Great symbols aren’t born. They’re not produced by artists. They’re created by the public, which invests them with meaning over time.
The national monuments of America carry a wealth of meaning. Visitors get a powerful sense of connection when they visit, or just see, the Lincoln Memorial, the Alamo, or the Iwo Jima memorial. But no monument carries more symbolic meaning than the Statue of Liberty. Yet she, too, had to accumulate meaning over many years.
When she was unveiled in 1886, “Liberty Enlightening The World” was a remarkable feat of engineering, and a powerful testament to the historic ties between France and the United States. But her future was uncertain. She survived by working as a tourist attraction and, more importantly, a light house.
She started to seriously represent the spirit of freedom as she became the first thing that the flood of post-1886 immigrants saw in the new world: America’s great, silent sentinel, rising up in the western waters.
For many GIs in the world wars, she was the last, memorable glimpse of the states. She became a powerful, almost haunting image of home and all it stood for. Seeing her again would be their assurance that they’d made it home.
Blake Ehrlich visited Miss Liberty for an article he wrote in 1948. There, he struck up a conversation with another tourist — a young Japanese-American veteran.
“First visit to the statue?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I was here yesterday too. I’ve only got three days. Got to get back tomorrow.”
He was from Milwaukee, a student at Marquette. His outfit had been shipped to the New York zone for overseas embarkation.
“I thought that would be my chance to see the Statue of Liberty. We didn’t get out of camp into New York before we sailed, though, and when we shipped out, it was from down the bay somewhere, or maybe Brooklyn. Anyhow, there was a blackout and it was night, and we were kept below decks. Just didn’t have a chance.
“Well, when we got orders to come home from the ETO (European Theater of Operations), I thought sure this time I’d see the Statue of Liberty. I was really excited; it would have meant more this time. Because, you know, whether you’ve seen the statue or not, overseas you never forget about her. But the Army landed us at Norfolk. Then separation center and home and school. But I finally made it. I’ve had a good long look.”
I told him his story might be good for this article, and I asked his name.
“It’s Joe,” he said, and grinned. “Just put me down as Joe.”
During this visit, Ehrlich was dismayed at the condition of the island and the statue. It had been named a National Monument in 1924, but had been poorly maintained. The island was overgrown and cluttered with refuse from previous military use.
A visit to the statue may disappoint you today. Of the two acres not forbidden to the public, almost all the area is occupied by the base of the statue. What it doesn’t stand on, you can. The cluttered remainder of the island will continue to spoil the scene until $1,000,000 can be found to finish the plan.
There’s no indication that this particular $1,000,000, or any part of it, will be forthcoming from an economy-pledged Congress, which slashed the National Park budget by three fifths this year. If this were a commercial enterprise, improvement could be financed with profits, for earnings derived from concession licenses and elevator fares generally exceed its $65,000 share of the Park Service fund. But the Government maintains it isn’t in the business of making profits, and all collected moneys go to the Treasury’s General Fund, instead of reverting to the Park Service.
The service has scheduled the improvements in $5000 units, but since the cost of one unit is almost enough to pay unemployment benefits to five veterans for a year, the Government has remained unmoved by the embarrassed pleas of the statue’s superintendent.
The statue continued to get by with basic maintenance, but she was showing her age. Then, in 1983, a $62 million campaign was launched to give the her a major renovation. Over the next three years, workers cleaned the statue’s copper skin, replaced the torch flame, and removed the original metal ribs, replacing them with Teflon-coated pieces of stainless steel.
What is true for the Statue of Liberty is true for the Principle of Liberty. It is only after years of neglect, and the prospect of disaster, that Americans take action and preserve what they can never replace.
Has there ever been a love-hate relationship like that between America and France?
We were blood brothers during the Revolutionary War, when they gave us the arms, money, training, and ships we needed to win our independence. But within 20 years, we were considering declaring war on them. Then, in 1812, they were our ally again. Then they were trying to establish an empire in Mexico, and we were trying to steal their global markets.
The world wars came, along with the American complaint “We liberated France and they’re not grateful enough.” (In fact, we only waged war when we felt Germany threatened us. America might never have raised a single rifle if the goal was simply to liberate France.)
The acrimony continues today. France, it seems, is an easy country for some Americans to dislike. It’s stubbornly foreign. Its people refuse to speak English. Its government won’t join in our wars. They’re arrogant. And they don’t like us, for some reason.
This weekend, if you think about “Liberty Enlightening The World,” remember that its concept, design, and creation all came from France. The statue was the tribute of the people of France, who wanted to proclaim their solidarity with the American republic and their admiration for the bloody cost we paid to end slavery.
France and America will always have differences. The Statue of Liberty, though, will endure.