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More Than A Century Later, The U.S. Still Doesn’t Have A National World War I Memorial In Washington

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This story was originally published June 26.

As the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles approaches — a pact that effectively ended “the war to end all wars” — the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission in Washington will watch another centurial commemoration march by.

Five years ago, it was one century since World War I broke out in Europe. Last year, it was the centennial of the creation of Armistice Day. The new target date is Nov. 11, 2021, which will mark 100 years since the interment for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a World War I veteran, at Arlington National Cemetery.

All of those centenaries were targeted by the commission for one purpose: to erect America’s first-ever national monument to all 116,708 Americans who fought and died in Europe’s first total war. But more than a century after the war, construction has not yet begun.

A rendering of the planned National World War I Memorial in Washington's Pershing Park
A rendering of the planned National World War I Memorial in Washington's Pershing Park

“In the best of all worlds, we would dedicate this in November 2021,” said Edwin Fountain, vice chairman of the Centennial Commission.

The prolonged effort to erect a memorial to the men who died in trenches and on battlefields in places like Somme, Belleau Wood and Gallipoli goes back decades, and has been hampered by politics, complicated legislative efforts, a meandering site-selection process, a cumbersome design review and disagreements on what the memorial’s mission ought to be.

The memorial, called "A Soldier’s Journey," was designed by Joe Weishaar and is being sculpted by Sabin Howard. It will stand nearly 60 feet long on 1.8 acres in Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th streets NW. The memorial will sit a block away from the White House with a direct view of the U.S. Capitol building. The estimated total cost is $40M.

A rendering of the layout of Pershing Park, including the new National World War I Memorial
A rendering of the layout of Pershing Park, including the new National World War I Memorial

“We’ve had targets, and you set targets ambitiously to keep people focused,” Fountain said. “But the project takes as long as the project takes. We have a goal. We have an aspiration.”

‘A War Deserving Of A Myth’

World War I is a conflict that has been forgotten by most Americans. Unlike World War II, which was documented throughout the war with movie house newsreels — and thereafter, with myriad Hollywood films and television shows featuring the “Greatest Generation” — World War I’s popular culture imprint pales in comparison. 

Until 2018’s They Shall Not Grow Old documentary, produced by Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, most people had never seen colorized film footage of World War I and its combatants.

For many of the nations that fought in the war — like Austria, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia — World War I is their “creation story.” For France in particular, Fountain said, “the war was a story of [an] existential challenge and national sacrifice on an unimaginable scale.”

Nearly a quarter of the 8 million French soldiers who fought in the war died, and more than half were wounded. 

“There is no American myth around World War I,” he said. “And indeed there is very little knowledge.”

But Fountain contends that the character of the American soldier during World War I was every bit as courageous as those who fought in the wars that came before or after. His lectures on World War I history are riddled with the statistics that show the conflict’s true human cost.

American troops engaged in trench warfare in France in World War I
American troops engaged in trench warfare in France in World War I

“In World War II, in the Battle of the Bulge, we lost 8,000 American dead in six weeks,” he said in a speech at the Arlington Public Library in Virginia a few years ago. “In that same amount of time in the Meuse-Argonne, we lost more than 26,000, with another 96,000 wounded — about as many dead and wounded as during the entire three years of the Korean War. 

“We suffered 53,000 combat fatalities in about six months of active fighting — more than in eight years in Vietnam," he said. "This is a war deserving of a myth.”

Jay Winter, a World War I historian and the author of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, said other wars have gotten more attention because the “lost generation” was also a silent one. For those returning from overseas, talking about their wounds — physical or psychological — was seen as “less than manly.”

“They had no inclination to commemorate a war during which they suffered injuries they struggled to live with,” Winter said.

The Memorial That Changed Everything

Four years after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam War veterans mobilized to raise money to create a plan for what was to become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington’s National Mall — the U.S.’ first national memorial to commemorate those who perished in war.

The Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

That action spurred decades of activity that saw the erection of other war memorials that now dot the National Mall, most notably the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial. 

