On Monday Americans will gather to celebrate Memorial Day, a holiday on which we honor those who have served, and fallen, in our country’s armed forces. Veterans and their descendants will participate in ceremonies and parades across the country, and many will be in Washington, D.C., to visit the national memorials dedicated to the wars in which they fought.
But there is one glaring exception: the First World War.
Despite nearing the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak, the United States still lacks a national memorial to the 4.7 million Americans who served during the conflict. Of those servicemen, nearly 117,000 perished during the war — 53, 402 in combat — and another 204,000 were wounded. Many believe that the last man to die in the war was an American soldier, 23-year-old Henry Gunther of Baltimore. He was killed one minute before the 11 a.m. armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. In comparison, roughly 34,000 Americans died in combat during the Korean War, and some 47,000 died in combat in Vietnam.
The American casualties of the First World War are all the more striking because of the short time in which they occurred. The United States did not declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917, and most American combat troops did not see action until the late spring of 1918. By many standards of evaluation, the First World War was the third bloodiest conflict in American history, trailing only the Civil War and the Second World War.
Yet despite these appalling numbers, there is no nationally consecrated location in the United States where Americans can honor these sacrifices.
In the war’s initial aftermath, Americans memorialized the war in two major ways: the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the celebration of Armistice Day on Nov. 11. But with the passage of time these forms of memorialization grew to encompass other American wars, and that has left the First World War without a clearly focused “site of memory.”
There is, however, an opportunity to make things right.
Congress has considered several pieces of legislation that attempt to create a national World War I memorial. But they have languished. Before being recently fused into a “compromise bill,” separate bills had been introduced by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and by Rep. Ted Poe of Texas. Cleaver wanted to designate the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, which adjoins the National World War I Museum and is already a National Historic Landmark, as America’s national World War I memorial. But Poe argued that national war memorials belong on Washington’s National Mall and proposed building the national World War I memorial around a small, preexisting World War I memorial on the Mall to veterans from the District of Columbia.
The eventual creation of a “compromise bill” allowed for a dual designation of national memorials in both Kansas City and D.C. But that compromise was stalled in Congress by the District of Columbia’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Norton. For several reasons, Norton refused to allow any modifications to the D.C. World War I memorial, effectively putting the bill into legislative purgatory. Additionally, the sponsors learned that the modification of the D.C. World War I memorial would violate the Commemorative Works Act, adding yet another complication to the process.
I do not question the convictions of Cleaver, Poe, or Norton. Rather, I ask that they put aside their differences and reach a compromise in the most expedient way. The location of the national World War I memorial is ultimately less important than its existence. (Edwin Lutyen’s famed Cenotaph to Britain’s war dead sits in the middle of a busy street in London.) Whether our country’s memorial is located in Kansas City, on the National Mall, in Washington’s Pershing Park, or somewhere else, the important thing is that we as a country have a National World War I Memorial.
Americans have recently had a front-row seat to the rancor of Beltway politics. On this issue, though, Congress should be able to skip the rhetoric and political posturing, work around legislative hurdles, and show the citizens of this country that the United States will honor its veterans no matter how long ago they may have fought.
On this Memorial Day, the 94th anniversary of the first major American offensive in the Great War, let’s remember the American soldiers of the First World War — and demand that they be honored.
Julian Saltman, a Ph.D. candidate in European history at the University of California-Berkeley, is the great-grandson of a First World War veteran.