On Tuesday I attended the announcement for the World War One Centennial Committee For New York City, on the eve of the 99th anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War. The event was held on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, the same spot where so many Veterans Day Parades have marched past.
New York is not going to let the centennial of the war pass without notice. An impressive number of scholars, political leaders, and history enthusiasts are gearing up for a 30-month schedule of programming. It was wonderful to hear about the plans coming up, but also to have in attendance the ambassadors and government representatives from the nations that had been combatants a century ago. I’m very happy that Governors Island National Monument is going to be prominently included.
The city committee is part of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, created by Congress. Since so much history took place in New York, it was felt that the city needed it’s own programming voice. Both the national and the local organizations have planned a host of activities that will honor and remember those that fought and died for our country. (Press release below).
The event was kicked off by William P. Kelly, a director of the NYPL research library. He reminded the crowd of how much the building and the institution of the library played a part in the era. Where the event was held was the same spot that numerous rallies and bond drives took place. We were greeted by Sandra Pershing, who’s late husband, Col. John Warren Pershing III, was the grandson of Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of American forces in France. Dr. Elihu Rose, an adjunct professor from NYU and Columbia, said, “It disappoints me how little American history my students know and that is why this initiative is so important.”
The most stirring moment of the event was hearing Maj. James Hendon, an Army veteran and 2002 West Point graduate. He said we all need to take the time and make an effort to remember this war. To put away our smart phones, and to carve out time to remember this conflict. Maj. Hendon said that while he doesn’t know what it was like to be in the trenches of the Great War, he does have an idea of why the soldiers went to war:
What I can speak to is someone who raised my right hand when I was 17 to join the military and took a commission to join the Army when I was 21 as an infantry officer. Someone who’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I can only talk about the reasons why I went. For me, a long time ago when I was a kid, I decided to do this because it wasn’t necessarily about giving one’s life up for one’s country. It was really about being willing to fight. Being willing to take orders and be willing to, if necessary, to kill. For me I had to come to terms with that by telling myself I was OK with putting all of these things in front of myself because of what America could be. Not necessarily what America was, but had the potential to become. I think the same thing can be said of every man and woman of the sixty million combatants who fought one hundred years ago in World War One, regardless of where you came from. You could come from Bulgaria, Estonia, India, Canada, Australia, Russia, and Britain, from France; wherever you came from, you made a decision that, ‘I want to do my part.’ Recognizing the potential for what things might look like, not in 1914 when things kicked off, not in 1917, when America entered it, but in 2014 and 2017. You did it for tomorrow. So with that in mind, I ask you through this process as we go to different events and different things are discussed, as the geo-politics and the history is covered from a military aspect, from a strategic aspect, from a social aspect, that we never forget why these soldiers, the men and the women, became combatants. They wanted to hold a light up for what tomorrow would look like. We talk about the Harlem Hellfighters, a group of black and Puerto Rican soldiers who fought not based on what things looked like for America in 1917, when that group was federalized, or in 1918 when they were in the trenches for 191 days of ongoing conflict. But for what it would look like now and beyond that. Good luck to the Commission for what lies ahead. I challenge everyone here to live to the potential of what those brave soldiers fought for and God Bless the world.
The Centennial Committee Chairman is Dr. Libby O’Connell. She said that there are numerous partners and plans in place to have a citywide celebration for all ages, and one that is vital to remember what New York was like then, and that it played such a key role in the conflict:
New York was on the forefront of seismic changes brought on by the Great War. Hundreds of thousands of troops trained on our doorstep, shipped out of our harbor, boys who had never been east of Kansas. Here the Women’s Suffrage movement marched up Fifth Avenue. The 369th marched in glorious welcome home. So bittersweet. And of course the first Armistice Day Parade took place, November 11, 1919, right here. Between now, today, and the 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day Parade in 2019, the Committee for New York City is planning educational events, including partnerships with teacher workshops with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, a special undergraduate program with Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, an upcoming academic conference on World War One at Lehman Center for American Studies at Columbia University with Dr. Kenneth Jackson. We’re going to be holding a poster and essay contest for middle and high school students in all of the city schools. Programs in performing arts focused on this era’s jazz, which is said James Reese Europe introduced jazz to Paris and the world. We’re encouraging local groups to adopt each of the 121 World War One memorials within the five boroughs. Our city has done a great job of restoring most of these memorials, but we think it’s important to build bridges within these communities so that those memorials have their own neighborhood support group. So that they won’t need a special restoration in two decades, but in fact that care is ongoing at all times. Underway is a partnership with the National Park Service on Governors Island, which was a military center for New York Harbor for World War One, on July 23 we will commemorate and celebrate that era with World War One theme tours, a Doughboy encampment, film presentations, and live music, inviting all to join us.
The calendar of events is being updated continually. Follow the committee on Twitter for updates.
