During the past weekend I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. I was in town to visit my sister, who now lives in the area and works as an engineer (she’s the math/science person, I’m the artsy fartsy one). Several friends in the public history program at IUPUI recommended that we visit the museum, so it was great to have three or four hours to explore the site (which was nowhere enough time to check out everything).
Growing up, I was pretty apathetic about studying World War I and the Progressive Era. This apathy has changed over the past year, and it actually stemmed from my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. It may seem odd to some of us today, but there were still a fair number of Civil War veterans who were alive when hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914 (there were 171,335 GAR members still alive nationwide, 9,729 of which came from Indiana). Additionally, some GAR historians have made a great mistake (in my opinion) by cutting off their studies of the fraternal organization at the year 1900, which ignores the complex interplay between the GAR and various political issues that dominated Progressive Era discourse in the 1910s. One example lies in a speech made by GAR National Commander Clarendon E. Adams at the Indiana GAR’s state encampment in Elkhart in 1919, the year after World War I ended:
I believe I am voicing the sentiments of every person in this room when I say tonight that the upper most propositions in your minds is ‘America – one Country, one Language, one Flag’. (Applause) I believe that I am voicing another sentiment of the people of the State of Indiana as well as the United States when I say that the red flag of anarchy must not prevail on American soil (Applause)… I have no sympathy whatsoever for any parleying with Germany. She is entitled to none… This war will be worth all that it costs. We are going to demand in the settlement of this war; in all the transactions that are made, we will demand that it must be done with the full direction of American freedom and justice.
Anyway, there were a couple of aspects that I loved about the museum. I think they did a great job of interpreting the causes of the war, delving into a wide range of issues (imperialism, nationalism, entangling alliances, etc.) in a clear and cogent manner without sacrificing complexity. I also liked how the interpretive focus of the museum included women, children, minorities, and local Kansas City history (via the use of posters, newspapers, and stories of KC during the war) within the larger narrative. Finally, I appreciated how the museum deftly weaved America’s role in the war within the broader conflict between European nations. This museum is not a shrine to American exceptionalism, nor does it attempt to argue that American’s entrance into the war in 1917 was the sole reason for eventual allied victory over the Central Powers. Indeed, the museum is split into two sections–1914-1917 and 1917-1919–and the former makes almost no mention of the United States at all. I believe this approach challenges museum visitors to consider the United States and its status among the various nations of Europe before its rise as a dominant global superpower following World War II. I also think it helps to highlight the skepticism many Americans felt at the time about getting involved in a war “over there,” a hesitancy we still encounter when forced to decide how to best address foreign policy issues today.
As I made my way through the museum, I felt a profound sense of sadness and empathy for those who endured the horrors of the Great War. Far too many soldiers and civilians died in this terrible conflict, one in which many were sold a load of propaganda and rhetorical lines about nationalism, duty, sacrifice, and their country’s superiority over their enemies. Seeing various military leaders’ uniforms and the lavish insignia that accompanied them made my sadness more acute as I contemplated what it might have been like to be a solider in a conflict with no clear answers, understandings or ending.
Being able to share this important experience with my sister made my visit even better. I highly recommend that visitors to Kansas City check out the National World War I Museum, and I hope to go back and study the museum and its collections further if the opportunity arises again the future.