History Straight From the WWI Museum And Memorial

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You may listen to this conversation in its entirety here.

Lori Walsh:                            

Welcome to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. Why wasn't the war to end all wars The last? SDPB TV brings you a new Images of the Past documentary from the Great Plains to the Great War.

Today Jonathan Casey is director of archives and the Edward Jones Research Center at the National World War One museum and memorial. That's in Kansas City, Missouri. He's joining us on the phone today for more perspective as we continue our ongoing conversations about World War I. Jonathan Casey, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us. 

Jonathan Casey:                

You're welcome. Thank you for having me. 

Lori Walsh:                            

Now, I've been to Kansas City a couple times and I did not know about Kansas City's largest museum attraction or most popular or how every ... So tell me a little about this facility overall. 

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, the national World War I museum and memorial dates back to actually the end of the war in 1918 when the citizens of Kansas City and the business leaders and civic leaders got together and decided to build a memorial to the Kansas City who served, and especially those who sacrificed. They went through a lot of planning, and there was a fundraising campaign in 1919, and it raised a couple million dollars for the building of this, eventually the memorial and museum. People voted on having not just a memorial but also a museum, which was fortunate because that's why we have it today, this museum, this world class museum.

There was a site dedication in 1921 that General Pershing was in attendance. Then there was the construction in the mid 20s and then the building opened in 1926 with President Calvin Coolidge here making an address and saying that he brought the authority of the federal government to the memorial, and made it basically the national memorial at that time. Then it just went through the decades and with some support from the city and everything, from Kansas City, Missouri. Then eventually became, through a lot of different iterations, became what you would see today, which is really a world class museum about the story of World War I, not just the American story but everyone's story as much as possible. So it's a real world, international museum, and a large collection, an ever-growing collection from all over the world. 

Lori Walsh:                            

Is it sort of the vision that people in Kansas City must have had in 1919 to raise more than $2 million? Take me back to that time and some of those people and what were they ... I mean, that just seems like an incredibly forward thinking thing to do. 

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, that's Kansas City. They kind of, Kansas City has large spurts of energy at times and throughout its history. And Kansas City was a growing metropolis at the time, and a lot of it I had to do with the war and just, the growth of the Midwest from the turn of the century on, and people just got together and they were, you know, they talked about how well the big cities like New York and Chicago would want to do a memorial and do something really big and significant. And Kansas City should do something just as significant as one of these big cities. So they really got organized fast. 

I mean, the idea came up literally in a newspaper editorial two days before the armistice. The armistice was November 11th of 1918. So they got together very quickly and had mass meetings led by business and civic leaders, and that's why it just happened and people now ask the question, I mean, why here? It's just that Kansas Cityians and just got organized quickly and put everything behind it, And they raised the money. Kind of like as they would have during the war, during the Liberty Loan campaign, they call them liberty Loans to finance the war effort and asking people to sacrifice personally with their finances. 

And people, they did that, they divided up the city like that and just created a whole another campaign, and something like 83000 people contributed some amount of money and it totaled ... They raised actually $2.5 million. $2 million for what became the memorial itself, and then $500000 for other agencies, like the Red Cross that had war debts that they were trying to pay off, and they called those the allied charities, because there was a group of nonprofits, support organizations that were paying off debts. So it was just about organization really and leadership, and things just rolled along from 1918 all the way to the opening of the museum and memorial in 26. 

Lori Walsh:                            

I want to talk a little bit with you about the research center and the research opportunities. The exhibits you can find on the website, the WorldWar.org, but let's really talk about the massive amounts of resources that you have at the museum. 

Jonathan Casey:                

Yes. Well I'm going to of course speak first about the Edward Jones Research Center. It's something that's a ... or it's a research library open to the public, no charge. We're open six days of the week. We're closed on Mondays. The museum itself during the summer's open all seven days. We have a library of 10000 titles of books, articles, and journals. 10000 titles and it's growing. Everything is always growing here. And the collection itself, a large collection that people can research a person could contact me, Jonathan, or the curator and request research by looking at the actual materials that we have in the collection, the objects and the documents and the three dimensional things. If somebody is trying to do some research, and when we'd have that going on. 

