Who would ever think that those beautiful Japanese cherry trees would be the source of so much contention? Japanese Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, D. C. in 1912 , honoring the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan. Apparently that friendship was to be sorely tested shortly after Pearl Harbor when the military had to guard the trees. Americans were so angry over the bombing of Pearl Harbor that they attempted to hack them down and to set them afire.
The trees were in peril before Pearl Harbor, however. It all started over the desire to honor Thomas Jefferson, author or the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. The Washington Post quoted the president:
This whole problem with the cherry blossoms was nothing but a “flimflam” cooked up by the newspapers to boost advertising, the president told the White House reporters.
“Six hundred trees” doomed, he mocked, reading from some headlines. “Public aroused,” he quoted, “Ten Million-Dollar Project.” It was baloney. As for those women chained to the trees down by the Tidal Basin . .
That president was not President Obama, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who scoffed at the whole affair. Why were women chained to cherry trees in FDR’s time?
Then came Rep. John J. Boylan, a former postal clerk from Manhattan, a veteran Tammany Hall politician and opponent of prohibition whose dream was to erect a memorial to Thomas Jefferson in Washington.
After years of Boylan’s pleas, a Jefferson Memorial Commission was formed in 1936, headed by Boylan, and planning got underway.
But when the Tidal Basin, one of several proposed sites, was selected and a grandiose, mid-basin design by John Russell Pope was suggested, critics deduced that the cherry trees were doomed.
The project would claim all of the 700 Tidal Basin trees, opponents argued. Or half of them. Or at least several hundred. It was nothing short of “vandalism” — the memorial “a mausoleum,” a “pile of marble.”
Thomas Luebke, today’s secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, said that in early versions of the memorial, the design “basically reconfigured the entire Tidal Basin.”
“I believe that it would have required more or less wholesale relocation,” he said.
Roosevelt joined fellow Democrat Boylan on the side of the memorial, budgeting $500,000 for the start of the estimated $3 million project.
Businesses, restaurants, women’s clubs, and civic groups all opposed Boylan’s Folly, as the proposed Jefferson Memorial came to be known. By 1938, Boylan and Pope were both dead. The anger then became directed at FDR who was pictured in one political cartoon dressed as George Washington standing next to a chopped down cherry tree. Compromise was finally reached and far less land was taken. That did little to calm down Wasingtonians. Women were militant. They marched on the White House, petitions in hand. Some took shovels from workers and replaced the dirt around the beloved trees. Women chained themselves to the trees to protect them.
In all, 88 trees bit the dust. Many more were planted to replace those that were removed. The trees continue to be beautiful every spring. The Jefferson Memorial stand proudly in the Tidal Basin amongst the cherry blossom. Only a few gave their all for TJ.
One has to wonder why the trees weren’t dug up and transplanted. It’s good to learn that the ladies of Washington weren’t quite so proper, as they would have us believe. Good for the dowagers! Apparently mainstream media was a problem back then also.
Peak Time for the Cherry Blossoms: April 1-4