Politics & Policy

Fighting the Great War

The nation’s only World War I museum is worth a visit to Kansas City.

Kansas City, Mo. — Vladimir Putin’s conquest of Crimea is raising the specter of early 20th-century power politics. Coming on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Putin’s aggression is a salutary reminder of the dangers of authoritarian ambition. Long overshadowed by the Second World War (the “Good War”), the “Great War” that ravaged Europe from 1914 to 1918 was in many ways more consequential. In destroying the Russian, German, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian empires, it unleashed a wave of geopolitical change unsurpassed in world history.

Culturally and socially, the Great War was a watershed in Western society, shattering not only Europe’s century of general peace but the very idea of European civilization. For example, George Orwell, in his autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” wrote of the fantastical bubble of the immediate prewar years that the “extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last for ever, and was part of the order of things.”

America’s participation in World War I may have been relatively brief, just 20 months, but it set the stage for America’s eventual superpower status and forced the country to begin a permanent engagement with the rest of the world. We are the heirs of the succeeding century of doubt and cynicism, fueled by alienated intellectuals and the horrors of the Holocaust, driven by dreams of radical democratization and dissatisfied equality. Our angst and lack of certitude were punctuated all too briefly by liberal democracy’s victory in 1945 and America’s post–World War II renaissance. The “American Century” ended all too quickly in the jungles of Vietnam, only briefly revived by the fleeting euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Surprisingly, then, there is in the United States only one memorial and museum dedicated to the Great War. Located in Kansas City, Mo., the Liberty Memorial and National World War I Museum opened in December 2006 and is a state-of-the-art tour de force. Two large, modern exhibit halls divide the war into the years before America entered the conflict and after. Dozens of display cases contain uniforms, weapons, daily items, propaganda, and the like. Stacks of U.S.-issued woolen greatcoats and breeches look as though they have just come out of the factory. An extensive trench system is viewed through portholes, and the differences between those of the Allies and those of the Central Powers is explained (spoiler: the Germans did it better). A couple of planes and a French tank are among the larger set pieces. There is even a 20-foot-deep hole replicating the damage caused by a howitzer shell that hit a French farmhouse. Two large conference-style rooms have workstations with hands-on exhibits and activities for children and adults alike.

Running nearly the length of both halls is a detailed timeline of the years covered by each. Detailed captions accompany nearly every exhibit, often along with audio explanations or recitations of contemporary memoirs, all of which describe the conditions and war aims of the combatants or explain the use of the weapons and other matériel.

The exhibit does a particularly good job of showing the global nature of the conflict, with sections on combat in the Middle East and Asia. There are two excellent videos, one that starts off your tour of the museum before you enter and one — it is projected on hanging sheets over a full-scale model of the front lines below the spectators — that introduces the American entry into the war. Once out of the museum, visitors can go to the observation deck of the 93-year-old Liberty Memorial tower for a spectacular view of Kansas City from 267 feet up.

The museum is worth a visit anytime, but especially over the next four years. However, once you’ve absorbed the flood of information and artifacts, you may become aware of a few, though significant, gaps. In no particular order, here are four weaknesses of the museum.

First, it is almost too evenhanded politically. While the introductory video and exhibits do a good job of explaining the slide into war, there is too little focus on Kaiser Wilhelm’s aggressiveness or czarist Russian obstinacy, not to mention the weak and insular condition of the Hapsburg Empire. Similarly, the museum could highlight more the “guns of August” explanation made famous by Barbara Tuchman, to show how the combatants felt pressured by timetables and the massive requirements of mobilization. One doesn’t have to come away from one’s visit ready to enlist and fight the Hun, but the approach is a bit bloodless.

Second, like many modern museums, it focuses more on the lived aspect of the war and less on the strategy and battles themselves. Perhaps if there had been a section detailing some of the major battles — for example, the Marne in 1914, the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917, and Belleau Wood in 1918 — the visitor would come away with a better sense of the actual ebb and flow of the war. There are some exhibits that detail the stalemate on the Western Front, but with all the information an observer is trying to absorb, a more explicit focus on the strategy of the battles and the disastrous decisions of many of the generals involved would give more life to the exhibits.

Third, the naval and air domains of the war are barely touched, each getting just a corner in space between the two major exhibit halls. There is little discussion of the new technology of airplanes or the development of aerial combat. Similarly, the U-boat campaign is dealt with, but Jutland is covered only cursorily. For those interested in the war in the air, a visit to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio, is a must, with complete coverage of the American air role and visionaries such as Billy Mitchell. Given America’s limited naval action in the war, there is no particularly good place in the States to learn about the Great War’s sea battles, though those in England should travel to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Finally, a section highlighting some of America’s greatest warriors from World War I would have been welcome. There is too little focus on individuals, as opposed to the mass of soldiers. Other than German field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, few generals are singled out, so the visitor does not learn much of the men who waged war, including the commanding U.S. general, John “Black Jack” Pershing. For an American audience, having exhibits on Medal of Honor winners Sergeant Alvin York and pilot Eddie Rickenbacker would introduce formerly household names to a new generation. This absence is particularly disappointing.

Even with its lacunae, the National World War I Museum provides a vital and vibrant picture of the first of the great global disasters of the 20th century. The next half-decade of commemoration will take place in the shadow of the challenges that will define the 21st, such as Ukraine, Iran, and China. Our wisdom in responding to those will determine whether future such museums will be built.

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