World War I in the American Imagination

Each fall, thousands gather at the University of Texas at Austin’s Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium to witness the spectacle of college football. On game nights, the bellowing of cannons, the roar of crowds and the melodies of marching bands fill the air of Austin. At the front of the stadium, drunken fans stumble around in search of friends or booze. However, in the midst of such joviality, something rather solemn stands out. Rising above the throng of carefree game goers is a bronze infantryman with one knee placed forward and a bayoneted rifle positioned upward. Behind him stands an elegant woman holding a torch in the air, and surrounding her is a wall listing the names of the 5,280 Texans who perished in World War I.

On the South Mall of UT’s campus, a similar scene transpires daily. Thousands of students pass the Littlefield Fountain, their thoughts occupied with upcoming exams and other minutiae of university life. Columbia, the mythic personification of the United States, stands with two torches aloft, flanked by a soldier and a sailor. The three of them stand atop the prow of a ship, and an eagle serves as the ship’s figurehead. A Latin phrase captions the fountain; when translated, it reads, “A short life hath been given by Nature unto man; but the remembrance of a life laid down in a good cause endureth forever.” In the middle of the caption is a plaque listing the names of UT alumni killed in World War I.

Our campus is far from unique in maintaining underappreciated monuments. All throughout the United States, thousands of memorials to World War I sit unnoticed. Indeed, World War I is second only to the Civil War in its footprint on America’s architectural landscape. Whereas there are approximately 13,000 monuments to the Civil War scattered throughout the country, scholars estimate that between 8,000 and 10,000 memorials to World War I exist in the United States. This is a curious statistic for arguably one of the most forgotten conflicts in the modern American mind.

The relative brevity of American involvement in World War I renders this estimate all the more baffling. Merely one year and seven months elapsed between President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war and the November 1918 ceasefire, during which the United States suffered a comparatively small number of casualties. 116,516 Americans perished in the trenches, which is approximately an eighth of Britons killed and a tenth of Frenchmen killed. For reference, the Civil War killed nearly six times as many Americans.

Why is this? Why did Americans so energetically commemorate a conflict they were hesitant about joining? Why does WWI’s memorial count rival that of the Civil War, arguably the most important conflict in American history? Why wasn’t a similar outpour of memorialization observed after World War II, arguably the most important international conflict in American history?

In Richard Rubin’s “The Last of the Doughboys” (“Doughboy” is an appellation describing American infantrymen that likely originated from the Mexican-American War, when U.S. troops found themselves covered in the flour-like dust of Mexican terrain), he remarks that Manhattan is replete with memorials to World War I. Just like those that can be found at UT, many of them are inconspicuous and unacknowledged. When traversing New York’s streets, one may notice a frieze adorned with struggling doughboys, or some plaque lamenting the inhumanity of the conflict, or a statue dedicated to some regiment, or some park named after a prominent figure in the war. In the city’s parks alone, there exist twice as many monuments to WWI than to WWII.

In Washington, D.C., a crumbling tholos-like structure rests under the trees of a secluded grove in the vicinity of the National Mall. While it does not receive attention comparable to that of neighboring war memorials — such as the capital’s shrines to Vietnam, Korea, and WWII — it was erected in solemn remembrance of Americans killed in the trenches of World War I. To say it is overlooked is an understatement; as WWI grew more distant in the American imagination, it became less of a place for reflection and more of a place for concerts and weddings. Through the decades, it grew dirty and decrepit, until the National Park Service moved to repair it in 2010.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery is perhaps the Washington area’s best-known salute to the soldiers of World War I, as it contains an unidentified doughboy. However, following the successive wars of the 20th century, it became less associated with WWI and more so with all American servicemen whose bodies could not be recognized on the battlefield.

Fortunately, an explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the breadth of work on the evolution of war memorialization. It is not entirely a coincidence that the Civil War and World War I, as conflicts that elicited tremendous commemoration, appear subsequently in the timeline of major American wars. They both occurred in a time before mass media reigned supremewhen the United States was more localized and relatively lacking in a cohesive national identity. Of course, WWI era America existed at the tail end of this period, but it existed within it nonetheless. When the guns fell silent on the Western Front, our modern conception of media was in its infancy and progressivism was reshaping the role of government in civilian life.

