The northwest corner of the National Mall could be considered the “War and Peace Corner” of our nation’s capital. It is home to this country’s most famous veterans memorials, which draw tens of millions of visitors each year. It is also home to the headquarters of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and to other symbols and sites with peace themes, which, while generally less prominent, offer an important and complementary narrative.
The following Peace Trail on the National Mall is the result of a collaboration between USIP and colleagues at the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. and at the National Park Service. Anchored at USIP and tracing a path to a dozen other key sites in the vicinity, it brings a “peace lens” to the experience of visiting the National Mall. It may be used as a self-guided walking tour or a reference guide, elevating stories of key figures, institutions, and moments in history that demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to peace.
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is a national, nonpartisan, independent institute that works internationally to resolve conflicts and build peace. Founded by Congress in 1984 and signed into law by President Reagan, USIP’s charter established it as “a living institution embodying the heritage, ideals, and concerns of the American people for peace.” USIP pursues its mission by engaging directly in conflict zones and by providing analysis, education, and resources to those working for peace. From efforts to promote reconciliation in Iraq, to support for the peace process in Colombia, to developing ways to counter violent extremism in fragile states, USIP is advancing U.S. and global security, and making peace possible. Its striking headquarters is the hub for its work globally, and serves as a monument to America’s commitment to peace. The image of a dove, a traditional symbol of peace, is suggested by the design of the roof and is part of USIP’s seal, which is etched into the plaza in front of the building. At the top of USIP’s flagpole is another dove—a replica of the weathervane created as a symbol of peace at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, after the War of Independence.
The Department of State is the oldest and most senior cabinet agency, playing the lead role in U.S. foreign affairs and promoting peace, security, and prosperity through its diplomatic relations with foreign governments and their people. Since its creation in 1789, State Department diplomats have carried out the president’s foreign policy and helped to build a more free, prosperous, and secure world. In all regions of the globe, the State Department uses diplomacy to keep local conflicts from becoming wider wars, to defeat terrorists and their organizations, to ensure weapons of mass destruction cannot threaten peace, and to build bonds of mutual understanding. The Department of State holds the Great Seal of the United States, which is featured on the doors and exterior signage of the building. The olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war, and the eagle faces toward the symbol of peace. Under construction on the 21st Street side of the building, the National Museum of American Diplomacy will be an expanded visitors center dedicated to explaining to the public how American diplomats and American diplomatic activities promote the core ideals of peace, prosperity, democracy, and development to benefit American citizens and peoples around the world.
Albert Einstein’s primary fame is as a ground-breaking physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and discovered the theory of relativity (E=mc ² ). Less well-known are his efforts throughout his lifetime to promote a global community committed to peace. Einstein chose to become an American citizen in 1940 after renouncing his German citizenship in 1933. The quote from him on his memorial illustrates his strong affinity for this country’s core values: “As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.” Particularly in his later years, Einstein worked actively on behalf of world peace. It is said that the last thing he did before he died was to sign the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” along with philosopher Bertrand Russell and other notable international figures, seeking to highlight the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and calling on governments of the world “to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”
The Lincoln Memorial honors the 16th president as a unifier who preserved the nation through the Civil War era, and an emancipator who played a key role in ending the institution of slavery. The memorial was designed to resemble the Parthenon in Athens, featuring ancient symbols of unity and strength. About halfway up the main staircase, a flagstone plaque marks the spot where, during the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. urged Americans to “make real the promises of democracy” in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Inside, two murals by Jules Guerin bring to life core principles of Lincoln’s presidency: On the south wall, “Emancipation,” above the Gettysburg Address, represents Freedom and Liberty, showing the Angel of Truth releasing enslaved people from bondage; on the north wall, “Unity,” above the Second Inaugural Address, features the Angel of Truth joining the hands of two figures representing the north and south. That address notes, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” And it concludes with Lincoln’s famous call for national reconciliation at home and abroad: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
On the west side of the Lincoln Memorial, clearly visible from that site and its vicinity, and at entrances to Memorial Bridge and Rock Creek Parkway, statues represent The Arts of War and The Arts of Peace. These gilded bronze equestrians each have two separate elements: The Arts of War, sculpted by American Leo Friedlander, depicts themes of “Valor” and “Sacrifice;” the Arts of Peace, sculpted by American James Earle Fraser, consists of “Music and Harvest” and “Aspiration and Literature.” The casting and gilding were a gift from Italy in the post-World War II era, and President Harry Truman remarked at the dedication in 1951, “Ever since the war, our two countries have been working together to preserve world peace.” The bridge itself, beyond the Arts of War, is a physical union of the north and the south of this country, a symbol of reconciliation, and a reminder of the commitment to peace and unity here at home.
The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the result of a national competition in 1980 which called for a vision reflective in character, which would harmonize with its surroundings, include the names of all who died or remain missing, and make no political statement about the war. The winning entry came from a young architecture student named Maya Lin at Yale University, who later said that this apolitical approach “became the essential aim” of her design: “I felt that the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives. I wanted to create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war.” The wall itself has inscribed in black granite and in chronological order the names of more than 58,000 men and women.
The two walls were positioned with one pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other pointing to the Washington Monument, and Lin noted: “By linking these two strong symbols for the country, I wanted to create a unity between the nation’s past and present.” In an address at this site on Veteran’s Day in 1988, President Ronald Reagan said: “Unlike the other wars of this century…there were deep divisions about the wisdom and rightness of the Vietnam War. Both sides spoke with honesty and fervor. And what more can we ask in our democracy?” Noting the memorial as a monument to “living love,” Reagan added, “it also reminds us of a great and profound truth about our nation: that from all our divisions, we have always eventually emerged strengthened.”
