History, History Column

World War I Memorial & President Woodrow Wilson

Written by ©Sarah Becker

World War I Memorial & President Woodrow Wilson

                Washington, D.C.’s newest war memorial, the National World War I Memorial opened to the public on April 21, 2021.  The NPS Memorial, located in the District’s 1.76 acre John J. Pershing Park, tells the story of America’s involvement in The Great War [1917-1918], The War to End All Wars.  General Pershing—WWI commander of the U.S. forces in Europe; architect of the modern American Army—was promoted to the rank of General of the Armies in 1919.  A rank he shares only with George Washington. 

                On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia; on France two days later.  President Woodrow Wilson (D-VA)—elected in 1912 on an anti-war platform—responded by ordering wireless telegraph stations to remain neutral. Neutrality was policy with a presidential pedigree.  

                “The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls,” Wilson explained on August 19, 1914.  Europe’s 1914 conflict was “a quarrel…between nation and nation, culture and culture.”  President Wilson’s 1917 World War was about competing ideologies, competing visions of the European and international orders.

                “Woodrow Wilson may well have witnessed more dramatic changes in national and global affairs than any other president since [George] Washington,” Carter Smith wrote. “He entered Presidential office [on March 4, 1913] a highly regarded reformer.”  Wilson’s foreign policy was not nearly as aggressive as his domestic.  Then talk of war in Europe divided America.  

                “We know our task to be no mere task of politics but a task which shall search us through and through,” Wilson said in his 1913 Inaugural Address.  “This is not a day of triumph, but it is a day of dedication.  Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity.”  Wilson—a child of the Civil War—segregated the U.S. Civil Service in his first Presidential year. 

                Europe’s continental war expanded when Germany raided Great Britain in January 1915.  On May 7, 1915 Alexandria resident, British national and second cabin passenger John Booth, age 35, lost his life while cruising aboard the RMS Lusitania.  The 32,500 ton RMS Lusitania was traveling from New York to Liverpool and Booth, age 35, went down with the boat.  German U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger—with the blast of a submerged torpedo—buried him at sea. 

                London, May 7, 1915…“The giant Cunarder, Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk off Old head, Kinsale at 3:38 o’clock this morning,” the Alexandria Gazette related.  “All details are lacking but, it is reported the passengers and crew have taken to the boats and were saved.”  In fact 1,198 passengers died including 128 Americans.

                Philadelphia, May 10, 1915…“The example of America must be a special example, not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world,” President Wilson said.  “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.  There is such a thing as a nation being so right that is does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” 

                On January 31, 1917 Germany notified the United States unrestricted submarine attacks would continue.  They announced Germany would sink on sight all merchant vessels found in a zone around the British Isles or in the Mediterranean.  President Wilson, narrowly reelected to a second term in 1916, broke off diplomatic negotiations and ordered the arming of American freighters. 

                “Although we have centered counsel and action…upon the [domestic] problems…to which we addressed ourselves four years ago, other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention—matters…which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence,” President Wilson said in his second Inaugural Address.  

                In February 1917 the Germans not only “stupidly” used neutral America’s wireless transmission system [the Zimmerman Telegram] they also sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping—an additional 578,000 tons in March and 874,000 tons in April.  The United States responded: with a declaration of war on April 6, 1917.  “The world,” President Wilson concluded, “must be made safe for democracy.”  Congress’ Selective Service Act quickly followed.

                “It is fearful to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” President Wilson said. “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal domination of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.” 

                “Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence or attended with close comprehension to the real character of it when you have heard it read?” President Wilson asked Philadelphians on July 4, 1914.  “If you have, you will know that it is not a Fourth of July oration.  The Declaration of Independence was a document preliminary to war.  It was a vital piece of business.” 

                Four years later, to the date, President Wilson delivered a July 4,1918 wartime address at Mount Vernon, to a large citizen gathering at George Washington’s Tomb.  Said President Wilson:

                “From this green hillside we…should conceive anew the purposes that must set men free.  It is significant,—significant of their own character and purpose and of the influences they were setting afoot,—that Washington and his associates, like the barons at Runnymede, spoke and acted, not for a class, but for a people.  It has been left for us to see to it that it shall be understood that they spoke and acted, not for a single people only, but for all mankind.

                They were thinking, not of themselves, and of the material interests which centered in the little groups of landholders and merchants, men of affairs with whom they were accustomed to act, in Virginia and the colonies, but of a people which wished to be done with classes and special interests and the authority of men whom they had not themselves chosen to rule over them.

                They entertained no private purpose…They were consciously planning that men of every class should be free and America a place to which men out of every nation might resort who wished to share with them the rights and privileges of free men. 

                [W]e take our cue from them,—do we not?  We intend what they intended.  We here in America believe our participation in this present war to be only the fruitage of what they planted.  Our case differs from theirs only in this, that it is our inestimable privilege to concert with men out of every nation what shall make not only the liberties of America secure but the liberties of every other people as well.”  President Wilson first explained his “Fourteen Points” for peace on January 8, 1918. 

                “We are happy in the thought that we are permitted to do what they would have done had they been in our place.  There must now be settled once for all what was settled for America in the great age upon whose inspiration we draw today.  This is surely a fitting place from which calmly to look out upon our task, that we may fortify our spirits for this accomplishment.  And this is the appropriate place from which to avow, alike to the friends who look on and to the friends with whom we have the happiness to be associated in action, the faith and purpose with which we act….

                There can be but one issue.  The settlement must be final.  There can be no compromise.  No halfway decision would be tolerable.  No halfway decision is conceivable.  These are the ends for which the associate peoples of the world are fighting and which must be conceded them before there can be peace…What we seek is the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind. 

                These great ends cannot be achieved by debating and seeking to reconcile and accommodate what statesmen may wish, with their projects for balances of power and of national opportunity.  They can be realized only by the determination of what the thinking peoples of the world desire, with their longing for hope for justice and for social freedom and opportunity.”  

                The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.  Nearly 4.7 million American soldiers served in World War I.  Seventy-one percent of the 35,000 women who served worked overseas.  Many as wartime, pandemic era nurses.  It was the era of the trans-global Spanish flu and their service contributed mightily to the passage of the 1919 women’s voting rights act: the 19th Amendment.

                In 1979—sixty years later—George Kennan, author of the 1947 Russian Containment policy, called the 1914-1918 war “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.  Without it fascism and communism, the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Cold War and today’s Middle East crisis, would be unthinkable.”  Great Britain’s 1917 Balfour Note promised to support the idea of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine, a homeland that became the partitioned state of Israel in 1948.

                “The years since the end of the Cold War have epitomized the enduring influence of a historical democracy tradition…,” analyst Nicholas Bouchet added.  “More than ever America’s leaders have tried to translate this tradition into a set of specific policies to promote democratization abroad.”  It was only last year that Woodrow Wilson lost his luster, when Princeton University—for race related reasons—reversed an earlier decision and removed his name from its school of public policy. 

                “Character, my friends, is a byproduct,” Woodrow Wilson said.  “It is produced in the great manufacture of daily duty.”  The last known living American veteran of World War I—Corporal Frank Woodruff Buckles—died on February 27, 2011, three weeks after celebrating his 110th birthday. 

                Alexandria’s 1941 WWI Memorial is located in Union Station Plaza.  President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 shipbuilding program included the 1918 Shipbuilding Corporation, then situated at Jones Point in Alexandria.  For more information on The New World War I Memorial visit http://www.doughboy.org.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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