A Conversation with US WW1 Centennial Commission Chair Robert J. Dalessandro

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On January 14, 2013, President Barrack Obama created the United States World War 1 Centennial Commission when he signed Public Law 112-272.  The Centennial Commission Act provides for the appointment of a 12-member commission whose broad mission is to “ensure a suitable observance of the centennial of World War I, to provide for the designation of memorials to the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I, and for other purposes.”

World War 1 Centennial Network founder Paul Cora recently had the opportunity to speak with Centennial Commission Chair Mr. Robert J. Dalessandro.  In addition to his work on the Commission, Mr. Dalessandro is the Chief of the US Army’s Center of Military History (CMH) and has authored several books on the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.  What follows is an insightful summary of the Centennial Commission’s objectives and planned activities in the coming years.

PC: In addition to being the Chief of the Center of Military History and acting Chair of the Commission, you have written extensively on AEF subjects (AMERICAN LIONS, WILLING PATRIOTS, and ORGANIZATION AND INSIGNIA OF THE AEF).  How did you personally come to be interested in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I?  

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RD:  Both my grandfathers served in the First World War; one in the Army and one in the Navy.  One of my earliest memories was marveling at the strange helmet, gas mask and uniform that hung in a corner closet. Neither men spoke much about their service, but the few stories they told ignited a lifelong interest in the war.  Sadly, it took me decades to piece together the details of their service.  This desire to learn more about their deeds instilled my aspiration to work to preserve the memories of the service of other veterans of the war.  I hated the thought that these stories could easily be lost or forgotten.

PC: The text of Public Law 112-272 is readily available online.  How, in your own words, how would you define/summarize the basic mission of the Centennial Commission?

RD: The text of the legislation is easily found, but it is worth restating the principal missions of the Commission.  Our work is specifically focused on encouraging private organizations and State and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial; facilitating and coordinating activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial; serving as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial; and developing  recommendations for Congress and the President for commemorating the centennial of World War I.

That said, there is a leadership/communication component, an educational component, and a coordination component to our work.  The Commission leads efforts by raising awareness and encouraging a wide spectrum of organizations to plan programs in support of the centennial.  We must develop education programs targeted to America’s youth, designed to raise their understanding, and, in many cases, expose them for the first time to this watershed moment in history.  Finally, we have to serve as focal point for activities both here in the United States and in some cases overseas, leveraging the activities of partnership organizations.  As an example, we reached out to the American Battlefield Monuments Commission and are working in partnership with their staff to enhance a number of educational initiatives they have launched in preparation for the centennial.

PC: As the Chair of the Centennial Commission, what do you see as the greatest challenge or challenges facing it in achieving its primary mission?

RD: The greatest challenge the Commission faces is creating interest in the war here in America.  We have to confront the often pedestrian notion that the Great War was nothing more than prologue to World War Two.

Popular culture focuses on the World War II period, the Greatest Generation, and a “good” war that we all pulled together and won.  Film productions including Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific have had significant impact on the public understanding of and interest in World War II.   Laurence Stallings, a decorated World War One Marine, captured our challenge best, when he said, “Before June 1944, everybody in America knew that the pivotal battle in American history was fought in the Meuse-Argonne, by July 1944, America’s most desperate struggle was fought in Normandy.”  History had left the Meuse-Argonne and for that matter World War One behind.

I would never lessen the sacrifices of the WWII generation, but sadly the historiography of World War One, as with any event, is oft determined by the popular media – – books, films, etc.  In the case of intensifying interest in World War One, in America, the public conscience has not been fueled by a continuing stream of publications, films and media attention in the way it has in Europe.  In the United Kingdom, simply the mention of the Somme or in France, Verdun, conjures images of glory, sacrifice and barbarity.  We have to undo this injustice to the men and woman that served and sacrificed during World War One.

PC:  What kinds of activities do you see the Commission engaging in over the coming years?

RD:  The Commission has an ambitious plan to engage public interest across a full spectrum of activities.  This plan is currently under development, so I can only speak in abstractions at this point, but our program will embrace a number of large public commemorative events, expanded memorialization efforts, and educational activities targeted both to the general public and academe.

PC:  Are there ways that average Americans can assist the Centennial Commission in achieving its major goals?

RD: Your readers can help by spreading the word.  Take time to share your interest in the Great War with others, pass along our website , organize or support local centennial events, learn about those that served in your town and share that information with local media.  Get involved at local schools, historical organizations and museums. Be our ambassadors.

PC: Why, in your view, should Americans be interested in the Centennial of the First World War and what can they learn by remembering and studying America’s involvement in “The War to End All Wars”?

As with any anniversary period, the centennial is important because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the history of an event, and in the case of the First World War, an event that shapes history right up to today.

Simply stated, the act of remembrance of history serves as that thread of continuity that binds us to those men and women that have struggled before us.   Far beyond providing an understanding of our shared past, history teaches us that we are part of something far greater than ourselves – – history links us to the men and women who have served this Nation before us. We take their legacies to heart and draw from their strength to overcome our challenges and adversities.

Our forbearers that served during World War One, both on the civilian and military fronts, carry us forward on the foundation they cast of their sweat and their blood and their deeds and their lives. The legacy of their actions is the priceless value of both history and remembrance – – one that we should proudly cherish – – and fervently guard. Simply stated, the study of our past, and particularly the importance of an understanding of the cataclysmic events of the First World War, strengthen the resolve of our actions and informs our future. Just as importantly, many of the current conflicts the world faces today have their roots in World War One, and can only be confronted by understanding that history.

The Economist recently published an article comparing today’s geopolitical setting with the setting that preceded World War One, which makes it imperative to study World War One today so that we do not repeat the decisions and policies that led to that terrible war.

This is why Americans be interested remembering and studying America’s involvement in “The War to End All Wars.”

For more information on the US World War 1 Centennial Commission, visit their website here.