The Korean War was a combined United Nations military effort, in which American men and women joined in action alongside 21 other countries—listed along the granite curb on the north side of the memorial—who sent troops or gave medical support to defend South Korea’s independence and affirm the international commitment to peace in the post-World War II era. The main inscription notes: “Our Nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Engraved above the pool of remembrance are the words “Freedom is not free,” encouraging visitors to reflect upon the sacrifices of that war. At the dedication ceremony in 1995, President Bill Clinton noted: “In 1950, our Nation was weary of war, but 1.5 million Americans left their family and friends and their homes to help to defend freedom for a determined ally halfway around the world…they joined the first mission of the United Nations to preserve peace.”
Dedicated in 2004, the WWII Memorial was created to honor the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people – not just the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S. during that campaign, or the more than 400,000 troops who didn’t return—commemorated here by a field of gold stars—but all those who supported the war effort from home, and the American commitment to the broader causes of peace and freedom from tyranny throughout the world. At the ceremonial entrance, the Great Seal of the United States greets visitors, showing the eagle facing the olive branch as a symbol of peace, and the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” (Out of Many, One) emphasizing the theme of unity. Inside the memorial, 56 granite pillars celebrate the unity of the nation at that time—representing the 48 states, seven federal territories and the District of Columbia—with the pillars connected by a bronze sculpted rope intended to symbolize this bond. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. played a key role in establishing the United Nations “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and in the creation of the Marshall Plan “to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”
The last major memorial that Congress approved for the park’s monumental core honors a man who was devoted to peace and nonviolent action. The iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew inspiration throughout his life from both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1957, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered his first national address calling for legal equality for African-Americans, and returned there in 1963 to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee chair, “the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence.” The design of the memorial features King emerging from the Stone of Hope, which stands forward of the Mountain of Despair, a massive gateway representing the struggle faced in the quest for justice and peace. Some visitors have observed that the monument itself has an “unfinished” appearance, which some feel may symbolize the country’s unfinished work in the area of racial equality. Etched on the North Wall, a quote from King during a 1967 conference in California affirms: “It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.” On the South Wall, in a quote from a Christmas sermon delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1967, King declares “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
The FDR Memorial is dedicated “in commemoration of his leadership in America’s struggle for peace, well-being, and human dignity.” Reflecting on Roosevelt’s four terms in office, the memorial itself is framed as a series of “rooms:” Room one introduces the first years of his presidency; Room two features powerful sculptures representing the Great Depression; Room three reflects the violence of World War II, including strong statements by Roosevelt about the costs of war—“I have seen cities destroyed…I have seen children starving…”—and his own aversion to it: “I hate war.” Just beyond, in a small quiet area depicting his funeral, appears a quote from April 1945: “More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars.” The next and final room is titled “Seeds of Peace,” and designer Lawrence Halprin wrote later: “The fourth room is dedicated to peace and an optimistic view of the future.” Reflecting upon Roosevelt’s legacy, it also features a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, the first delegate to the United Nations, and a champion of human rights. Here, one final expression by FDR of his views on peace comes from the period just weeks before his death: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation…it must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo, Japan, to the city of Washington, D.C. The gift brought to America a centuries-long tradition of celebrating the beauty of these blossoms, and sought to honor the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan, which is itself celebrated during the festival each year. After World War II, Japan made two further gifts: an ancient Japanese lantern, made in the 17th century and delivered and dedicated to the U.S. in 1954 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first treaty between the two countries; and a stone pagoda, which was dedicated in 1958 on the 100th anniversary of the 1858 Harris Treaty on trade and diplomacy between the two nations. The Japanese lantern is lit each year as part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president, is considered one of America’s Founding Fathers—a diplomat, a political philosopher, and the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, which insists on universal equal rights, including to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” At the center of the memorial, the towering bronze statue of Jefferson is encircled by the quote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson served as the first Secretary of State under President George Washington, making important contributions to America’s international relations in the form of agreements with Prussia and France. When he took office as president in 1801, it represented the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in the nation’s young history. In his first inaugural address, he asserted that the “essential principles of our Government” included “equal and exact justice to all men…peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations…” During Jefferson’s time in office, he sought not to become embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, though ultimately this effort was unsuccessful. Throughout his life, Jefferson’s private correspondence included many references to his passion for peace, consistent with his commitment to ideas of the Enlightenment.
Commemorating the man who would become America’s first president, George Washington, the Washington Monument is the centerpiece of the nation’s capital, designed to be the tallest building in the world (at that time) to represent Washington’s visionary ideals and his immense contributions to this nation. Having served as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, Washington in 1785 expressed his “first wish” to “see the whole world in peace and the inhabitants of it as one band of brothers, striving who should contribute most to the happiness of mankind.” (This quote appears inside the monument at the 490-foot level). In a letter to an aide that same year, Washington emphasized, “My first wish is to see this plague to mankind, war, banished from the earth.” Upon returning to Mount Vernon after nine long years of war, Washington designed and ordered a weathervane with a dove of peace to crown the cupola and serve as a symbol of peace at his home. (This weathervane is replicated on top of the flagpole at the U.S. Institute of Peace today). Upon his death in 1799, Washington was eulogized by Congressman Henry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”