A national defense bill released late Tuesday designated Pershing Park in downtown Washington as a national World War I memorial, putting an official stamp on the contentious debate over how and where to recognize the Great War and put it on par with other 20th century conflicts memorialized in the capital.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2015, unveiled by the armed services committees from both chambers of Congress, authorizes sculptural and landscaping changes to the park so it may honor American soldiers who fought in the 1914-1918 war.
Pershing Park is located about a block from the White House and is named for General John J. Pershing, a key officer in the war.
For years, advocates have tried to develop a fitting memorial to World War I as its centennial and associated ceremonies approached.
Prior legislation would have “nationalized” the D.C. World War I Memorial located in a clearing between the Mall’s reflecting pool and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, but city officials resisted, saying the city is too often the subject of federal interference and the memorial should remain its own.
The bill released Tuesday specifically says the national memorial “may not interfere with or encroach on” the city’s memorial.
“I appreciate that our friends in the Republican House and the Democratic Senate have agreed to the re-designation of Pershing Park as the World War I Memorial,” said House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting member of Congress. “Veterans of “the Great War’ deserve and will have a war memorial of their own in the nation’s capital without piggybacking on D.C.’s World War I commemoration on the Mall.”
Pershing Park seemed a natural fit because of its ties to World War I, although some advocates said the memorial should be located on the main cross-section of the Mall with the other memorials to overseas wars.
Yet a 2003 law essentially banned new commemorative works on the strip of federal land, making it difficult to construct a new memorial after the King location opened.