FDR’s Legacy Comes Alive at New Orleans’ New Solomon Victory Theater
From Nov. 6 - 9, New Orleans was abuzz with excitement and pride during the Grand Opening of a new attraction at the National World War II Museum. The Solomon Victory Theater, which forms a centerpiece for the museum, was launched with a grand celebration complete with 40s-themed entertainment, celebrities, congressional leaders, WWII veterans and active units. New Deal 2.0 was there to catch up with Tom Hanks, executive producer of of the Theater’s multi-sensory ‘4-D’ show Beyond all Boundaries and Governor Pete Wilson, Co-Chair of the Grand Opening Committee. Tom Brokaw (author of The Greatest Generation) acted as master of ceremonies.
The World War II museum itself is a tribute to the will and individual sacrifice of Americans who participated in a global war that spanned six of the seven continents and cost 65,000,000 lives. That the country’s national WWII repository would be located in New Orleans is a tribute to the city’s crucial participation in the war effort — it gave birth to the amphibious landing craft that ferried soldiers, jeeps and tanks from the sea to the shores of France, North Africa and South Pacific islands. General Eisenhower gave the Higgins boat, as the craft was named, credit for winning the war.
The museum, opened in 2000 as the D-Day Museum, but later expanded, is invested in the idea that the lessons of World War II are still relevant. As Tom Hanks put it, “The National World War II Museum is just as much a repository of history as it is a reflection of today. America, and the world, in 2009 is startlingly similar to 1939: twisted theologies, extremist politics and institutionalized racism were all a part of the global machinery then. They still are today.”
Beyond all Boundaries, the most complex museum show ever made, is an impressionistic collage of WWII, an extraordinary theater experience featuring realistic wind, snow, smoke, searchlights fanning across the audience and vibrating seats. Drawn largely from the first-hand accounts of those who participated in the war–soldiers, sailors, and war correspondents–the show is more than an exercise in nostalgia and is careful not glorify war. Rather, it celebrates the courage and sacrifice of Americans. As Senator George McGovern said in a press conference on Friday, “When you see this film, and the horrors of war, you’ll walk out wanting to work harder for peace. You’ll never again be able to glorify what these young men and women went through.”
Beyond all Boundaries begins with footage of FDR announcing to America that it must be the “arsenal of Democracy itself” — a sharp turn from the isolationist policies of Hoover. Clips of the president are spread throughout the narrative, including one in which he encourages Americans to pull out their maps so that they can follow the battle lines and reports from the news services.
In watching the show, I was struck by the sense of connection between Americans and their government during the war, as well as the strong sense of common purpose. I asked Governor Wilson if these were things that had been lost to us. “WWII was unlike any other global struggle between good and evil,” said Wilson. “The allied forces inflicted unspeakable evil on the world. Pearl Harbor touched a nerve — there were lines around the block at recruitment centers, and FDR expressed the outrage of the people. Something similar happened after 9/11, but it seems to have faded. The American military is at war, and America is at the mall. Americans are totally detached from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Later, the Governor expressed to me his desire to see bi-partisan efforts on foreign policy. “Partisanship,” he noted, “should end at the water’s edge.”
Many people attending the opening events expressed their personal connection to WWII, including Tom Hanks: “Everyone who cared for me had experience with the war — my parents, their friends–the war marked the narratives of their lives. ‘That was before the war,’ they would say, or, ‘that was after the war changed things.’ The prism of time has altered perspective…but the great aspects of being American can be examined by telling aspects of this story.” Tom Brokaw acknowledged his own ties to that period in history: “I believe that the greatest generation was formed by the Great Depression. I was a close witness, because I had been raised by two members of that generation. My mother’s farm had been effectively been blown away in South Dakota.”
The legacy of FDR, the president who led America out of the Great Depression and sent troops to fight after Pearl Harbor, also comes alive at the newly-renovated Roosevelt Hotel. The Baronne Street hotel, which operated as the Fairmont Hotel before Hurricane Katrina, was closed until it was renovated and reopened this summer. Hilton decided to reopen the property as a 504-room, 135-suite luxury hotel under the Roosevelt name, which the hotel carried from 1923 to 1965. Photographs of FDR’s two visits to New Orleans are on display in the hotel’s presidential suite. On one of those trips, made in 1936 while he was campaigning, the president visited Charity Hospital, which became on of the country’s most famous health care institutions after the federal government granted the hosptial 3.6 million three years after Roosevelt’s visit. It is likely that FDR stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel when he came to New Orleans (the hotel was named for Teddy). although this is not known for sure. What is known is that the president had a contentious relationship with Huey Long, the Lousianna governor and senator know as “The Kingfish.”