October 16, 2012

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The Liberty Memorial and Its Influence on Its City

World War I Museum

100 West 26 Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64108



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    Acclaimed architect Edward Durrell Stone hailed the Liberty Memorial, the nation’s tallest monument to the “war to end all wars,” as “one of the country’s great memorials, in a class with the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. It is like the Acropolis in Athens with its great wall setting or like the monumental planning of Paris.” Towering above the city from its hillside location at Main and Pershing, Liberty Memorial quickly became a Kansas City icon.

    Construction began in 1921, marked by a dedication ceremony attended by Gen. John J. Pershing and other principal Allied military commanders. Today, the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial still plays an important role in Kansas City.

    The National World War I Museum fittingly rests below the Memorial’s eternal flame. World War I saw at least 9 million combatants killed, destroyed the Old World order, and vaulted the United States to international prominence. But the following tragedy of World War II has largely overshadowed the conflict’s mindless, endless trench warfare.

    Perhaps it’s the distance in time, the war’s naïve promise “to make the world safe for democracy,” or maybe just the absence of video footage that makes the first World War remote. There are virtually no film reels, battle photographs, or reliable frontline news reports, and much of what exists was censored or deemed propaganda. “It’s all fake. Nobody filmed a single battle,” says Jay Winter, a professor of history at Yale University, whose Emmy-winning television documentary, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, supplemented newsreels with staged scenes. For media saturated modern America, that condition diminishes the war’s status as reality.

    The National World War I Museum helps us re-imagine the war’s reality: Striking photo essays depict elegant European capitals at the war’s onset versus the forest of New York City skyscrapers at its conclusion. A wall-size timeline and two exceptional documentaries explain the onset of the war in Europe and America’s entry into the global conflict. A simulated no-man’s land oozes mud and poison gas. Archival footage shows the collision of military strategy, tactics, and the astonishing new weaponry of the time. A glass bridge crosses a field of 9,000 artificial poppy blooms, each one signifying a thousand mortalities.

    These striking images create a big picture of The Great War, but a museum visitor can also discover (or lose) oneself in fascinating details. Highly interactive museum displays allow visitors to participate in wartime activities such as dog fighting or propaganda-making. The museum also has the nation’s largest collection of World War I artifacts: a massive cannon, tiny Christmas boxes, hand grenades, and postcards.

    World War I may seem a distant mirror, but we can see ourselves in its reflections if we look closely enough.Most directly, World War II flared out of its smoldering ashes as German resentment about the Treaty of Versailles, which assigned it all blame for the war, created the tinder for Hitler’s inferno.

    Historians also regard World War I as the source of today’s seemingly eternal Middle East conflicts. “Most of the problems we’re grappling with in the Middle East are legacies of … 1914–1918,” writes British historian Niall Ferguson. Ferguson notes that British guerilla leader T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) rallied the divided Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally. He did so by assuring the Arabs they were fighting for their own independence, but Great Britain then set the stage for today’s issues in Palestine by also agreeing in 1917 to the creation of Israel, a Jewish homeland in the region.

    In addition, Great Britain and France strategically carved up the defeated Ottoman (Turkish) Empire to their liking, creating oil-rich desert kingdoms such as Kuwait (which Iraq historically claimed as its own) while leaving more developed, educated, and populated regions, such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, impoverished and bitterly resentful of the West.

    Like America nearly a century later, the British faced fierce resistance when they invaded Baghdad and declared themselves liberators in 1917, Ferguson noted.

    The Great War may have been “Over There,” but the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial shows us why it’s still right here.

    For more information, visit www.theworldwar.org

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