D.C.’s WWI memorial causes 21st-century battle

John Kelly
Columnist March 31, 2011

The War to End All Wars didn’t. And now a District monument to that war is causing a battle all its own.

It all started when Edwin Fountain jogged past a small but oddly moving structure hidden by trees on the south side of the Mall, not far from the Tidal Basin. The Arlington lawyer discovered that the domed marble temple was a memorial honoring the 499 D.C. residents killed in World War I.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Edwin thinks the memorial, dedicated in 1931, should honor more than just those 499 people. He is the founding director of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which has as its aim rededicating the monument as a national World War I memorial. No less a figure than Frank Buckles, the last surviving U.S. World War I vet­eran, lent his name to the effort.

Not so fast, says the District’s Joe Grano, president of the Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society. A better idea, he says, is to make a national World War I memorial out of Pershing Park at 15th and Pennsylvania NW. After all, Gen. John J. Pershing was the head of U.S. expeditionary forces in Europe. Add a doughboy statue (modeled, perhaps, on Buckles), maybe a Navy sailor statue and some signage, and you’d have a dandy World War I monument.

“He makes some interesting arguments that I am not unsympathetic to,” Edwin said. “The odd position we find ourselves in is there is no perfect solution to this. Every proposal has its pros and cons.”

Chief among Edwin’s cons for Pershing Park is the location. He thinks the streets around it are too busy and difficult to cross. Besides, everyone wants to be on the Mall. Only there would it be near memorials to our other major 20th-century conflicts: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. Said Edwin: “When you put World War I someplace else — whether in Kansas City or Pershing Park — you are diminishing it somehow, saying it was not as profound an event.”

(Kansas City? Yep. There’s already a national memorial and museum to World War I there. But never mind.)

Joe thinks there’s nothing shabby about being a block from the White House. But here’s what’s really going on: Just as Edwin wants the D.C. World War I memorial to symbolize more than the District, Joe wants it symbolize more than World War I.

The monument has become a rallying place for some supporters of D.C. voting rights. As Joe wrote in a letter to the foundation: The “D.C. memorial now represents to District of Columbia citizens not only what we have given to our beloved country, but also what our country has not given to us.”

Edwin’s response? “I think they’re reaching to use that memorial for that purpose in the first place,” he said. Even so, he wants the National Park Service to include wording that the memorial is also a local one. And he’s all for D.C. voting rights advocates lobbying to get something on there about their issue, too.

I predict that if this bill goes through, there is zero chance the renamed memorial will include anything about the District’s lack of representation. One of the main proponents of the bill in the House has been Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.). I called for his opinion on D.C. voting rights. A spokeswoman e-mailed back: “Rep. Poe is not going to comment on this issue at this time.” In 2007 he voted against a bill to give the District a vote in Congress.

Where are the District’s elected leaders on this? In 2009, the D.C. Council issued a resolution in favor of the name change. There were no public hearings. Both Jack Evans and Eleanor Holmes Norton are honorary trustees of the foundation.

I guess in the grand scheme of things, re-carving some marble isn’t a big deal. But it grates, just as it grates that a petulant Congress won’t let the District have statues in the U.S. Capitol. As Joe put it: “You deny us any equality with the 50 states, and you just come in and take over our war memorial?”

Edwin is adamant the memorial won’t be “federalized.” He said the new name would be the District of Columbia and National World War I Memorial. To me that “and” makes it sound as if the District is something separate, something not quite national, not quite American.

Of course, when it comes to voting rights, it isn’t. As the District is asked to allow its modest war memorial to be subsumed for the greater good of the nation, is it too much to ask that the District get some greater good, too?

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