The Man Who Worked to Complete Washington’s World War II Memorial Dies at 96

F. Haydn Williams died on April 22nd at his home in San Francisco at the age of 96. He formerly served as a Defense Department official and as president of the Asia Foundation and led the efforts to build the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC. According to his great-niece Katie Evans, Williams died from heart disease.

Dr. Williams led a long career in international development and diplomacy. He had academic roles and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. From 1964–1989 he was the president of the Asia Foundation, an organization based out of San Francisco that provides international development support to countries in Asia.

As a World War II veteran, Williams was appointed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton to the American Battle Monuments Commission. Serving as the chairman of the National World War II Memorial committee was not easy. It was oftentimes complicated and controversial to procure a site and get approval for a memorial’s design. Williams told the Chicago Tribune in 1998, “The Washington Monument took 52 years to build. The Lincoln Memorial took 21, the Jefferson Memorial took nine, and the FDR Memorial took 42. We’re likely to surpass them all.”

This particular project was not approved by Congress until 1993 (five decades after the war ended) and took on a serious urgency. It is sad that veterans by the thousands have died and never got to see the memorial completed. There was a lot of debate about the site of the memorial and its design. Williams wanted it to be a “prominent part of the monumental core of Washington, befitting the war’s role as the defining event of the 20th century.”

Williams was the man solely responsible for picking the location of the memorial, and he did not take the decision lightly. He chose a 5.5-acre site on 17th Street NW, between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, nearby the so-called Rainbow Pool, an oblong fountain at the eastern part of the Reflecting Pool.

The area near the Rainbow Pool historically has been utilized as a staging area for the Mall’s July 4th fireworks. It has also served as a landing site for helicopters designated for bringing dignitaries to the White House and Capitol building.

The opponents to this decision were critical of the secrecy related to the process. They felt the site was selected with inadequate public notice. Dr. Williams was quoted as saying, “The site was approved before they [the public] knew what hit them.”

The criticism continued when the memorial design by architect Friedrich St. Florian was released. The Chicago Tribune reported that architectural critics, public officials, and veterans demonstrated their distaste for the huge structural design when they compared it to the “giant classical monuments for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler by his architect, Albert Speer.” As a result, the St. Florian’s design was downsized. The World War II Memorial finally opened to the public in April 2004.

Franklin Haydn Williams was born in Spokane, Washington, on August 21, 1919. At the age of nine, he relocated to Oakland, California, with his family. Both of his parents were originally from Wales, and his father worked as a Presbyterian minister. Williams served as a Navy officer during World War II, and he participated in air evacuations of U.S. prisoners of war being held by the Japanese enemy.

In 1946, he graduated from the University of California at Berkley before getting his master’s and doctoral degrees in 1947 and 1958 from the Fletcher School, a graduate program of international studies at Tufts University, located in Medford, Massachusetts.

Dr. Williams went on to hold teaching and administrative positions at the Fletcher School. The next step in his career led him to become deputy assistant secretary of defense for national and international security from 1958–1962. As the leader of the Asia Foundation, he was also a presidential representative with ambassadorial rank.

He led negotiations to determine the future of the Pacific Island territories that together are known as Micronesia. These negotiations facilitated an end to the U.S.’s trusteeship over Pacific Island territories that had been in place since World War II. As a result, some of the islands became independent countries, while others kept a formal relationship with the U.S.

Williams’s 25 years of leadership and service to the Asia Foundation was the longest tenure of any previous president. During his time, the Asia Foundation expanded programs in China and other parts of the region. Dr. Williams was affiliated with the foundation until he passed away. Margaret French was his wife for 43 years and passed away in 2005. He is survived by a sister and a stepson named Thomas Gregory from Novato, California.

In addition to the great aid Williams lent to the construction of the World War II memorial in Washington, he also played a pivotal role in forming the Saipan American Memorial and a memorial park located on the island of Saipan in honor of the U.S. service members who were killed in battle there during World War II.

Williams’s efforts to ensure the completion of the World War II Memorial on the Mall took a decade. In 1998, he said, “I have learned a lot about memorials in Washington. They all have been controversial, and they all have taken a long time to build.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE