The current controversy over placing the proposed World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington takes us back in history to the founding of the nation.
Washington was then mostly vacant swampland, and congressional debates were frequently interrupted by gunfire from turkey hunters in the vicinity. George Washington himself proclaimed that the city would not fill up "for about a century."
Well, more than two centuries later, the capital is crowded with government buildings, museums, lobbyists' offices and memorials to statesmen and soldiers. The singular exception to this pattern is the National Mall, a strip of unobstructed lawn extending from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, then onward past the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial.
With due deference to real estate agents in Manhattan and San Francisco, this is the most precious plot of ground in the country. And therein lies the problem posed by the planned site for the World War II memorial, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
The large size of the World War II memorial _ a sunken plaza flanked by two curving colonnades backed by 50-foot-high walls _ would mean that our most sacred space is to be occupied by a new and obtrusive tenant.
There is little question that the veterans of World War II deserve a national memorial. Their sacrifice, in terms of the numbers who served and the casualties suffered, dwarfs the sacrifices made by veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, both of whom have memorials of modest proportions on opposite sides of the Mall.
One might reasonably ask, why fail to recognize the generation that gave us total victory in Europe and the Pacific?
The awkward answer is that the memorial's proposed site and size violate the integrity of American history.
The designer of the memorial has made it huge for good reason: No sacrifice by any generation this century is comparable.
But its proposed location would break the line of vision between the founding father of the union and the president who saved it.
Truth be known, Lincoln's favorite founding father was not Washington but Thomas Jefferson. When Lincoln said that the United States was "dedicated to a proposition," the proposition he had in mind was Jefferson's _ that "all men are created equal."
What we really have occurring across this special ground is a conversation within the American trinity about the core values of the republic that Jefferson articulated, Washington established and Lincoln preserved. If there is any space where what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" still fly, this is it.
If located in this spot, the World War II memorial willallow the claims of the 20th century to intrude squarely between the more venerable claims of the 18th and 19th centuries. It will put World War II between the American Revolution and the Civil War, breaking the dialogue between our ultimate symbols of national unity.
The veterans of World War II are better prepared to understand the principles at stake than those of us who have come after them. These principles, in fact, are the very principles they fought for.
In that same spirit, they could leave no more lasting legacy than to find a more appropriate site and preserve a clean vista across our nation's most sacred space.
This would serve as a final reminder of their abiding sense of duty, as well as a lasting tribute to the uncluttered spaces our nation's founders first envisioned.
Joseph J. Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., is the author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.
New York Times