MORE than any other United States government museums in our nation's capital, the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 26 leaves us to ponder its purposes and goals.
On April 25, 1978, and acting on an idea from White House staffer Mark Siegal, I sent President Carter a memorandum to initiate this memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. I was concerned the Holocaust and its meaning would be forgotten or so revised in history as to even deny its occurrence.
At the urging of Ellen Goldstein of my domestic policy staff, the president enthusiastically agreed and announced the initiative in the presence of then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on May 1, at a ceremony honoring Israel's 30th anniversary.
A presidential commission recommended the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Museum and Memorial Council on Sept. 27, 1979. Every president since then has supported the idea.
But almost from the outset the project was mired in controversy because of the depth of emotion the Holocaust evokes, a controversy that has not abated. Some did not want a Holocaust Memorial in Washington alongside "traditional" American monuments.
There were arguments about the composition of the presidential commission: Some felt only Holocaust survivors should be included; others felt only American Jews should be. Mr. Carter wanted a diverse membership; but soon everyone wanted a piece of the remembrance. Lithuanian partisan groups wanted a seat on the commission, for example, despite the atrocities committed by many Lithuanians against the Jews during the war. The Armenian community wanted to be included, partly to lobby for inclusion of the Tu rkish massacre of Armenians in World War I. This was viewed negatively by the government of Turkey.
The very definition of the Holocaust was controversial. Some wanted it to be an exclusively Jewish event, while others wanted to universalize the tragedy to include all innocent victims and not specially emphasize Jews. This is how the Soviet Union dealt with the slaughter at Babi Yar; Jews were not mentioned at all, though almost everyone killed there was Jewish.
The very essence of the Holocaust - what made it historically unique - was the systematic, state-sponsored effort to exterminate the Jewish people. Yet certainly millions of others were also engulfed in the Nazi death camps, from Catholics and socialists to Gypsies and homosexuals.
Eventually a compromise was reached, though it satisfied no one. In the Memorial Council that replaced the commission, the Holocaust was defined as the "systematic and state-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and five million other people by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II."
The council has been heavily politicized in recent years, with nonpartisan scholars and religious leaders replacing the party faithful. In the last few days of the Bush presidency, additional "midnight" appointments were made (though management of the enterprise was professional). The German government has been concerned about the museum's impact on the attitude of schoolchildren toward modern, democratic Germany. There were disputes over whether the president of Israel should be permitted to participate
in the official opening - and on the future leadership of the council.
For all the struggles and disagreements, the magnificent museum that opened April 26 belies its critics, and justifies the faith of those who worked on the project for a decade and a half.
Certainly questions remain. Is the museum in fact an appropriate American museum? Has it been worth the effort, the controversy, and the large amount of private funds raised that might have gone elsewhere?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.
Why? Because in my view the basic starting point is this:
The Holocaust Museum is an American museum about a distinctively Jewish event with a universal message.
The museum deserves to be on the Mall in Washington - part of the Smithsonian complex of great American museums. The connection with the US is clear. It was the US that led the allied effort to defeat the Nazi war machine and that liberated the death camps of Europe. At the same time, the sad history of the time shows that US immigration limits against refugees during the war and strategic decisions by the Roosevelt administration during the war permitted the Nazi slaughter to continue unabated.
No country in the world has America's particular concern for human rights and has so embodied it in its policies at home and abroad.
The museum is testimony to what can happen when the awful deprivation of human rights runs its course in world history.
The museum will state to skeptics for all time that the Holocaust did occur. It will speak of the enormous dimensions of the crime. And it will particularly concentrate on the attempted extermination of Jews as a people, root and branch. At the same time, the museum also emphasizes how other innocent civilians were swept up in the Nazi horrors.
As much as this museum is a tribute to victims of the Holocaust, its most lasting contribution will be the lessons it has for America and for all mankind. The museum vividly underscores how all of us are bound up together. It tells us that when a nation tries to exterminate an entire people this crime directly affects all of us. The museum implicitly argues that men and women cannot isolate themselves from the deprivation of others.
The Holocaust Museum underscores the universal messages of brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, of shared human values, of respect for religious, racial, and ethnic differences, of settling disputes peacefully, of the need for nations to act when mass slaughter is threatened.
It will be difficult for anyone to leave the Holocaust Museum without trying to come to terms with the enormity of what happened during World War II. It will also offer greater conviction to see that mass slaughter now and in the future is prevented, including in Bosnia.