Leaders of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation will gather today for their annual meeting. They’ll select a new president and review other business, but there’s one thing they won’t be talking about: the memorial’s controversial sculpture of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, unveiled last week on D-Day’s 66th anniversary.
The addition of Stalin’s bust next to those of Allied leaders such as FDR and Churchill angered veterans in Bedford, Va., sparked criticism from the area’s Democratic congressman, and drew the ire of Lee Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Small wonder. Stalin was once an ally of Adolf Hilter. His ruthless domestic policies resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million people.
The uproar hasn’t persuaded the foundation to reconsider. Four of the six board members told me they support the Stalin bust, and retired Col. William McIntosh, the foundation’s departing president, was resolute in his defense of it.
“No, we’re not going to revisit that,” McIntosh said in a lengthy interview about the sculpture. “Obviously, nobody likes to have stories that have a negative thrust, but I mean the decision was taken years ago and not lightly—and not by lightweights either.”
McIntosh explained that the Stalin bust is part of a display of World War II leaders. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle all are represented.
But this is a D-Day memorial, after all, and that’s what spurred the criticism. The Soviet dictator didn’t send troops to storm the beaches at Normandy in 1944. When asked about this, McIntosh offered this justification for Stalin’s inclusion: “Basically, he made his launch of a counterattack against Germany contingent on the opening of the Western front.”
Critics are unmoved. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who represents Bedford, sponsored a bill authorizing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to study the feasibility of designating the National D-Day Memorial as a unit of the National Park System. But Perriello opposes the presence of the Stalin bust, according to his spokeswoman. He also believes the Park Service should remove the sculpture if the memorial is designated as a national park.
The negative attention hasn’t dissuaded McIntosh and the foundation’s board members. In fact, most offered a vigorous defense of the Stalin bust and dismissed the controversy.
“There are people who feel that he is being honored by having the bust there and that’s not the case whatsoever,” said Marsha Melton, vice chairman of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. “And, if you read the plaque that’s there, it explains his part in the planning of D-Day, but it also tells of the terrible things that he did as well.”
Board member Donna Clark said the Stalin bust is a “done deal,” and the board won’t reconsider it.
“I was quite surprised,” Clark said of the criticism. “The mission of the memorial is education. By not acknowledging what happened, you don’t change what happened.”
Most of the board members, including Richard Maxwell, said the controversy was overblown. McIntosh condemned people who haven’t visited the memorial for waging the negative attacks.
“If you look at the history of public sculpture, what you will find is any time you put a piece of statuary large or small in a public place, there will be people who will react very positively and very negatively,” McIntosh said. He noted outcries when FDR was sculpted in a wheelchair, Christopher Newport appeared with both hands, and Judas was depicted in the Last Supper. “You’re not going to make everybody happy when you do this.”
It remains unknown who donated the estimated $50,000 for the bust. Treasurer Linda Westenburger declined to comment and hung up the phone. McIntosh said that the donor wishes to remain anonymous.
With the memorial serving as a popular spot for school groups and potentially part of the National Park System in the future, it’s likely to be a continuing subject of controversy—even if the foundation itself doesn’t want to admit it.