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ACG interviews the chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission.

During World War I (1914-18), also known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars, 4 million Americans served in uniform and over 116,000 died. This tragic period in history will take center stage over the next four years as the 100th anniversary of World War I is commemorated. To spearhead this monumental effort in the United States, Congress chartered the World War I Centennial Commission. The commission will offer opportunities for the public to learn about the sacrifices of the World War I generation and to understand how the events of a century ago have affected our nation, its people and the world.

Robert J. Dalessandro, Executive Director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History/Chief of Military History, leads the World War I Centennial Commission and was appointed to it by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California. Dalessandro has 31 years of service with the Department of Defense, both as a commissioned officer and (since 2011) as a member of the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service. He has taught military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, was in charge of the Army Heritage Center at Carlisle Barracks, and created the acclaimed history exhibits on display at the Pentagon.

Why was the World War I Centennial Commission formed and what is its charter?

DALESSANDRO: We were fortunate enough to get the World War I Centennial Commission created by the government in 2013 as a national-level organization. Our charter is to develop educational programs targeting a wide audience to increase awareness; organize activities, events and symposiums; have a national World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.; and interact with Congress regarding what events they should attend. We intend to inform and educate Americans by honoring and commemorating what happened 100 years ago in what I believe is somewhat of a “forgotten war,” partially because there are no more living veterans, unlike World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Why is it important to commemorate World War I?

DALESSANDRO: Everything in the world was different after World War I; one [difference] was ethnicities, such as African-Americans, fighting for the United States, as well as immigrants of all nationalities who came through Ellis Island, many of whom were part of the universal draft. Additionally, Rosie the Riveter representing women’s contributions celebrated in World War II doesn’t happen without their efforts in World War I. It also changed our country with the phrase, “How can you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” The effects on our society and self-determination with President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” are hugely important, and we still live with the consequences of World War I every single day.

What are some of the major activities the commission is planning?

DALESSANDRO: We are already partnering with the A&E Network and the History Channel, and we plan to reach 10 million students through an education curriculum, teacher guides, lesson plans, national essay contests, and building a digital learning program. We will also be running a train exhibit and interacting with the other Allied powers. We are recasting Pershing Park (named for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing) in Washington with signage, green space, and commemorating the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). We are also inspecting World War I memorials across the country and encouraging restoration, and we are asking students to look up the names to see what these Soldiers did, as part of a World War I Memorial Inventory Project, and listing the results on our website. We have three categories for commemorations, a series of academic lectures, a genealogy project, and a trade show of sorts to get everyone together. My dream is for people to go onto our website, type in a name, and get that person’s records. We also plan services at the National Cathedral in Washington, at Arlington National Cemetery, and in France for the [centennial of the] arrival of the AEF in July 1917, as well as for Armistice Day in 1918. Lastly, there will be a Fleet Week in New York City [marking the] 1919 arrival home of our troops.

How can our readers and the public support the centennial?

DALESSANDRO: We consider ACG readers our apostles, and the best way for them and all others to support us is to visit our website at, where visitors can find information about how to make donations to us as a 501c3 tax-deductible organization.

What is the most important thing you want Americans to learn about World War I?

DALESSANDRO: That we can learn from the sacrifices of those who came before us, allowing us to enjoy our freedoms. The sacrifice made by these Soldiers was no less than their children made in World War II, yet there is no signature battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, in our national consciousness.

You are an acknowledged authority on World War I. How does that help you in your duties as commission chairman?

DALESSANDRO: It gives me perspective in what I want to be accomplished. It’s good for me to understand the war as a whole so I can work closely with our diverse group on the commission, who like me are all dedicated to supporting this effort.

Is there a particular movie that you believe captures World War I?

DALESSANDRO: Wars are often historically shaped by Hollywood, but I don’t know that there is one that truly defines World War I and what the American Soldier experienced in France. One of my favorites is Wings (1927), which describes aerial dogfights during the war.

Who are the World War I leaders you most admire?

DALESSANDRO: I am a huge Pershing fan, since he was the first American general to face fighting in a coalition. He gained graduate-level experience to take a United States Army to fight in Europe, and he is to be admired for what he did. Additionally, there were many big names from World War II who learned their craft in World War I, perhaps most importantly George C. Marshall.

What do you consider the most important traits of great leaders?

DALESSANDRO: For them to not change in any period, and to exhibit determination, which Pershing possessed. Also, that they not be married to one way of doing things and to show flexibility so that if something didn’t work the first time they could go at it a different way. Great leaders don’t quit and can shape the outcome they want.

What aspects of military history other than World War I most interest you?

DALESSANDRO: The Civil War and Gettysburg are probably of greatest interest to me, although the Colonial period and the Revolutionary War come in a close second. Of course, World War I is always there.


John Ingoldsby conducted this interview. He is an award-winning writer on the intersection of sports and the military and is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment Inc. (, a public relations and media firm in Boston.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.