Then we have a lot of people come in, walk in public to pretty much ... they're usually looking for someone who was in the war, relative who was in the war, and so they're looking ... Sometimes they have some information, sometimes extensive information, sometimes none whatsoever, then we just try to help them from that point on. We have hard copy resources here. We have rosters. Regarding South Dakota specifically, we've got a few county rosters, what those counties did in the ward who served from those counties. We have a history of South Dakota's effort throughout the war. It's entire statewide effort. 

But we have quite a few rosters and things for states and counties and for units, military units like regiments that people can research. We have online resources and we can tell people kind of where to go for records, what repository might have these World War I records. So we worked with people a lot, the public looking for family, and that's probably most of our business. People do a lot of research as well, whether it's by appointment or not. We help a lot. 

And that's the Edward Jones Research Center. It's on the lower level of the museum. There's lots going on. We have lots of exhibitions, permanent kind of overall exhibition, our main gallery that tells the whole story of the war, and then there's changing exhibitions every year and even within years, there's some that are up for just three or four months and some up six months. One is opening just this Friday the 29th about Jewish Americans in the war. 

So there's a lot going on, and with that also programming that's tied into all those exhibitions. 

Lori Walsh:                            

I want to talk a little bit about, you said people come looking for a relative, for example, or they're doing a research project, but when people come in there looking for a relative they're looking for a story. In your experience, what are they really looking for? What's the bigger thing that they ... I mean, you must help some people at least really find information that they didn't know or that they wanted to know, where they thought they knew and then you've confirmed it. Tell me what that experience is like. 

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, sometimes you get to where somebody comes in and they have information, and they kind of know where their relative served in France, let's say, and then what unit he was in, and we can help a lot put context to that, because we do have a lot of unit histories and we even have these histories have maps and that's just something very specific to have a map and to show the location of the geography of a location and where that person was. Some people come in and they have it down to almost a crossroads in some village in France as to where my grandfather served and he was wounded. We've been able to help with that for the most part, and get people, just give them a better understanding and context of where that relative served. 

And we can also kind of expand on that. We have a lot of contacts with other records repositories and things. Then we can try to expand on what they're, the knowledge that they could get, the information that they could get about their relative. A lot of the patrons here in the library are just kind of ... even they just have a name and they do have some idea, know the person was overseas or whatever, and then maybe he was wounded, maybe even killed. Then we just try to expand on that, again, using our resources and follow up with that. 

And we stay in touch, encourage people if they go to these other repositories and get some information to tell me about and give me some feedback so that we can learn better ourselves as an institution what else is out there and across the country in terms of where these records are. Because it's about telling people about World War I records since we're in the centennial of the war and we're in the last year of that centennial that the US was involved in the fighting; we just have reached out to, again, these places with where the records are across the country to find out what's out there and we encourage people to look up when they're looking at their relatives to contact these repositories for information.

Lori Walsh:                           

As people come in and you continue to learn what are some of the lessons from World War I that consistently stand out to you as a researcher again and again, whether it's through looking at the past or looking at the news of Europe today. What are some of those connections that you make? 

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, that World War I did change a whole lot of things. We always talk about that, just how it obviously influenced the rest of the century. It just had an impact on the rest of the century's history and a lot in just what people thought about themselves, kind of their national or ethnic identity. A lot of that comes up in World War I, and self determination and that, that comes out of a lot of thinking that President Wilson did and a lot of his ideas of things, and I think that's kind of shaped things down the road that came out with after World War II, the United Nations and our treaties with NATO and everything, and being a part of that, and trying to influence events in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Hopefully in a way that's non-conflict. Hopefully in a peaceful way to influence where there wouldn't be any prevent conflict. 

And so there's a broad picture like that, just overall international relations. I think that it's ... World War I is obviously very influential, but it's just a special time, that in only really World War II where you have the whole society's involved in everything, in this huge effort. And conflicts since World War II, especially really haven't been that much, there have been people supporting our involvement in some conflict or not back and forth. I mean, there's always both sides of that. It's just totally different when you come to something the size of World War I and the scale of it and, and just what people were asked as a society to sacrifice and what they were asked to do to support the war effort. It's just something that's pretty amazing and kind of hard to understand as our society is today and the way we do things in the 21st century. 

