Opinion | The Wrongs We Cannot Erase

The Manhattan borough president, Mark Levine, recently demanded that the names of Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, notorious for leading the French collaborationist government in World War II, be removed from the stretch of Lower Broadway where they were recognized with ticker-tape parades over 90 years ago.

“It’s shocking that these two individuals would be honored this way, long after their notorious and disgraceful acts as Nazi collaborators,” Mr. Levine declared in January. “I reject the idea that this is any kind of gray area. This is a bright line. These guys are on the wrong side of it, and their names need to be removed.”

But this is not just a matter of sticking another Confederate statue up in the attic. Removing any names from the parade route would not be righting a wrong but whitewashing our past — and turning a valuable source of public information into one of disinformation.

Ticker-tape parades are an honor that we bestow as a people, and to edit the record of them is to blot out our own mistakes and failings. It would be to embrace a false history, and pretend that we have always honored only the truly deserving. It would be to erase the lesson of how easily today’s heroes can become tomorrow’s villains.

Pétain was the head of Vichy France, the puppet state the Nazis set up after the fall of France in June 1940. Laval, as Vichy prime minister, had an even more odious record. With his active assistance, tens of thousands of Jews in France were shipped off to Nazi labor and death camps. They included those younger than 16, whom not even the Nazis themselves had demanded that he turn over. After the war, Pétain was sentenced to life in prison by his countrymen. Laval was executed.

If New York had erected statues or monuments to these monsters, I would agree that they should be removed. Instead — as with every other record of the 208 ticker-tape parades held along Lower Broadway — their names, installed in 2004, are inscribed in silver lettering on thin, dark bands the width of the sidewalk. The inscriptions in question read: “Oct. 22, 1931, Pierre Laval, premier of France” and “Oct. 26, 1931, Henri-Philippe Pétain, marshal of France.”

This stretch of Broadway has in recent years gained the nickname “the Canyon of Heroes,” which makes the inclusion of Pétain and Laval feel wrong to many people, and that is understandable. But the actual tributes to Pétain and Laval were the parades, which we cannot take back. The names along the sidewalk don’t inherently celebrate anyone. Instead, they only hold us to account about whom we once considered heroes.

The first ever ticker-tape parade was held in 1886, to celebrate the dedication of the Statue of Liberty; the most recent was in 2021, for the health care professionals and essential workers who got us through the worst of the Covid pandemic. In between, the parades tended to reflect Americans’ varying preoccupations: lots of aviators and European leaders in the 1920s and ’30s; astronauts and the heads of the developing countries we were trying to cultivate during the Cold War. Most of the parades have been for champion sports teams in the years since.

At the time of their parades, at least, Pétain and Laval had not yet revealed themselves to be traitors and war criminals. Pétain was still the “Lion of Verdun,” the general credited with saving France during the darkest moments of World War I. Laval was prime minister of a still unbowed France, soon to be named Time’s “Man of the Year” for his efforts to end the Great Depression.

Yet we have also knowingly thrown parades for white supremacists, dictators, kleptocrats, mass murderers — and, yes, fascists we already knew to be fascists. Air Marshal Italo Balbo was already infamous as one of the Blackshirts most responsible for bringing Italy under fascist rule when he was celebrated in New York in 1933 for leading a fleet of seaplanes across the Atlantic.

By my calculation, at least 44 of the 208 sidewalk notations might be torn up by our present standards of what constitutes basic human decency, let alone heroism.

Of course, we could still remove the names of Laval and Pétain (and 42 others) and put up signs saying why we did this. But what would be the point of putting up their names to say why we took out their names?

The idea of removing Pétain’s name has come up before. In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s advisory commission on city monuments recommended leaving the names in place. The group’s report warned that “removal of the vestiges of past decisions risks leading to cultural amnesia.” It suggested keeping the markers “while re-contextualizing them in place to continue the public dialogue.”

The commission got it right. One idea for providing that context could be plaques posted at eye level along the parade route, referring people to, say, the Downtown Alliance’s website, which tells us why we honored these individuals — and why we might regret having done so. In this way, we can tell the truth rather than hide it.

Kevin Baker was a writer and researcher for the documentary series “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” He is working on a political and cultural history of the United States between the world wars.

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