Perspectives on a National World War 1 Memorial

The 1932 marble sarcophagus which sits atop the tomb of the American Unknown Soldier of WW1.

The 1932 marble sarcophagus which sits atop the tomb of the American Unknown Soldier of WW1.

Among the most common WW1-related public discussions to surface in recent years has been the question of why no national WW1 memorial exists in the nation’s Capital and what, if anything, should be done to rectify the apparent oversight?  The District of Columbia War Memorial, located on the National Mall and dedicated in 1931 to the memory of those from Washington, D.C. who gave their lives in the First World War, has been a frequent pawn in the debate; could, or even should, this memorial be expanded to become the focal point of American collective memory of “The War to End All Wars”?  Others have proposed an entirely new WW1 memorial for the Mall, despite the opposition of the National Park Service which has placed a moratorium on new monuments there.  From yet another perspective, some have pointed to the impressive Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, with its integral National World War I Museum, a world-class institution designated by Congress in 2004 as the country’s official museum of the First World War, asking why should the Liberty Memorial not be elevated to national status?

The desire for a single focal point for the memory of American participation in The Great War 1914-1918 is interesting to contemplate when viewed in the context of the immediate post-WW1 period – a time when strong opinions of the meaning of American involvement in the European war were formed, and also a period when numerous monuments at the local and state levels were conceived and created.  Inspiration for two national monuments near the Capitol also surfaced in this period; one of these never came to pass, while the other survives and flourishes today.

When President Woodrow Wilson set off for France to attend the Paris peace conference in January 1919, he was at the height of his international popularity.  His widely publicized Fourteen Points had set the stage for the Armistice and placed him in the moral leadership of the Allied cause.  His determination to create a League of Nations to uphold international law and prevent future wars was at the heart of his desire to create a “living memorial” to the sacrifices of the Doughboys.

The Big Four 1919: l-r Orlando of Italy, Lloyd-George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and Wilson of the United States.

The Big Four 1919: l-r Orlando of Italy, Lloyd-George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and Wilson of the United States.

While Wilson assumed a prominent role among “The Big Four” in Paris, his stature at home was under fire – in part due to his indelicate handing of domestic politics toward the close of 1918.  Appealing to the nation immediately prior to Congressional elections that October, he openly called for the electorate to send a Democratic majority to Congress – a measure which fractured the delicate wartime political truce between Congressional Republicans and the Democratic President.  Rather than producing the result Wilson had hoped for (which he felt would have strengthened his hand at an anticipated peace conference), the elections yielded a narrow Republican majority.  A short time later, Wilson further opened the rift with his political opposition by selecting a five-man peace commission which contained only one Republican member, a little-known ex-career diplomat named Henry White.  One prominent Republican Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts (who was also Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations), seemed to many a natural choice for the US delegation in Paris, but he was left out; it was known that Lodge and Wilson detested one another.

Wilson’s success in February 1919 convincing the delegates to the Peace Conference to incorporate the League of Nations into the peace treaty, whenever it reached its final form, was tempered the following month by the publication of a “Round Robin” signed by 39 Senators which stated that the League of Nations was unacceptable in its then present form and therefore jeopardized the ratification of the peace treaty by the United States.  Wilson responded to the challenge on the eve of a second trip to France stating in no uncertain terms that he would return to the US with a peace treaty in which the League of Nations was an integral part.

When Wilson returned from Europe for the final time in July 1919, the battle lines for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and its component League of Nations, were set.  Senator Lodge used his powerful Foreign Relations Committee position to hold a series of lengthy hearings throughout the summer of 1919.  Wilson responded by attempting to take his case to the American people with a planned whistle-stop speech tour that September.  On September 25, after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed from exhaustion, and several days later suffered a stroke.  Returning to Washington, President Wilson remained incapacitated in the White House and for over seven months did not meet with his cabinet.

Voting largely on party lines in November 1919, and again in March 1920, the Senate declined to ratify the Treaty of Versailles either with or without a set 14 formal reservations added by Senator Lodge.

