Editorial: In sacrifice for liberty and peace — Kansas City commemorates World War I

Each of the 9,000 poppies beneath the glass bridge at the National World War I Museum represents 1,000 soldiers killed during World War I.
Each of the 9,000 poppies beneath the glass bridge at the National World War I Museum represents 1,000 soldiers killed during World War I. syang@kcstar.com

The eyes of the nation are on Kansas City and its National World War I Museum and Memorial at Liberty Memorial as we commemorate the centennial of the U.S. entering into World War I. That bloody conflict marked a definitive break from the 19th century, and it still offers weighty lessons as we progress in the 21st.

We didn’t enter into the war gladly. As strife tore across Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed unambiguous neutrality. But Germany’s continued aggressive expansion of naval warfare, and its clandestine proposal to draw Mexico into cooperation with the Central Powers, meant that by 1917 the U.S. could remain impartial no longer.

The April 6, 1917, afternoon edition of The Kansas City Star noted that Montana’s Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the only female member of Congress, wept as she cast her no vote that day. “I want to stand by my country,” she said, “but I can’t vote for war.” Forty-nine of her colleagues agreed, but the pacifists lost.

Nineteen months later, the war was over, and jubilation over the Allies’ victory led to one of Kansas City’s most auspicious moments. The idea to construct a monument honoring the more than 116,000 Americans who perished overseas didn’t originate in a Washington, D.C., committee. Rather, an editorial in the Nov. 9, 1918, Kansas City Journal led the charge. “Price does not matter,” the paper declared, urging the city to act on the rush of patriotism sweeping the country.

And the public responded. Lumber magnate R.A. Long and real estate mogul J.C. Nichols assumed leadership roles in raising money and securing the blighted promontory across from the entrance to Union Station.

But the real marvel was the public fundraising drive, much of it conducted door to door by ordinary Kansas Citians. In just 10 days, more than 83,000 people in a city of 325,000 had contributed $2.5 million — $2 million for construction of the Liberty Memorial, the rest for the Allied charities. That would be more than $40 million in today’s dollars.

As dignitaries from around the country and world gather at Liberty Memorial and its world-class museum to remember the past, we should all contemplate the sphinx “Memory” on the west side of the deck. Its wings are drawn over its eyes to shield them from the horrors witnessed on European battlegrounds.

World War I was known as both the War to End All Wars and the Great War. It didn’t, and it wasn’t. There is nothing great about any war.

Its hostilities would not have spread to the Asian and Middle Eastern theaters if not for Europe’s established colonial reach. Many see echoes of that order today in some Western leaders’ globalist economic ambitions.

President Donald Trump is fond of proclamations that the U.S. will strike better “deals” with other nations now that he is in office. That America’s NATO allies haven’t been pulling their weight. That we should have “taken the oil” in the second Iraq war. That the U.S. will kill terrorists and “take out their families,” too.

Those bellicose statements are unsettling to seasoned leaders who know their history. A seemingly minor misstep in a geopolitical hotspot could snowball into a crisis quickly.

Today’s ceremonies at the memorial are an international tribute to the lessons learned in the past century. The U.S. must commit to join other nations in keeping the peace around the world.