Opinion: Kansas City museum preserves history of World War I
KANSAS CITY—At the time—though the world was weary of war —no one thought the way the British army and its Arab allies swung into Syria would be forgotten.
Even in this centenary period—the 100th anniversary of that movement, so significant in the history of the Middle East, is this month—the world is not remembering much about World War I, which is a tragedy, given that in its time it was known as the Great War and in our time might be regarded as the opening act of World War II and, if you stretch your mind, the Cold War as well.
For an antidote to that historical amnesia, consult your inner Fats Domino and proclaim, Kansas City, here I come.
Situated near the geographic and population center of the country, Kansas City is both literally and metaphorically the heart of America. One of the homes of the great American art form of jazz; the bustling early entrepot where the great American westerly migration passed through the California, Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and the home city of the longest-running Negro League baseball club, the Monarchs, Kansas City is, you might say, American to its core.
But its greatest modern distinction may be that it is the only place in the United States that takes World War I seriously.
The days have passed when a lone World War I veteran, grizzled by age, would be honored in his faded blue side cap on Veterans Day, which, not so incidentally, is marked on November 11, the day World War I came to a close in 1918. Those men are gone; one of the last was Tony Pierro, an Italian immigrant dead a decade ago at age 110 and the uncle of one of my high-school classmates. For many Americans, this war lives only in textbooks, as far away to contemporary high school seniors as post-Civil War Reconstruction was for Nancy Pierro Gabriello and me.
But yes, come to Kansas City, where the city fathers and mothers have chosen not to forget, maybe because the commander of the American Expeditionary Force was a Missourian (Gen. John J. Pershing), maybe because the most famous World War I veteran aside from the legendary airman known as the Red Baron also was a local lad (Harry Truman), maybe because this is just the sort of place that wants to stand out by doing the right thing rather than the done thing.
So here, in the world’s least likely place—4,632 miles from Verdun, where none of this is forgotten—stands the National World War I Museum and Memorial. In 1919, as world leaders gathered at Versailles to craft the treaty ending the war, more than 83,000 people raised $32 million (in current dollars) to construct a memorial site. Gen. Pershing was in attendance for the dedication, along with French Marshal Ferdinand Foch.
Five years later President Calvin Coolidge travelled here for the opening of the 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower, which anchors the museum completed 11 years ago. “Reverence for our dead, respect for our living, loyalty to our country, devotion to humanity, consecration to religion, all of these and much more is represented in this towering monument and its massive supports,” Mr. Coolidge said. “It has not been raised to commemorate war and victory, but rather the results of war and victory, which are embodied in peace and liberty.” Who said the 30th president was not eloquent?
Indeed, eloquence is the essence of this museum, and of the meaning of the war. America entered it in a blast of idealism, not of imperialism, and above all of innocence; it foreswore territorial gain. It is incontrovertible that the war catapulted the United States into world-power status, a notion increasingly viewed by historians as an important motive for Woodrow Wilson to take the country into the conflict. But the common solider—Capt. Truman, for example—took substantial pride in simple principle. On the wall here hangs a poster produced for the United States Food Administration. It bellows: “America, the hope of all who suffer, the dread of all who wrong.”
And yet from beginning to end, hope was the first casualty of this war.
At the beginning it was possible—entirely plausible—for an artist to create a poster featuring a man on a galloping horse and the word “Forward.” By the end, no one considered a horse a possible or plausible means of transport, and the word “forward” was mocked by the trenches, where no one moved forward. And of all the great illusions this conflict would spawn in 1914, none was greater than the conviction that the combatants would be home by Christmas. Some missed three Christmases, some four. Some never sang Silent Night, or Stille Nacht, again.
It is perhaps only here, in the middle of the middle of the North American continent, that one can underestimate the nature of the trenches, which extended roughly the length of the state of Kansas. Standing here you might note that the French, fatefully, brought in thousands of Vietnamese to build their trenches. A visitor might whisper to a companion that at the end of the war Ho Chi Minh would petition the diplomats to create an independent Vietnam. The rest is history, in tragic form.
Within the walls of the Kansas City museum are reconstructions of the trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border, a crescent of senseless death (reinforced by tree branches and rocks); poignant signs (“Walking Wounded,” with an arrow pointing to the right); military vehicles including ambulances and tanks (the latter damaged by German artillery rounds); and even deadly weapons that to the eye seem unthreatening (the areal darts known as fleschettes, dropped from planes to strike men in the head and body).
Perhaps on your visit you may pause at a small display of domestic items made from combat shell. Your eye might linger on the wastebasket, or perhaps on the vases, maybe even on the lamp, all fashioned during idle hours in the trenches. And when you do, you might be prompted to recall Chapter 2 of the Book of Isaiah, where it is written that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares,” and you might also recall the words that precede that famous passage:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people.
David Shribman is Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.