Washington, D.C. memorial for WWI veterans sets off debate
The District of Columbia War Memorial, often overlooked by tourists, is drawing attention these days as a disagreement escalates over whether it should be turned into a national memorial.
After years of neglect, the memorial honoring District of Columbia residents who fought in World War I has been spruced up. But its reopening Thursday is stoking a debate about whether it should only honor district WWI veterans.
"We have memorials for Vietnam, World War II, and Korea on the Mall, but we don't have a memorial for all of those who served in World War I," Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said in introducing legislation to make the memorial the "District of Columbia and National World War I Memorial."
But the idea to broaden its purpose faces strong local opposition.
"The brave men and women of World War I deserve national recognition for their unique contributions to our country,'' Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress said in a statement, "but not at the expense of the legacy of other veterans, and certainly not at the expense of district World War I veterans.''
The disagreement comes as officials prepare to gather Thursday, on the eve of Veterans Day, to reopen the memorial, restored with about $3.5 million in economic stimulus funds.
The Assn. of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, a civic group, has called on district residents to show up to demonstrate their solidarity in opposition to turning it into a national memorial.
The memorial, often missed by tourists, is likely to draw more attention because it is near the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
The war memorial was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1931, Armistice Day, by President Herbert Hoover as John Philip Sousa conducted the Marine Band in playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." With a circular dome supported by 12 Doric columns, the names of 499 District of Columbia residents who died in World War I are inscribed on the memorial’s base.
The controversy also comes as Congress considers legislation to create a commission to plan events to commemorate the centennial of "the war to end all wars."
The advisory National Capital Memorial Commission has come out against turning the memorial into a national memorial, citing its "unique significance" to Washingtonians.
DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown opposes the proposal, noting in a statement that the memorial is the only local memorial on the mall. A number of Washingtonians, who have long griped about their lack of voting power in Congress symbolized by the "Taxation Without Representation" on district license plates, also see the legislation as an assault on the district’s sovereignty.
Edwin Fountain, a Washington attorney and co-founder of the World War I Memorial Foundation, has called the absence of a national World War I memorial on the National Mall a "glaring omission, because we tell part of the story of the American century on the Mall, but not the entire story."
"The significance of World War I in our country’s history is forgotten," he said in an interview.
Fountain, whose grandfathers fought in World War I, said the proposal is "not to federalize the DC memorial, but to elevate its status, and give it stature commensurate with that of the other memorials."
Fountain, a former president of DC Preservation League, said he took up the issue after his group declared the DC War Memorial one of the city’s most endangered places because of its deterioration.
"Like so many people who live and work in the district, I’d been by it hundreds, if not thousands, of times, barely noticed it and never really knew what it was," he said in an interview. "One day I just went over to look and see what it was……It was a very peaceful, contemplative spot on the mall without the hustle and bustle of some of the other memorials."
The legislation has drawn bipartisan support, but it has remained stalled in House and Senate committees. The House bill is named the Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act after the last known living American veteran of World War I who died earlier this year at 110. He had appeared on Capitol Hill in 2009 to support a national World War I memorial.
Opponents of making the DC memorial a national memorial have suggested an alternative site: a park near the White House visitors’ center, where General of the Armies John J. Pershing’s statue stands.
"To me, it’s not, oh, everything has to be on the mall to be important," Fountain said. "But because you do have the national memorials to the other three wars of the 20th Century located right there, our argument is to not have a national World War I memorial located with them sends a statement. It diminishes World War I to some degree."
-- Richard Simon in Washington
Photo: The District of Columbia War Memorial has been spruced up since this 2008 photo was taken. It is at the center of a debate whether to turn turn the local monument into a national memorial. The site will be reopened to the public on Thursday. Photo: David J. DeJonge