Guarding the White House

What is the significance of two monuments in Washington's Lafayette Square?

April 20, 2003

What is the significance of two monuments in Washington's Lafayette Square?

When it comes to protesting, Lafayette Square in downtown Washington is probably the closest equivalent the United States has to London's Trafalgar Square.

It is often used by Americans to protest the policies of their government, since it is conveniently located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. capital's most famous building — the White House.

Protests held there are not the huge rallies that are usually reserved for the open spaces of the Washington Mall on the other side of the White House.

On the contrary, they are typically homespun expressions of dissent by small groups or individuals. As such, it may be the ultimate symbol of grass-roots American democracy.

Few protesters give much thought to the name of the place, which of course honors Marquis de LaFayette, the foreign-born hero of the American Revolutionary War.

Nor do they pay a lot of attention to two other monuments on the northern edge of the park, on the square's far side away from the White House.

They were erected in the 19th century to honor two other generals from the Revolutionary War era, who also served the United States with great distinction. Moreover, in potent symbolism, the two statues face north.

In other words, these generals are keeping watch in the direction from which — well after their deaths — British troops advanced into Washington in 1814. That was also the only time the Washington was occupied — and the U.S. Capitol was burned to the ground.

The two generals can thus be said to be guarding the White House — and Lafayette Square — from potential foreign invaders — whoever they might be.

The only problem is that these two military men were not only both foreign-born — but they also came from noble families. They are Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Pole, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, a German.

Kosciusko, whose name most Americans understandably find very hard to pronounce correctly, has in fact become a regular feature of traffic reports in big cities in the Northeast and Midwestern United States.

That's because the general returned to Poland to fight Russian oppression. He fought the Russians at Zielence and Dubienka in 1792 and was even elected dictator for a brief period. Ever since, Thaddeus Kosciusko has been revered by the Poles as a hero.

As a result, U.S. municipal authorities in cities with large Polish immigrant communities found it irresistible to name local highways and bridges after him — despite his difficult name.

Baron von Steuben may be less familiar to American motorists, but his contribution to the U.S. military has been extremely important. Upon arriving to George Washington's camp at Valley Forge in 1777, he promptly established a formidable training system for U.S. fighting men

The Pentagon has been proud to uphold his stern training regiment ever since. Besides, hailing from the Prussian military tradition, he did much to install discipline in the ragtag Continental Army.

Ironically, the two men — a Pole and a German — also span the European divide delineated by the current Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld as "New" and "Old Europe."

Germany, part of Old Europe, was bitterly opposed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Poland, along with other ex-Communist nations of Eastern Europe, has been a determined member of Mr. Rumsfeld's New Europe. In fact, it covertly provided a unit of its special forces to do some fighting in Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld's efforts to set one part of Europe against another are nothing new. But whatever his new, post-Cold War division of Europe implies, both Germany and Poland are now members of NATO.

Isn't it a rather potent symbol that — in these times of a presumably grave transatlantic crisis — these representatives of those nations now stand guard over the White House?

Given the unfortunate history between Poland and Germany, that kind of unity — made right in Washington, D.C. — is indeed an encouraging sign to overcome the current strife.