Date of Award

2016

Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Department

History

First Advisor

Thomas Brown

Abstract

The current debates over the transformation of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., into a national World War I memorial have reignited century-old concerns about how to properly memorialize military figures. The park, originally conceived as a memorial to General John Pershing and the men of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, had fallen into disrepair, and many within the federal government wanted to redevelop the park in time for the World War I Centennial in 2018. Popular commentators have pointed to National Park Service budgets cuts and the decline of “great man” memorials as the primary culprits behind the park’s cultural irrelevancy. While those factors help to explain the park’s decline since its construction in 1981, they do not fully explain why it took thirty-three years to complete. Pershing Park’s legislative history reveals that the memorial project was plagued by both internal and external issues from its inception, which foreshadowed its eventual failure. Vietnam-era ideological shifts towards the military, commercial redevelopment within the capital, and national artistic reform movements all threatened Pershing Park’s existence during that period. These factors worked together to greatly reduce General Pershing’s imprint on what was originally intended to be his memorial.

Additionally, the Pershing Memorial project was a seminal moment in the programmatic development of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which spearheaded the Pershing initiative. The ABMC was originally tasked with constructing overseas cemeteries and memorials for American soldiers who were either missing or were never repatriated. The Pershing Memorial was the agency’s first endeavor in domestic monument-making, and the ABMC’s inexperience with Washington politics and private fundraising hindered its ability to construct an ideal memorial to its former chairman. The ABMC would go on to construct two more domestic memorials after Pershing Park, and these projects were sufficiently colored by the agency’s experience with the Pershing Memorial. Although the Pershing Memorial was the last federally-sponsored monument to a military commander, it was not the last gasp of military memorials in general. Enlightened by its experience with the Pershing monument, the ABMC constructed two ambitious war memorials to the Korean War and World War II in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with resounding success. The Pershing Memorial’s failure paradoxically helped propel military memorials into the new century.

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