Pershing to be Diminished in New WWI Monument Because America has ‘Moved Away’ from ‘Great Man’ Memorials

National Parks Service
National Parks Service

World War I has received increased attention since its centennial commemoration in 2014, and that attention has led to a push for the Great War to finally have a proper memorial in Washington D.C.

The WWI Centennial Commission is accepting design submissions until July 21, and they hope the project will be completed by the centennial of the WWI’s end on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2018.

The memorial is slated for construction in the oft-overlooked Pershing Park at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which makes it more than unfortunate that the Commission has already decided to shove Gen. John Pershing aside in their plans.

According to the Washington Post, the vice chairman of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission Edwin L. Fountain said that the new memorial would include the 35-year-old statue of Pershing that is currently at the site, but that it would definitely not be the centerpiece.

Fountain said tellingly, “The memorial as it stands now, the focus obviously is on Gen. Pershing. And with all due respect to him, we’ve moved away from the ‘great man’ approach to war memorials.”

Pershing was by all means a “great man” and it would be a travesty to diminish his role in the War to End All Wars. As the only American to have held the rank “General of the Armies” besides George Washington, Pershing was the undisputed face of the American Expeditionary Force that arrived in Europe to tilt the war in favor of the Allies.

Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, a Missouri native, was a distinguished graduate of the United States Military Academy of West Point who earned his nickname from his command of black “Buffalo Soldiers” in the state of Montana. He earned a reputation as a particularly tough soldier on the American frontier, fighting Apache and Sioux Indians.

Historian Harry W. Crocker III wrote in The Yanks Are Coming: A Military History of the United States in World War I that Pershing stood out even in his early years as a  soldier.

Crocker wrote:

Throughout his years as an Indian fighter, Pershing distinguished himself as a tough, talented, and dedicated officer. He taught himself Indian languages; led a company of Sioux scouts; became an expert marksman with revolver and rifle; looked after his men to an unusual degree, ensuring they were properly provided with clothing, supplies and equipment (especially during the winter campaigning in South Dakota); and almost invariably retired with a book in his hand.

These qualities of a natural leader are a large part why Pershing rose so quickly in rank and was entrusted with incredible responsibilities at a young age. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Pershing was acting as a badly-needed instructor at West Point. He performed dutifully, but wanted a chance to serve on the front lines.

Pershing eventually got his chance to fight in Cuba and even took part in the charge up San Juan Hill which made Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders famous.

The remarkably brave charge up the hill to take the Spanish fortification moved Pershing deeply as he witnessed the finest qualities of the American people in the shadow of the Civil War fought less than a half century before.

Pershing said:

Each officer or soldier next in rank took charge of the line or group immediately in his front or rear and halting to fire at each good opportunity, taking reasonable advantage of cover, the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.

During Pershing’s fighting in the Spanish-American war, one soldier remarked, “the gallant Pershing . . . was as cool as a bowl of cracked ice.” Pershing’s commanding officer Colonel Theodore Baldwin wrote glowingly in a letter to the future General of the Armies, “I have been in many and through the Civil War, but on my word ‘You were the coolest and bravest man I ever saw under fire in my life.’”

After the Spanish-American War, Pershing fought successfully against the Moro insurgency in the Philippines and unsuccessfully pursued legendary Mexican raider Pancho Villa—yet still managed to quell an insurrection on the border. When the United States entered World War I, Pershing was on a short list to command the American Expeditionary Force, and was given the command by President Woodrow Wilson after only a short deliberation.

The AEF arrived in France in June, 1917 and paraded to much fanfare in Paris on July 4. The parade was a tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was much beloved in the United States due to his aid in America’s War for Independence. The arrival of Pershing and the American military was met with overwhelming enthusiasm by the French, who saw the Americans as perfect replacements for their dwindled regiments and armies.

However, Pershing was absolutely insistent that American forces fight together and be lead by Americans, not French and British allies. Historian John Keegan wrote in The First World War that “French and British military professionals” believed that American soldiers “were suitable only as replacements or subordinate units.” But Pershing would “have none of it.” He insisted that American Doughboys would fight under a united American command.

Though the American soldiers were years behind their European counterparts in training and experience, when put to the test, Pershing’s army performed well and began tipping the scales against Germany. Successes in the battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive–the largest battle in American history up until that time–proved that the American military could stand toe-to-toe with any in the world.

Though the American Expeditionary Force played an invaluable role in securing victory for the Allied powers, Pershing believed it was a critical mistake not not to drive all the way through Germany and force them to accept unconditional surrender. German arms had mostly been defeated in the field and were at the end of their rope, but many Germans thought that they had been betrayed by their leaders into accepting bad surrender terms. Failure to convince the Germans of their total defeat undoubtedly contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Though it is impossible to predict how history would have changed, Pershing had a strong point that a total victory could have prevented future bloodshed.

Pershing was one of the great men in American history; he was emblematic of a generation that witnessed the close of the Western frontier and the birth of the United States as a world superpower.

Most of the statues and monuments in the nation’s capitol are a product of immense care from past generations of Americans and were crafted with amazing skill. It will reflect poorly on our own generation if we allow this important dedication to Pershing and those that fought in the First World War to turn into a sad, postmodern farce. We should not allow Pershing’s memorial to suffer a fate similar to that of the proposed atrocious Gen. Dwight Eisenhower memorial that thankfully appears to be nearly dead after fifteen years of planning and millions of dollars wasted.

When the First World War came to a close, Pershing headed the American Battle Monuments Commission that created tributes to the American soldiers who fought and died fighting in France. Pershing understood the importance of keeping their sacrifice alive for future generations. It is only fitting that Pershing receive a place at the forefront of any World War I memorial in D.C.; the distinguished and commanding presence of “Black Jack” Pershing’s statue should remain front and center.


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