‘The Great War’ Memorial’s Great Journey
Achieving approval to establish a national World War I memorial in the District of Columbia took longer than the war itself.
After six years of advocacy, the effort culminated in a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014. Roughly 1,400 pages into the 1,600-page document is a series of sections commemorating the 100th anniversary of “The Great War.” One section allows for “an appropriate structure or other commemorative elements” to honor World War I veterans in Pershing Park in D.C. And, in one line reflecting a heated tug-of-war between D.C. and Congress, the provision says a WWI memorial should not infringe upon the existing D.C. War Memorial on the National Mall.
“Even though this process took longer than [World War I] itself, I’m glad America is going to honor all of the folks that served,” Rep. Ted Poe said in a recent phone interview.
But the spot in Pershing Park, an area on Pennsylvania Avenue adjacent to the White House, was not Poe’s first choice. Pershing Park was already designated as a WWI Memorial site and includes a statue of Army Gen. John J. Pershing, but the Texas Republican originally sought to have a memorial on the National Mall. He hoped to expand the existing D.C. War Memorial, which honors D.C. residents who fought in the “War to End All Wars” and is located near the Korean War Memorial.
After meeting Frank Buckles, America’s last living WWI veteran, in 2008, Poe joined the effort for a national WWI memorial. (Buckles died in 2011.) He then introduced a bill to establish a national tribute on or near the existing D.C. War Memorial, while Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., introduced a competing bill to nationalize the WWI Memorial in Kansas City.
In the 111th Congress, the Senate combined the bills to allow both sites to have a national distinction. But, when Poe introduced the two-site bill in 2011, D.C. officials were outraged and said the move would tamper with the District’s memorial. In early 2012, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton pledged to rally her fellow Democrats against the bill.
Faced with opposition from District officials, staff from Poe’s, Cleaver’s and Norton’s offices began negotiating a compromise, and reached an agreement in spring of 2012. A line was added to the bill prohibiting infringement on the D.C. memorial and allowing for a standalone national WWI memorial on the National Mall.
But the fight was not over for memorial advocates, who were facing resistance on a second front from government officials, including the National Park Service, which pointed to Commemorative Works Act provision prohibiting new monuments in sections of the Mall.
“The Park Service was opposed all along,” Edwin L. Fountain, vice chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission, said when discussing the effort to have a memorial on the Mall. Fountain had been working for a memorial since 2008, and helped establish the National WWI Memorial Foundation.
The measure establishing a memorial on the Mall eventually died in the Senate at the end of the 112th Congress, and Fountain lost hope that the National Mall would host a WWI tribute. He began looking for alternatives and left the foundation, which still advocated for a Mall memorial.
“Working from a clean slate, I would still say the appropriate place for a national WWI memorial is on the National Mall,” Fountain said in a recent phone interview. But Fountain, who was appointed to the Centennial Commission in 2013, said the commission concluded a memorial there was not feasible.
“We did not think that there was the political weight to overcome the existing statutory prohibition or the opposition from the administration or D.C. government to do something on the mall,” he said. “We determined that the next best alternative — and an appropriate alternative — was to proceed with Pershing Park.”
“I still want, and I still believe, we need a memorial on the Mall for all of the four great wars in the last century,” Poe said. “Rather than have nothing, with some consternation and some thought, we just moved off the Mall to Pershing Park. And so after several years of working on it, that’s the result.”
Cleaver and Poe met again in the 113th Congress to develop a strategy to finally push the effort for a national memorial in Kansas City and in Pershing Park forward. And time was running out to commemorate the war: the 100th anniversary its start was around the corner, and the centennial of Armistice Day — Nov. 11, 1918 — was just a few years away.
So Cleaver introduced an amendment to a piece of legislation that was more likely to make it out of the legislatively stingy 113th Congress: the National Defense Authorization Act. “It’s the only way we could get it done this Congress,” said Poe. “We couldn’t find any other avenues to get a bill to the House floor.”
The amendment passed the House in May, along with the provision preserving the D.C. memorial, and was included in the final language. The act was signed into law on Dec. 19.
Norton said the amendment was a victory for D.C. residents.
“Veterans of ‘the Great War’ deserve and will have a war memorial of their own in the nation’s capital without piggy-backing on D.C.’s WWI commemoration on the Mall,” Norton said in a statement when the NDAA passed the House on Dec. 3. “The D.C. War Memorial has come to symbolize all of this city’s veterans, who went to war and came home without a vote and full equality in the union.”
With a structure pending in Pershing Park, Poe said it’s likely the end of the effort to establish a WWI memorial on the National Mall.
“I hope not, but it looks like it is [over],” Poe said. “I guess it’s probably the end of the story for us getting something on the Mall unless there’s some outside support for putting it on the Mall.”
Fountain said the commission hopes to roll out a design competition for the Pershing Park memorial early this year and have a design chosen by the end of the year. He did not comment on the potential cost of the memorial, noting that the price tag depends on the final design.
“At the end of the day, we think this will be an appropriate site for a memorial,” said Fountain. “Our target is dedication on Armistice Day, or Veterans Day, 2018.”
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