“Before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, we didn’t really have a tradition of national war memorials,” Fountain told Bisnow.

He said another factor may be the U.S.’ long history of building local — rather than national — memorials, starting after the Civil War. 

In New York City alone, Fountain said, there are about 120 World War I memorials. Across the country, in town squares, roundabouts and in front of libraries and other public buildings, many of America’s World War I enshrinements are hidden in plain sight with the inscriptions of those who fell faded away by time.

Kansas City, Missouri, is home to the 32K SF National World War I Museum and Memorial, which was built in 1926 and is home to the 217-foot Liberty Tower. 

“But no one thought to call it a national memorial at the time,” Fountain said. The national designation and name change did not come until 2004 when the U.S. Congress designated the Liberty Memorial as the nation’s official World War I museum.

In Washington, there is the District of Columbia War Memorial, recognizing local residents who served during World War I. The idea of expanding it to cover all who served was the first choice of the Centennial Commission’s World War site selection committee.

But that met with staunch resistance from local residents, and the idea was eventually abandoned.

World War I historian and author Jay Winter
World War I historian and author Jay Winter

The history of building national monuments to America’s fallen started in reverse order beginning with the Vietnam War, and despite the hundreds of local enshrinements now scattered around the country, Winter, the World War I historian, said it is past time for a memorial for "The Great War" to have its own place in Washington.

“Given the prominence of war memorials on the mall, it is surprising that a World War I memorial was never built,” Winter said. “Probably, the immediate impulse was to make Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier the nation's war memorial.”   

‘We Didn’t Have The Political Weight’

The World War I Centennial Commission could have tried to get a location on the National Mall, but opted not to, choosing to go to Pershing Park, a 1.8-acre landscape in the heart of Downtown D.C. 

The park honors Gen. John J. Pershing, who earned the rank of “General of the Armies” during World War I — a designation he shares only with George Washington.

Fountain said commission members knew the federal Commemorative Works Act prevented new museums, monuments or memorials on the National Mall — unless Congress passed an exemption. The commission decided not to engage.

“Frankly, we didn’t have the political weight to get an exception to the Commemorative Works Act to get a spot on the mall because we have no living veterans, so there’s been no constituency,” Fountain said. “There are no members of Congress who are veterans of World War I or whose fathers were even veterans of World War I.”

The Olin Studio partner Laurie Olin, who was an original member of the design jury for the National World War I Memorial
The Olin Studio partner Laurie Olin, who was an original member of the design jury for the National World War I Memorial

Laurie Olin, an original member of the jury to choose a design and a founding partner of landscape architecture firm The OLIN Studio, said that shouldn’t have eliminated sites other than Pershing Park.

Olin, who resigned from the design jury before any proposals came in due to his objection to the chosen location, is now working on the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial

That will be built north of the Lincoln Memorial and south of Kennedy Center overlooking the Potomac River — but not on the National Mall itself.

“There is a lot of federal land around [the National Mall],” Olin told Bisnow. “What exists on the site right now could have been renewed, reinvigorated and refreshed.”

‘A Site For Commemoration, Not Information’

The site itself has not been the only disagreement over the memorial, which will endeavor to show visitors the “personal war” that each soldier fought while also “representing America’s journey and its coming of age through the conflict.”

It will also contain “interpretive elements,” which has spurred debate within the Centennial Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and among historians.

A rendering of the sculpture planned for the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A rendering of the sculpture planned for the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A Soldier’s Journey shows the effects of the war on those who fought, as well as the burden that was endured by their wives, children and nurses. Howard, the sculptor, has said the figures run horizontally to show a sequence of events, from leaving for battle to returning home.

The figures will stand roughly 6 feet tall, on an elevated platform above the park's water feature. They will sit slightly above eye level with their adult visitors.

“We are participant observers when we view Howard’s memorial, not only because we are on the same level as his soldiers but because they are not larger than life and fixed in place forever, as the Iwo Jima soldiers are,” Donald Kuspit wrote in Fine Art Connoisseur last year. "They are immortal, above the fray, but Howard’s soldiers are mortal, still in the thick of the battle."

