Those Americans who fought in World War I were convinced that future generations would be certain to remember their sacrifices and that such epic battles as Belleau Woods, Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, St. Michael, and Meuse-Argonne would still be household names a hundred years later. But lest anyone did forget, American veterans of the “war to end all wars” went to great lengths to preserve the memory of the conflict by building thousands of monuments at home and in Europe. World War I veterans of this conflict also created a distinctive veteran’s organization—the American Legion—and a distinctive holiday, Armistice Day, to be differentiated from Memorial Day. And it would be World War I that gave America a new type of memorial patterned after ones established abroad: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
None of those efforts at shoring up the national memory succeeded very well. Today most Americans are hard pressed to remember even a single battle from 1918. Armistice Day would be reworked in the ’50s into Veterans Day and now honors servicemen and servicewomen from every American war. And the American Legion opened its membership to World War II veterans in the ’40s, after deciding not go the route of the Civil War’s preeminent veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.
Of course, there are good reasons why the memory of World War I faded. The hope of that generation that victory would lead to lasting peace did not come to pass. Within a generation Americans again found themselves fighting in a second World War, one that was truly global in scope. As result, World War I would be reinterpreted and turned into a prelude to World War II.
The loss of World War I in popular memory is unfortunate, starting with the fact that it was the most divisive war of the 20th century: Broader public memory of this war would have provided valuable context to help Americans better understand the divisions over Vietnam and more recent conflicts. Prior to entry into World War I, Americans bitterly debated the wisdom of joining this conflict on the side of the British and French. Dissent continued even after the U.S. entered the conflict, and scores of antiwar activists were imprisoned. The mobilization for this conflict was a fiasco, draft evasion ran rampant, and American battlefield performance was checkered at best. The peace that followed the armistice of 1918 led to an ambiguous peace. Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to “make the world safe for democracy” resulted in the first Communist state consolidating power in Russia. And while the other victors went along with his plans for the League of Nations, the U.S. Senate ensured that we would never join this body.
There are complex reasons for building monuments. Many, especially those in cemeteries, offer a place to mourn and honor the war dead. But many, especially monuments dedicated to the most controversial Americans wars, have a broader cathartic purpose. As a result, the Civil War holds the record for most monuments to any American war. Any visitor to Gettysburg, Antietam, or other battlefields will encounter not dozens but hundreds of memorials. Most older communities in America invariably have at least one soldier monument; larger cities often have dozens of memorials marking the Civil War.
Several wars diverge from this pattern, and two of them were crucial to shaping the American identity: the American Revolution and World War II. After the Revolution, there would be a sustained challenge to the concept of the war memorial, even those commemorating the nation’s preeminent founder, George Washington. Jeffersonian Republicans argued that public monuments smacked too much of decadent Europe and should be avoided. If built at all, they should be funded by private organizations, not the government. As a result it took decades for the Washington Monument, on which construction began in 1848, to be completed, in 1888.
There existed a similar reluctance to build traditional memorials to World War II after V-J Day in 1945. Part of this stemmed from the fact that Americans of all ideological stripes recognized World War II as a morally necessary war after it concluded. Although Americans were deeply divided about the wisdom of entering in the war in 1940 and 1941, Pearl Harbor galvanized the public. During the war, there still existed lingering doubts about the war against Germany, but those doubts evaporated with discovery of the Nazi death camps and a full accounting of Nazi war crimes at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
Both the Revolutionary War and World War II generations cast long shadows. Both generations of “greatest Americans” dominated the presidency and major positions of leadership for decades. Memorialization only came in vogue when it became clear that these two generations were not immortal. It wasn’t until the 1820s and 1830s that Americans got serious about building monuments to the Revolutionary War. Speaking from personal experience, I remember meeting World War II veterans reluctant to give oral history interviews because they assumed their generation was still in charge and everyone knew what they had done. In the early 2000s, I often smiled when I watched the television commercial drumming up support for the national World War II memorial with Tom Hanks implying that some vague conspiracy lay behind the failure to construct a national World War II memorial.
Why did the Vietnam Memorial and the Korean War memorials precede the World War II memorials? Put simply, the generation who fought Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and fascist Italy wanted to get on with their lives. When they did build memorials in the late ’40s and ’50s, they tended to avoid monuments and statues, choosing instead to commemorate the war with utilitarian structures such as parks, highways, community buildings, stadiums, and hospitals.
Historians should always be wary about predicting the future, but all trends strongly suggest that World War II will endure in popular memory. Hollywood and novelists continue to look to this conflict for storylines, monuments continue to be erected, and the dwindling number of veterans continue to be lionized. As an historian of World War II, I am naturally pleased with this trend and the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for histories of the war. World War II courses are popular at American universities, and the topic is a favorite among high school students in National History Day competitions.
Regrettably, the memory of our most recent wars have been more fleeting. After September 11, 2001, scores of communities built memorials to mourn the dead from these terrorist attacks, especially in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The site of the Twin Towers is now occupied by a major memorial and museum. But there is no sustained effort to memorialize in statues or other memorials those who served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps this reflects that Americans recognize that this conflict is not over and it is not an appropriate time to build memorials. This pattern can be found in earlier wars, most notably the Korean War. Even after the fighting stopped, Americans widely recognized that the “police action” of Korea was merely part of a continuing struggle with Communism with no clear end in sight. The lack of memorials to Afghanistan and Iraq signify that these conflicts have no foreseeable end.
But there is another pattern at work in the scant interest in memorialization that reflects the way we fight our current wars. The members of a small professional military, which has fewer ties to wider society, have borne the burden of fighting and dying since the draft was abolished in 1973. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier wars of the 20th Century. In World War II, the rich and famous really did serve along with those from tenements and dirt farms. Four of Franklin Roosevelt’s sons were in uniform, and his top aide, Harry Hopkins, would lose a son killed at Tarawa. Today’s warriors are drawn from a narrow spectrum of society and much is asked of this 1 percent.
On this Memorial Day, it would be well for Americans to contemplate how we should commemorate this generation of men and who fight our wars. Planning more earnestly for memorialization of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might also focus more attention on how we might bring them to a definitive end.
G. Kurt Piehler is director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience and associate professor of history at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is author of Remembering War the American Way (2004) and editor of the Encyclopedia of Military Science (2013), and is writing a book examining the religious life of the American GI in World War II. As founding director of the Rutgers Oral History Archives (1994-1998), he conducted more than 200 interviews with veterans of the Second World War.