With World War I Centennial Commemoration In Kansas City, Hope That History Won't Repeat

Apr 5, 2017

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend a centennial commemoration of the United States’ entry into World War I in Kansas City on Thursday.

“It’s really appropriate that the national ceremony be here, the place where for the last 90 years, people have been gathering to pay tribute to those who served in World War I,” Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, says.

In 1919, a year after the war ended, it took Kansas Citians just 10 days to raise $2.5 million – the equivalent of $40 million today – for an enduring monument to those who served. The five Allied commanders traveled to Kansas City in 1921 to dedicate the spot where the museum is today.

“This is a time where you can’t just get on a plane and fly here,” Naylor says. “They had to go by train. They had to go by ship.”

Once the Liberty Memorial was erected, President Calvin Coolidge returned to Kansas City in 1926. Nearly 150,000 people turned out at a time when the population of the city was only 250,000.

A museum opened beneath the memorial in 2006. The museum sells a two-day ticket, Naylor says, because it’s easy for those who love history to get lost in the exhibits.

“What we’ve found is people who have little interest in history, they love it too,” he says. “Because of the way in which the stories are told, it seems to connect with people at a really deep level.”

The glass bridge over a field of poppies is CEO Matthew Naylor's favorite part of the museum.
Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

Naylor says the history of the war is still relevant today in an America divided over immigration policy.

One in five who served in World War I for the United States was foreign-born.

“This is a country of immigrants. There were 10 million German immigrants in the United States at the time,” Naylor says. “The decision to enter the war was a difficult one. We want to represent that story.”

Naylor says Thursday’s ceremony will elevate the voices left out of previous commemorations – those of women and minorities. The museum is expecting guests from 20 different countries. Though there are no tickets left, the commemoration will be live-streamed on the museum’s website.

A hundred years on, Naylor says the memorial sits atop the intersection of hope and loss.

“We talk about the ardor of war, the pain of war, the sorrow, the suffering, the courage, the sacrifice,” he says. “We also talk about the hope and yearning for a more peaceful world.”

After all, the people who came to Kansas City to dedicate the Liberty Memorial all those years ago hoped they had created a lasting peace.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Julie Denesha contributed to this report.