smithsonian tradition of telling a story through objects, we'll display military artifacts and equipment identified with the war throughout the blocks-long extent of the reunion: spotter plane, Sherman tank, halftrack, jeep and more. They're silent and motionless now, but a little imagination turns the engines.

The Smithsonian is honored indeed to host this celebration of men and women, in uniform and on the home front, whose spirit of resolve, aspiration and sacrifice sustains us still. They launched America on course to become, before the century was done, the world's most powerful voice for democracy. "Tribute to a Generation" is an occasion whose like we will not see again, at once joyful and valedictory. The reality is that more than a thousand veterans of the war die each day, and it was surely time's relentless urging that helped set the stones of the World War II Memorial in place at last. Many of those whose deeds earned the monument will now have an opportunity to stand in its presence, and we should not miss the opportunity to stand gratefully in theirs.

About Lawrence M. Small
Lawrence M. Small

Lawrence M. Small was the eleventh secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 2000 to 2007.

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