By the early 1920s, American attitudes toward “The War to End All Wars” had changed; disillusionment with the protracted deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over the Versailles Treaty, combined with disenchantment over the Treaty itself, in which many of the idealistic principles of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were apparently bargained and compromised away, had left a bitter taste and fueled isolationist attitudes.

Despite the protracted political maneuverings of the immediate postwar period, the desire to honor the sacrifice of the nation in The World War was strong among many segments of the population and throughout the 1920s and 1930s literally thousands of memorials of various kinds were erected at local and state levels.  The quest to create a national memorial to honor those Americans who died in The World War was also strong in the immediate post-war period though only partly successful.

One plan to construct what was, at least in part, a WW1 memorial on the National Mall was a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution and an organization known as the George Washington Memorial Association.  In 1914 the two organizations sponsored an architectural design competition for a large multi-use facility honoring the nation’s first President to be built on Constitution Avenue near 7th Street.  Apparently, by the time ground was broken in 1921, the building’s focus had expanded and “The George Washington Victory Memorial Building” would also pay tribute to the Doughboys with a museum and archives dedicated to The World War.  By 1924 the construction site, which included the completed foundation and grand entrance stairway, was fenced in while fundraising efforts were mounted to complete the project.  For over a decade, the organizers persevered, but evidently were unable to generate the public support needed to finish the building.  Undoubtedly the onset of The Great Depression in 1929 sealed the fate of “The George Washington Victory Memorial Building”, though one must also consider the war’s political aftermath in America when evaluating the failure of the public fundraising effort.  Finally, in 1937, the uncompleted building’s foundation and stairway were pulled down to make way for what is today The National Gallery.

An artist's rendering of the planned George Washington Victory Memorial Building.

An artist’s rendering of the planned George Washington Victory Memorial Building.

On March 4, 1921, while the debate over the Versailles Treaty raged in the Senate, the government set the wheels in motion for a national memorial that would, ultimately, be realized.   On that day Congress, approved a plan for the burial of an unidentified American soldier near the recently completed Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.  Accordingly, on October 22, 1921, the body of an unidentified American was exhumed from each of the nation’s four WW1 cemeteries in France. Each body was examined to confirm that it was that of an AEF soldier who had died from wounds sustained in combat, after which the remains were placed in wooden caskets and transported to the town hall of Chalons-sur-Marne (now known as Chalons-en-Campagne) some 90 miles east of Paris, where an honor guard of French troops awaited their arrival.  A picked group of six highly decorated non-commissioned officers from the US Army occupation force in the Rhineland then converged on Chalons-sur-Marne to act as official pall bearers for the unknowns.  Among those was Sergeant Edward F. Younger who had been twice wounded and received the Distinguished Service Cross while participating in the battles of Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.  To his surprise, Sergeant Younger was directed by the presiding officer to choose one of the unknowns to be buried at Arlington.  Left alone with the four unmarked caskets, Sgt. Younger circled them three times before placing a bouquet of roses on the third casket from the left.  The remaining three unknowns were subsequently re-interred at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, while the casket chosen by Sgt. Younger was transported to Le Havre and embarked on the cruiser USS OLYMPIA which arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921.  After lying in state at the Capitol, the casket of The Unknown Soldier was buried in a specially prepared tomb at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, the third anniversary of the Armistice.

The now-familiar marble sarcophagus which sits atop the Unknown Soldier of WW1 was installed and dedicated in 1932.  Later, American unknown soldiers from WW2, Korea and Vietnam were interred in tombs adjacent to the WW1 unknown and collectively this spot near Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater is today known as The Tomb of the Unknowns (although the Vietnam unknown was later identified and exhumed for reburial in 1998).  Guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers from the 3rd United States Infantry, the tomb of America’s WW1 Unknown Soldier is among the most hallowed ground in the nation and one of the most iconic places in the Washington, DC metro area.


The burial of the Unknown Soldier of WW1, Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1921.

The burial of the Unknown Soldier of WW1, Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1921.