Politics & Government

Where to memorialize World War I vets, Kansas City or D.C.?

The National World War I Museum under the renovated Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
The National World War I Museum under the renovated Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT

WASHINGTON — Congress will squabble over just about everything anymore, it seems, even where to honor the soldiers and sailors of World War I:

Kansas City, Mo., which has a heritage of honoring the war, or Washington, D.C., which has the National Mall?

Washington also already has a memorial to World War I, though it's strictly a tribute to the 26,000 city residents who served overseas. But pride of place among politicians can be a powerful incentive.

"Nothing is easily done in Congress, even though this thing should be easy," said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. "This has been a long haul."

Time is of some essence, however, since the Great War's centennial celebration is just two years off.

But the bottom line right now is this: Short of a compromise that involves all the warring parties, the future for a national memorial — and for Kansas City in particular, as its home — "looks cloudy," Cleaver said.

The four-term congressman has been trying for several years to get Congress to designate Kansas City's Liberty Memorial as the national monument to the First World War. The site already has been recognized as the National World War I Museum and as a National Historic Landmark.

Indeed, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force; Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, a hero and commanding general in the conflict; and a host of allied leaders from the era attended when the memorial's first shovels struck earth in 1921.

But one after another, Cleaver's efforts have been thwarted.

His bill naming Liberty Memorial as the national site passed the House of Representatives almost unanimously in 2009. But the Senate balked, as some argued that the memorial's proper place was on the National Mall, of a piece with tributes to World War II, Vietnam and Korea.

Edwin Fountain, a Washington attorney and historic preservation advocate, pushed that idea, unaware at the time, he said, of Kansas City's strong World War I connection

In the House, Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas offered a bill that combined both ideas — Kansas City and the D.C. War Memorial on the Mall as designated National World War I sites. Cleaver, not entirely pleased, signed on a co-sponsor.

But Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting member of the House who represents the District of Columbia, and other local officials and activists objected. They viewed any attempt to nationalize Washington's World War I monument as yet another political slight, right up there with denying the city's residents voting rights in Congress and statehood.

But, Norton said, "it's pretty clear how it will play out."

National Park Service officials, who supervise the monuments on the mall, told a recent congressional hearing that federal law prevents superimposing a new designation on an existing memorial.

That would appear to complicate the use of the D.C. War Memorial.

But the park service suggested designating the capital's Pershing Park, near the White House and dedicated to Gen. Pershing, as the national site. Norton said the park was "one of the city's best-kept secrets."

Fountain said he had "no intention of shoving anything down the throats of D.C.," or showing disrespect to Kansas City. He said that both of his grandfathers fought in World War I and they and everyone who served deserved a national memorial in the nation's capital.

Cleaver said he was working behind the scenes to find a solution, but in the end doesn't care which site in Washington — if any — is chosen. He just wants the national memorial designation for Kansas City that was once briefly within his grasp.

"Kansas City is the victim, and all I want is for people to just leave us out of it," Cleaver said. "Had they not discombobulated everything, (the bill) would have been signed by the president and we would have been getting ready for the centennial."


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