Building a national World War I memorial in Washington proves to be an uphill battle
To an Australian, the task sounds like it should be simple.
- After missing the first deadline, the new date for construction is Remembrance Day 2021
- Millions of dollars in donations will be needed to finish the memorial
- It will be tucked away near the White House as the national mall is crowded with other monuments
Build a national World War I memorial in the centre of Washington DC in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice.
America is a nation that makes a point of honouring its veterans.
During the Great War, 116,000 “doughboys” died and while all the other major 20th century conflicts that helped turn the US into the globe’s unrivalled superpower have iconic monuments on the capital’s national mall, there is not one commemorating the war in which they fought.
A memorial in Washington to the Korean War, which was immortalised in popular culture by the TV show M*A*S*H. (ABC News: John Mees)
So, how hard could building it be?
“It’s incredibly complicated,” said Edwin Fountain from the US World War I Centennial Commission.
“Building a memorial in the capital … is always complex.”
We are chatting in a run-down, leaf-filled park that was by now meant to be home to a cascading fountain and huge bronze sculpture wall.
Pershing Park, the proposed site of the national WWI memorial, near the White House. (ABC News: John Mees)
Yes, the deadline has already passed.
No construction has taken place even though a ceremonial ground breaking was held a year ago.
The new date for completion is now Remembrance Day 2021.
“You’ve got to remember, the idea of a national memorial is relatively new in America,” Mr Fountain said.
“We’ve been working backwards … we’ve now got the others, this is next. We are going to get it built.”
But this national project has had extra challenges.
The government provided no public money and it needs many millions more in donations.
Space has also been an issue too.
The national mall is already crowded — Congress would have had to grant a new memorial a special exemption — so instead of being alongside all the others, the World War I site is tucked away near the White House.
All major conflicts except World War I have a memorial in Washington DC. (ABC News: John Mees)
WWI doesn’t live large in national consciousness
Some historians have suggested Hollywood is partly to blame.
Most Americans can rattle off half a dozen movies about World War II or Vietnam, while Korea was immortalised in popular culture by the TV show M*A*S*H.
When I randomly quized interstate tourists visiting Washington, many seemed to have more general knowledge about the Civil War and War of Independence than the century old clash of European empires.
“We came in towards the end of World War I and afterwards there was a lot of debate whether we should have at all,” Mr Fountain said.
“It also wasn’t the decisive victory of World War II.
“But you can’t understand American history without properly understanding what happened in World War I. It raises a lot of questions about what America’s place in the world should be.”
Even if the 2021 deadline slips by, Mr Fountain and his team said they would keeping fighting for the memorial.
They said it sends an important symbolic message, as well as one of remembrance.
“By honouring the Americans who died a century ago, we show today’s servicemen and women risking their lives overseas that they too will never be forgotten.”