When Jimmy Carter first announced the formation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust in 1978, a fifteen year process of brainstorming, negotiation and compromise began. First consisting of fifteen members, the President's commission was charged with making recommendations for a suitable memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. These recommendations were to be implemented by the United States Memorial Council, to be appointed later. In April 1978, Carter announced the original fifteen members. By September of that year, it had ballooned to twenty-one, with a twenty-four member advisory board. The next month, the total stretched to twenty-four members of the commission. Almost a year later, the commission was finally sworn in, and the controversy it would face (and generate) was only beginning. Disagreements over the nature of the Holocaust, the proper memorial to its victims, and, especially, the geographical and ethnic make-up of the commission (and eventually the council) would hinder the project's progress for the next fifteen years.
The first meeting of the President's Commission on the Holocaust was held on February 15, 1979. Its report, written by Michael Berenbaum, was released on September 27 of that year. The commission issued four recommendations, including the creation of a "living memorial" with spiritual and educational components, the national recognition of Days of Remembrance to remember the victims of the Holocaust, ratification of the Genocide Treaty pending before the Senate, and U.S. pressure on foreign countries to prosecute Nazi war criminals and to care for Jewish cemeteries. The next battle would occur over the appointment of the United States Memorial Council, tasked with implementing these recommendations.
The appointment of the Council would bring to the forefront a struggle that would distract the planners of the memorial for the next decade. The White House wanted a group of people who were geographically and ethnically diverse, bringing up the question of who were the true victims of the Holocaust. Were the six million Jews killed by the Nazis the only group being memorialized? What about the other five million people (Gypsies, homosexuals, Ukrainians and others)? Elie Wiesel, the first chairman of both the commission and the council, wanted the memorial to, first and foremost, remember the Jews. Because the Jews were killed due to who they were, rather than what they did, many people considered them pre-eminent victims. Many groups felt that they should be represented as well, though, and the politics of representation on the Memorial Council were intense. The White House was the focus of lobbying from all sides, ranging from foreign governments concerned about the depiction of their citizenry to survivors who were resentful of any attempt to dilute the magnitude of suffering by the Jewish people.
Over a year after the President's Commission on the Holocaust issued its report, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was finally appointed. There were fifty members plus ten members of Congress on the Council, representing a diversity of region and ethnicity. Within months, a subcommittee on site selection was delegated, and this subcommittee chose Washington, D.C. as the ideal site for the memorial. The Auditor's Complex, next door to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and adjacent to the Mall, was ceded to the Council by the U.S. government. In August of 1983, George Bush presented chairman Elie Wiesel with the keys to the buildings. Its site sparked another controversy: African Americans and Native Americans felt that their interests were being slighted, and that museums memorializing their struggles should precede that of the Holocaust Museum. This was the politics of representation on a larger scale-- that of the Nation's Mall rather than the Memorial Council.
A model of the memorial building and its neighbors on the Mall.
After briefly considering plans to adapt the existing buildings on the site, the Council received permission to raze the Auditor's complex in December, 1984. Several architects were successively commissioned to produce a plan for the nascent Holocaust memorial. The council had a difficult time deciding the optimal scope and nature of the space. The first architects contacted were the firm of Notter, Finegold and Alexander. They presented a plan to the council in December 1984 that was smooth and curvilinear, with a facade of red and gray stone. It was reminiscent of Washington architecture, but featured a fractured oval shape to symbolize the fullness of life interrupted by the Holocaust. Another design, prepared by a staff architect at the Tower Construction Company named Karl Kaufmann, had a Hall of Remembrance suspended over the entrance. After the council expressed a preference for Kaufmann's plan, original architect Finegold reluctantly agreed to work with Kaufmann's design. The U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which has vetting authority for all official architecture, found the design pompous, strident, and inappropriate. Maurice Finegold eventually termed the Kaufmann plan as "neo-classicism worthy of Albert Speer," the architect of the Third Reich (Linenthal 83). In 1986, the council approached I.M. Pei, who was too busy with the Louvre annex to take on the project, and finally retained the services of Pei's partner, James Ingo Freed. The eight years of negotiation and preliminary planning were over, and, with the retention of Freed, the work of planning the physical building would begin. The nature of the permanent exhibit was still up in the air.