Future visitors will be able to walk around the sculpture and read the stone inscription on its back, a poem by American poet Archibald MacLeish, who served in World War I.

"We leave you our deaths: Give them their meaning:
Give them an end to the war and a true peace:
Give them a victory that ends war and a peace afterwards:
Give them their meaning.

We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us."

Jay Shubow, a member of the federal Commission of Fine Arts and head of the National Civic Art Society, has reservations. The CFA is one of several bodies that had to sign off on the artwork proposed by the World War I Centennial Commission. The design had to go through several stages of review and approvals before the CFA approved it.

Shubow expressed concern during a CFA meeting that there was danger of turning the memorial into a museum, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in May.

“A memorial should be a site for commemoration, not information,” he said. “I don’t want to visit a memorial where I see everyone on their phone walking around making phone calls. It detracts from the solemnity of the site.” 

World War I Centennial Commission member Libby O’Connell, the chief historian for A&E Networks and historical adviser to the History Channel, pushed back on the idea that the memorial resembles a museum.

“A museum usually involves artifacts,” she said. “We’re giving people the opportunity to learn about World War I.”

Winter, a former Yale professor, said the memorial should focus on those who died and were injured.

“Telling the story of the war must take second place to telling the story of the men who died and those who risked their lives in World War I,” he said.

Edwin Fountain, the vice chairman and co-founder of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission
Edwin Fountain, the vice chairman and co-founder of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission

Fountain said leaving out the history would be a missed opportunity. Unlike the Vietnam War, Korean War and World War II, all of the veterans from the First World War are dead, “so, more than those other memorials, there needs to be an educational component.”

“The Vietnam memorial honors the dead,” Fountain said. “That’s all well and good today when the people who visit that memorial are the widows, the comrades, the siblings, the children and whatnot. What happens generations from now when people with no memory of this event go to this memorial and see a list of names?”

O’Connell said commission members were also conscious of the World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City as they were planning the design.

“We are not trying to replicate that museum,” she said.

‘There’s Nowhere As Crazy As Washington’

With so many opposing views at play, work on the National World War I Memorial in Washington has essentially ground to a halt. There was a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony in November 2017, but today Pershing Park is the same as it ever was — full of office workers, passersby and stray tourists looking for the Smithsonian or the White House.

None could have any inkling as to what this place will become or when. The question of when still hangs over the Centennial Commission, though O’Connell said a few weeks ago that she had just received final approval from the CFA to go through with the memorial’s design.

Olin said he is not surprised. Design review always involves negotiations, and they can be difficult, especially with multiple public bodies and historic preservation elements involved, as with the case of Pershing Park.

“Everything takes longer than you expect, everything costs more than you think it would,” he said. “There’s nowhere as crazy as Washington.”

Because not all plans are finalized, the date when people will be able to visit the site is still up in the air. Fountain said the commission still needs to raise money and does not know how long Howard, the sculptor, will need to complete his work, which is why the proposed date is only an objective.

Fountain hopes the required cleanup of the park will be done by the end of 2020 and the sculpture will be completed within three or four years. But, he was careful to point out, that is an estimate because of the nature of the sculpture.

“The sculptor’s not even sure how long it’s going to take because he’s never done anything like this before,” he said. “We’re not rushing him. We’re going to let him take the time to get it right, both artistically and in terms of the engineering of this thing.”

The commission is roughly $12M short of its $40M fundraising goal, Fountain said. He hopes to be able to raise that much by the end of the year, by which time the park design and the memorial — sans the centerpiece sculpture — could be ready for the 100th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in November 2021.

Even if they miss that target, Fountain and his fellow commission members are more focused on the finished project than anniversaries at this point.

“We were hopeful to accomplish this within a centennial period, but I’m proud of the pace we kept,” he said. “We wanted a memorial that we thought was commensurate in scale and grativas and stature to the memorials on the mall … This is not just a war memorial, but will be a great and unique work of public art, for people who want to see the great sites in Washington.”