Thinking about Remembering

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and even though I have not lived there for many years, I still visit regularly. I often think that my decision to become a historian stems in part from the stories of my family history told to me by grandparents and other relatives. I learned from my grandmother, for example, that her brother, my great-uncle Joseph Steinbrecher, served in France in the Great War. He survived the war, but died long before I was born. From the Library of Virginia I accessed his Selective Service records, and I visited his gravesite in Holy Cross Cemetery. Someone mentioned to me in passing something about the local World War I Memorial in Richmond, a local landmark called “The Carillon,” a 240 foot bell tower located in the popular Byrd Park, site of summer concerts and public festivals. 

Anyone who lives in Richmond knows the Carillon as a landmark, but how many know it was dedicated in 1932 as a memorial to Virginians who served in the war? I didn’t. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Virginia General Assembly created a “Virginia War History Commission” to collect information about the participation of Virginians in the war, and to take up the issue of erecting a war memorial.

Meanwhile, citizens of Kansas City, Missouri formed the Liberty Memorial Association to build a memorial to honor those who had served and died in the Great War. More than 100,000 people, including Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France and Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and native Missourian, General John J. Pershing, attended the 1921 dedication of the Memorial site. More than 135,000 attended the dedication of the memorial itself, delivered in 1935 by President Calvin Coolidge.

By 1994, however, the Liberty Memorial had deteriorated so badly that it was closed. But in 1998, local citizens renewed their support for the memorial by passing a temporary sales tax to pay for restoration of the building, and for adding a Museum to house all the World War I documents, memorabilia and artifacts that had been collected by the Memorial Association since 1921. In 2004, Congress designated the Liberty Museum as the “official” World War I Museum in the U.S.

Lobbying for a national World War II Memorial began in 1987, and a resolution authorizing the construction of a memorial was signed into law in 1993.  A sense of urgency accompanied the planning and fundraising.  Media and popular culture outlets such as Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book The Greatest Generation, and the 1998 Stephen Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan brought World War II veterans back into the public imagination. Congress expedited the length review process for new monuments in Washington, D.C. due to concerns over the number of World War II veterans who were dying, and the desire that the memorial be completed so that vets could visit. 

There was some criticism. Some objected to the proposed location, in the open space between the Washington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, traditionally an “unbroken view” and a space used for major public demonstrations and protests. Others had aesthetic concerns, calling the design of the memorial “vainglorious” and “pompous.”

Millions have visited the National World War II Memorial since it was dedicated in May 2004.  Millions more have visited the cemeteries in Europe maintained since 1923 by the American Battle Monuments Commission, such as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial featured at the beginning and ending of Saving Private Ryan. These pilgrimages began in the early 1930s when Congress directed the War Department to issue invitations to mothers and widows of American soldiers who had died in World War I and remained buried there for one all-expense-paid trip.

By many accounts, however, the most-visited memorial in Washington, D.C. is the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2007. Unlike the other memorials, the Vietnam Memorial from the beginning elicited spontaneous offerings from visitors – thousands of letters, service ribbons and medals, muddy combat boots, packs of cigarettes, American flags, teddy bears and other symbolic offerings have been scrupulously collected, catalogued and archived by the National Park Service.  A rotating exhibit of the items is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

By the early 1990s, ever greater numbers of American veterans of the Vietnam War were making their own pilgrimages back to Vietnam, often sponsored and arranged by organizations such as Tours of Peace: Vietnam Veterans.

Did anyone think in 1975 that American veterans of the Vietnam War would return to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Da Nang, or that other Americans would travel to Vietnam as tourists, as I did in 2004?   

How will we remember, and memorialize, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? In 2009, Hinterland Travel, a British travel company, sponsored four tours to Iraq, the first since October 2003.  At least five more tours are already planned for 2010.