There's again, a lot of things that could be seen as relevant in technology, developments in technology. Just about social issues, civil rights and all kinds of things that stem from that time that were kind of gathering force leading up to World War I, but really got accelerated because of World War I and our position in the world ... again, back to that what are our diplomatic position is and our military position in the world. So it's, again, a lot of things happened then and still continue to this day 100 years later that's still influenced by that. 

Lori Walsh:                            

When we say, the war to end all wars, and you talk about what was expected of people, is that a true statement that people really had this notion that this was a once and for all kind of thing? And did that influence the amount of expectation and participation, that they really felt like this was a watershed moment for all time? 

Jonathan Casey:                

Yeah, I think on the surface, I think just looking at across our society at the time, I think that's true. I think people thought this, if we make this effort and of course to understand that the war was going on about three years before we got involved, but we were obviously aware of it and had a contact with. We were involved in a sense of supplying war material to the allies primarily. And so we were connected throughout our society, but not so much until we declared war in April of 1917. Then everybody kind of had to join the fight. 

But I think people were saying that we can make a difference. That's what the people were told by the government. And that's what kind of all the themes are about saving the world for democracy and for civilization and things that seem, some of these sort of archaic, really people I think had that idea that they would go in, if we just helped finish this thing, just get it over with and get ... and we believed we were fighting on the right side of things and the great cause of things, that we could make the world a better place. And that's the idea. Yeah. 

So the answer is a big yes in a general way. There were always those people though who are ... just people saying that, you know, this, it's not that simple and the international situation got really complicated really fast after the war immediately. It just is never that simple of course, but people felt I think with the effort that they were, number one, they were being patriotic. They were doing their duty. They were serving whether they were in the military or on the home front, they were serving and being a part of it. And it was seen as a history changing event. 

Lori Walsh:                            

Let's close with this. And that's when people come home. How is that, the Midwest area, whether it's Kansas City or a little bit behind if you can, how did the veterans and the people who participated in that effort from the home front really change America and the Midwest? 

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, they came home .. and to, just recognition to people who came home, and they had their parades and they built their victory arches. It's interesting, even big city like Kansas City or it could be a little town, they all had kind of like a parade and an actual ... and an arch that they would march through, and they had people just recognizing that this was something, a big accomplishment. The United States was successful. We had helped the winning side of the war. It came out the way we wanted, at least at that time. This is 1919, so forth. There were a lot of celebrations. Huge celebrations that the war was over, and they came home. There was ... people came back, they had a readjustment. There was a period, like after every war, especially something of this scale of World War I. A lot of servicemen had to go back to civilian life, how to adjust to that. But they were ... I think a lot of them now had a lot of self confidence.

I mean, our military establishment was so small before and people weren't ... there're various organizations in society to join and things, but people were pretty much, I think, aware of just what their local surroundings were. They were real parochial about things and not so much worldly. I think coming back, having seen other places and all that, just in a broad sense, these men and women who were overseas and who served in this country as well, but in other, could have served wherever in the country and come from the Midwest, that they saw a lot of things. They experienced a lot. They developed a lot of skills, like leadership skills and organizational skills. They built up a lot of self confidence. Came back as leaders for the communities, not just in the Midwest but everywhere. 

And the army encouraged that. The armed forces encouraged that. If you're going back to civilian life be proud of your service, be a leader in your community. And that's what happened. A lot of young people, that's what they were mostly, a lot of young men and women, now for the next generation of leadership. And it's what happened again after World War II and so forth. 

I think that's ... so it's true in the Midwest or anywhere in the country. There was just a lot of young people who came back and wanted to make a difference. That's in a broad, very broad sense. 

Lori Walsh:                            

Jonathan Casey is director of archives in the Edward Jones Research Center at the National World War I museum and memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. You can find it on two memorial drive in Kansas City through labor day. Their hours are 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Sunday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Saturday. Jonathan Casey, thank you so much for being here with us today. We appreciate your time.

Jonathan Casey:                

Well, you're welcome. Thank you very much.


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