With Americans more scattered and government less centralized, initiatives to honor World War I largely drew from local coffers. Indeed, the WWI memorial in Washington, D.C., differs from its neighbors in that it is not a “national” memorial; rather, it is explicitly dedicated to veterans of the Washington area. Hence, its official name is the District of Columbia War Memorial, and its frieze honors the “armed forces from the District of Columbia.”

This contrasts tremendously with the National World War II Memorial, which is comprised of 50 wreath-adorned pillars paying homage to every state. Similarly, whereas the D.C. War Memorial only lists the names of Washingtonians killed in WWI, the Vietnam Memorial Wall is famously engraved with the names of every American killed in Vietnam. Our attitude towards war memorialization clearly changed in the post-WWII era.

This shift in attitude can be observed with an inspection of the monuments themselves. While the U.S. boasts fewer shrines to WWII, they tend to be more grand than those erected in honor of the WWI. For instance, limiting our inspection to Washington, D.C., the National World War II Memorial functions as a great architectural symphony. Its visitors are greeted with a symmetric composition of arches, pillars and fountains. Quotes and symbolic reliefs line the walls, accenting the power of the site. The D.C. War Memorial, by contrast, is less imposing. A small doric temple, it does not broadcast the catastrophic scale of the conflict it stands in memory of. It is no less powerful; if anything, its elegant simplicity invokes the pessimism of the postwar age, heightening the impact of its message.

Much like the one in Washington, many of America’s World War I monuments are relatively inconspicuous and endowed with elements of classical architecture. They are largely devoted to veterans hailing from a certain county or city and were funded through the local government or private financers. In a less interconnected America, national memories were difficult to cohesively forge. Thus, historical events were felt more acutely at the local level, driving communities to commemorate WWI, as they personally experienced it.

Exceptions to this trend exist; in 1926, for instance, the people of Kansas City, Missouri, chose to erect a 217-foot-tall monolith that has stood in lieu of a national WWI memorial. Beyond this, American memorialization of World War I generally manifested in the form of plaques, doughboy statues or decorative entablaturesmodest commemorative gestures which ultimately resonated deeply with their respective communities.

This is why upper estimates posit that there could be as many as 10,000 World War I memorials spanning the United States. Instead of channelling national memory with the erection of grander, more abstract monuments, American localites chose to individually venerate their war dead with smaller, yet more personal, constructions. Following World War II, as a widely encompassing “American consensus” developed, conflicts were perceived in the broader context of how they affected America as a whole, inspiring monuments which extol abstract conceptions of patriotism over the specific sacrifices of the surrounding community. Furthermore, interventionist re-framing of American governance shifted the burden of monument construction to federal and state authoritieswhereas it was previously consigned to county and municipal governmentsthus compounding the “depersonalization” of war memorialization.

While I have discussed how the pre-1940s practice of war memorialization influenced the proliferation of WWI monumentation, the question remains unanswered: Why did so many Americans celebrate their contributions to this distant war they were apprehensive about joining? Were they simply self-congratulatory, or is there a more significant conclusion to be drawn here? Furthermore, if WWI remembrance was taken so seriously in the years following the Treaty of Versailles, how did this conflict become so forgotten within a few decades?

Living in the shadow of World War II, it can be difficult to understand the soul-crushing gravity imposed by World War I. Indeed, World War II, with its vastly higher casualty count, numerous atrocities, and far-reaching destruction, is a prime factor in the obscuration of World War I. In addition to the scale of World War II, there was an ideological aspect of it that lended itself easily to propaganda; American historian Studs Terkel described World War II as the “Good War,” highlighting the clear-cut villainy of the Axis Powers as contrasted with the apparent heroism of the Allies, barring things such as the Holodomor in the Soviet Union and the Bengal famine in British India. (Of course, convenient omissions are to be expected in propaganda).