I am planning and helping to promote a few World War One events, including the Doughboy Day at Fort Jay on Sept. 17. I also lead a walking tour of Cypress Hills National Cemetery for Veterans Day. My next walking tours (free) of Governors Island will be on May 28 and May 29 at 12:15 p.m.
The Press Release (thanks Mike Stouber, Rubenstein Associates)
NYC’s World War One Centennial Committee Announces its Formation to Underscore how that long ago Conflict Continues to Touch the Lives of Every New Yorker
The World War One Centennial Committee for New York City today announced its formation for the purpose of commemorating a century old conflict that continues to impact our city, our nation and the world around us.
From the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue where American Doughboys marched off to war, Centennial Committee Chairman Dr. Libby O’Connell was joined by a gathering of city officials, international diplomats, educators and living historians at the start of a 30-month program of commemoration.
“The city we celebrate today, the faces of our families, America’s role within the international community, and many of the borders that continue to act as dangerous fault lines among nations and people all came about as a result of a world-wide conflict our country entered nearly one hundred years ago today. Over the next year, our mission is to allow the city to reflect on that seminal event and better understand that what occurred so long ago is as current as today’s headlines,” explained Dr. O’Connell, who lost a family member when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U boat off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915. Some 1,198 people were drowned including 128 Americans, and this was among the trigger events that led America into World War I.
Ambassador Vanden Heuvel, a member of the Committee’s Executive Council, stated,
“World War I was a transforming event in the history of western civilization. The new weapons of war – the machine gun, the tank, the airplane, poison gas, compounded the terror of trench warfare. The world stood on the precipice of its own destruction – and nothing was ever the same again.”
A comprehensive campaign to engage the city
The efforts planned by the Committee include educational workshops and seminars for New York teachers with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, an educational partner; supporting the preservation and digitization of the artifacts of the Harlem Hellfighters; classroom essay and poster contests open to all NYC middle and high schools; and the preservation of more than 125 World War I memorials throughout the city.
Former enemies reflect on the cost of conflict
Diplomats from the warring nations of World War I joined hands during the announcement to demonstrate their unanimity and to pause and reflect on the lessons of a conflict where 17 million died, and to recommit to preserving a peace that remains precious. Participants included consular officials representing the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Turkey, India, Ireland and Lithuania.
“’But the right is more precious than peace’….these famous words by President Woodrow Wilson still resonate today when decisions concerning war and peace are made. After almost one hundred years, world wars and multiple other global conflicts, the transatlantic relationship between the U.S. and Germany is as strong as it’s ever been. From foes to friends – it is a lesson of hope for all nations,” stated Consul General Kai Hennig of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Nick Astbury, British Deputy Consul General to New York, reminded, “The United Kingdom is proud to be part of New York City’s commemorations of the First World War, particularly this year as we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme where over a million people were killed or wounded. We honour those who served, remember those who died, and work to ensure that the lessons of that conflict are shared with future generations.”
A conflict that still impacts our American society
Centennial Committee Chair Dr. O’Connell, who also serves as Historian Emeritus of the History Channel, reminded, “From the start of our nation’s modern civil rights movement and women’s suffrage to our city’s emergence on a world stage, throughout New York City you will find a direct connection to World War I.”
New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli told the Centennial Committee that the legacy of World War I is everywhere we look. “My immigrant Italian grandfather returned to Europe as a proud American soldier to fight in France because his adopted country asked him to stand up for our country. Everyone and every nation continues to feel the aftershocks of World War I whether they are aware of it or not, and this Centennial Committee formation seeks to remind us of that fact.”
Sandra Pershing, an Honorary Advisor of the Committee and the granddaughter-in-law of General “Black Jack” Pershing who led American forces in Europe, stated, “It’s time the sacrifices of our World War I veterans are remembered, so that our veterans from today’s conflicts know they will be remembered tomorrow.”
Dr. Elihu Rose, Co-Chair, Park Avenue Armory and a partner in Rose Associates, explained, “My father, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, was hurriedly placed into a regiment heading for battle with men originally from southern states like the Carolinas and Georgia. When I asked him how they got along, he said they all knew the Bible and were over-awed by my father, seeing him as a modern day biblical character, giving him the nickname, Brother Samuel.”
Dr. Rose has also served as an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia, observing “It disappoints me how little American history my students know and that is why this initiative is so important.”
The New York City Committee is part of The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission created by an Act of Congress in 2013. Members of the 12-member Commission were appointed by the President and the leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the National World War I Museum. Its mission includes creating programs, projects and activities that commemorate the “Great War.”
World War I remains America’s forgotten war, even though more Americans gave their lives during that war than during Korea and Vietnam combined, and even though it profoundly shaped the rest of “the American century.” The Commission will use the Centennial as a timely and essential opportunity to educate the country’s citizens about the causes, courses and consequences of the war; to honor the heroism and sacrifice of those Americans who served; and to commemorate through public programs and initiatives the centennial of this global event.
All New Yorkers are encouraged to become directly involved in this effort. Find out how you can learn more by visiting the committee site.