In a City Full of Historical Landmarks, Activists Push for a WWI Monument

These Americans fought in the Great War, but they're not commemorated in our nation's capital.

(Photo: Reid Kasprowicz/Getty Images)

Aug 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and foreign affairs for USA Today, The Huffington Post and AOL News, reporting from 47 states and 26 countries. She helped launch Al Jazeera America's website and now writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other outlets.

The last surviving American to serve in World War I died in 2011, but to Edwin Fountain, “the war to end all wars,” which began 100 years ago this month, is anything but irrelevant history. Two of his grandfathers were doughboys.

One never went overseas, where more than 100,000 Americans died, but the other was a North Carolina farm boy who “knew how to handle horses, so they made him an artilleryman, because all the artillery in World War I was drawn by horses,” said the Washington, D.C.–based attorney. His grandfather fought in the war but avoided the firing line because “he was scheduled to go on the front lines on Nov. 12, [1918],” the day after the armistice was signed.

“Perhaps I’m standing here today because he never got in the front lines.”

Fountain, a member of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, was in a meeting room at the National Press Club on Tuesday to announce progress on a design competition for a proper national tribute to the 4,734,991 Americans who served during WWI. In a city overflowing with memorials, there is no national memorial to commemorate a war in which more Americans died than in either of the much longer conflicts in Vietnam and Korea.

Unlike those wars, “there’s no living constituency” to lobby for the project, Fountain said.

The last surviving U.S. veteran of the Great War, Frank Buckles, died at 110 on Feb. 27, 2011. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a few steps away from General of the Armies John Pershing, commander of the American expeditionary forces in France.

Fountain’s commission, established by Congress in 2012, plans to redevelop a trapezoidal patch of the capital named for that general into a national WWI memorial. At less than two acres, Pershing Park sits on a highly trafficked stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue one block east of the White House, along the presidential inaugural parade route.

The park, which features a statue of “Black Jack” Pershing, was the last of Washington’s “great man” memorials, dedicated in 1981. The next year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened, and architect Maya Lin's focus on the men and women who died—not the generals who led them—changed commemoration forever. Since then, monument makers have backfilled the National Mall with memorials to troops from the Korean War and World War II.

New memorials have been banned from the crowded National Mall for more than a decade. Before the Pershing Park plan, Fountain spearheaded a controversial proposal to nationalize an existing monument there to District of Columbia troops who died in the war. It was felled two years ago by local leaders who considered it an insult to the 499 D.C. residents who died for their country while having no representation in Congress.

Members of Congress from Missouri also pushed back against what they saw as a slight to the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. The nation’s first WWI memorial, built with private donations, was dedicated in 1926 and now includes a museum that opened in 2006.

In a compromise that paved the way for bipartisan support for the Pershing Park option, the House of Representatives in May passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that designates the Liberty Memorial the “National World War I Museum and Memorial” and the yet-to-be-built monument in Washington the “National World War I Memorial.”

The measure must still be approved by the Senate and signed into law before fundraising can begin.

The memorial is expected to cost up to $15 million to build—all of it in private donations. Fountain said an open design competition will begin in early 2015. Despite the ongoing controversy over a planned memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower and, like America’s 1917 entry into the war, being “late to the party,” Fountain is confident the new memorial will be ready to dedicate on Veterans Day 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice.

“We hear a lot about the ‘Greatest Generation.’ This is what I call the ‘silent generation.’ They were the parents of the greatest generation. They suffered through two great calamities, World War I and the Great Depression, and then they sent their sons and daughters off to fight in World War II,” Fountain said.

“This is not a triumphant memorial. This is more somber and reflective and reverential that would do justice to a generation of Americans that largely is not recognized in this country, certainly not by today’s generations, for the contributions and sacrifices they made for this country.”