It’s worth noting that the Entente of World War I also felt a sense of moral imperative in waging war against the Central Powers. The British emphasized the maliciousness of Prussian militarism as illustrated by atrocities such as the Rape of Belgium, and President Wilson framed American entry into World War I in the context of “making the world safe for democracy.” However, these pale in comparison to the sheer inhumanity of the Holocaust and Japanese atrocities in East Asia, and the abhorrence of fascism as the ideology that enabled them. Furthermore, the American reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan as well as the courting of the Japanese and Europeans in an expanding American world orderin the wake of World War II cultivated perceptions that America occupied something of a “savior” or “policeman” role in geopolitics

President Wilson tried to foster a similar image at the end of World War I, with American delegates playing a significant role in Versailles negotiations and with Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” inspiring the foundation of the League of Nations, but he was was unsuccessful. After the Senate refused to ratify American membership in the League of Nations, the United States receded back into isolationism until World War II reanimated it from its slumber.  

It could also be argued that World War II was far more frightening to Americans than World War I, as its threats were closer and more visceral. From across the Atlantic Ocean, Americans witnessed Hitler pose with the Eiffel Tower as a war trophy. London burned under the fleets of the Luftwaffe. Following Pearl Harbor, America was dangerously vulnerable to attacks on the West Coast. San Francisco and Los Angeles prepared for Japanese air raids as Hawaii was placed under martial law. During World War I, by contrast, the fighting was strictly “over there,” as American songwriter George M. Cohan famously sang.

This is not to imply World War I didn’t elicit feelings of despair. The phenomenon of “post-war pessimism” was so prevalent among those who lived through the conflict that the term “Lost Generation” came to describe those Americans who reached adulthood in the 1910s and languished in the shattered world of the 1920s. They were aimless in a world capable of horrors that, before 1914, seemed inconceivable.

By virtue of those new and inconceivable horrors, World War I was perhaps more demoralizing than World War II. In September 1939, Europeans were at least familiar with the capabilities of modern warfare; in August 1914, Europe hadn’t seen a monumental continent-wide conflict since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Europe was still reeling from the aftermath of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War in which Napoleonic tactics were employed. After the situation in the Balkans collapsed, driving nearly the entirety of Europe to mobilize, Europeans were possessed by romanticist notions about war that had prevailed in the post-Napoleonic era. Popular conception infamously held that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Nobody foresaw the bloodbath that would ensue. Automatic weapons, tanks, airplanes, poison gas, flamethrowers, modern artillery, advanced railword networks and mass production techniques rendered Napoleonic tactics obsolete. The misery of the trenches and the apparent pointlessness of the entire conflict added a psychological element that gnawed away at the intellectual core of European civilization.

Even while Americans initially watched the explosion of European hostilities with pompous contempt, satisfied to see reactionary empires cannibalize themselves, the sheer inhumanity of the conflictas exemplified by the aforementioned Rape of Belgium, the German practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, the use of poison gas, zeppelin bombing raids on major cities and other atrocitiespersuaded Americans to adopt a “moralist” approach to the conflict, which held that the U.S., as a supposed harbinger of liberty and democracy, had an obligation to secure order in Europe and quell the spread of “Prussian barbarism.”

Interestingly, in line with this narrative about American obligations to Europe, Charles E. Stanton, aide to General John J. Pershing, quipped, “Lafayette, we are here,” while visiting the grave of the French marquis who aided the fledgling American colonists during the Revolutionary War. This frames World War I within the context of the American Revolution and functions as a supposed vindication of American moral authority, as the Americans found themselves reaching out to Europe and “rescuing” them from their turmoil.

The American savior role of 1918 differed from that of 1945 in the sense that the U.S. didn’t recede from the global stage after World War II drew to a close. However, this isn’t to say World War I didn’t leave a profound imprint on the American imagination. The doughboys returned from the dense, miserable forests of France, satisfied that they had “done their bit,” just as President Wilson implored. The countless localities spanning America erected modest memorials honoring the approximately three million Americans who served overseas during our briefbut nonetheless consequentialstint in World War I. Today, they remain immortalized, their names and likenesses adorning post-war monumentation and hearkening to that dismal, appalling conflict. The doughboys went to war to ensure its resolution would birth a better world for their posterity; it is our obligation, as citizens of the future they moulded, to recognize their toils in solemn remembrance.

Categories: Culture

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