Tomb's original vision, introduced by Legion founder, endures – The American Legion

The fledgling American Legion – less than two years old at the time – inspired U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish, R-N.Y., to draft and introduce legislation to bring the Unknown Soldier home in 1921, Arlington National Cemetery Senior Historian Allison S. Finkelstein explained in a lecture Monday.
“In Hamilton Fish’s memoirs, he talks about his role in founding The American Legion and how his membership influenced him and really made him feel obligated to put forth this legislation to create the Tomb,” Finkelstein told a group in Crystal City, Va., as the week of commemorations around the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier continued.
“He even talks about how the Legion really influenced him, and in (congressional hearings in 1921) there were members of The American Legion who testified to Congress in support of Fish’s measure, explaining why it was important to them to have the Tomb. So, The American Legion was really a part of this from the start.”
World War I Legionnaires later provided uniformed accompaniment and security for the Unknown Soldier after selection was made at the city hall in Chalons-en-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 1921. They escorted the fallen hero from there to the port at Le Havre for his long trip across the ocean to the U.S. Naval Yard in Washington, D.C., the Capitol Rotunda where some 90,000 would visit him, before his entombment at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1921.
The same kind of American Legion support was shown to leaders of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier last month when American Legion Paris Post 1 members and others joined former tomb guards and supporters in a ceremonial retracing of the journey across France 100 years ago.
As the years unfolded after the 1921 dedication, The American Legion lobbied for sunrise-to-sunset military protection of the Tomb in 1926, followed by 24/7 guarding in 1937, which continues today. In 1969, The American Legion’s 50th anniversary “Gift to the Nation” raised more than $200,000 to light the Tomb at night.
“(Legionnaires) pop up again and again and really do have a long connection,” Finkelstein said.
Monday’s lecture series also included a session led by American Battle Monuments Commission Historian Benjamin Brands, who discussed the relationship between the Unknown Soldier and the 1923 origin of the ABMC, which today has charge of 26 overseas U.S. military cemeteries and 32 monuments in 17 countries. The 124,000 burial sites at ABMC cemeteries are joined by “an additional 83,000 names honored … for the missing,” Brands said.
“Much like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the origin of ABMC dates to the massive deaths of World War I. During the war, over 100,000 American war dead were buried close to where they fell, in some 2,300 temporary cemeteries. This work was the responsibility of the Graves Registration Service, uniformed personnel, and they worked hard to properly mark and identify the dead. But the chaos of combat and the destruction of modern weaponry meant that over 1,600 remains were unidentified amongst over 4,000 missing in action at the end of the war.”
Those temporary cemeteries – including the four from which the Unknown Soldier candidates were chosen – were later consolidated into eight permanent World War I sites, and some of the fallen whose remains were previously unknown, were identified in the relocation process. After 1934, only 26 more Unknowns from World War I would be positively identified, due largely to random discoveries in such places as farm fields, as recently as 2009.
American families were given the option to have their loved ones buried overseas or repatriated to the United States in both world wars. Almost exactly 40% of families from both wars chose burial in ABMC cemeteries. Nearly all of the Unknowns, except those in the tomb and crypts at Arlington National Cemetery, are laid to rest in permanent cemeteries overseas.
The early ABMC – led by American Expeditionary Forces commanding Gen. John Pershing after its creation – was authorized to consolidate the many temporary cemeteries of World War I into eight, as well as erect 11 monuments and two memorial markers following the armistice. It took over a decade to transfer all the bodies and build out the new sites. Dedication ceremonies planned for 1934 had to be put off until 1937 due to the Great Depression.
Great Britain and France each had ceremonially buried one Unknown Soldier of World War I in 1920 – a year ahead of the Americans – and, said Brands, “these sites came to represent all the war dead.” A movement soon followed to have one American Unknown Soldier brought home for the same purpose. Fish introduced the legislation, and the scope of the project immediately began to broaden.
Finkelstein said that during congressional debate in February 1921, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John A. Lejeune testified that the American Unknown Soldier would serve as “a symbol of all of those killed in battle,” Finkelstein recounted.
Brands also noted that Pershing told Congress during the debate that the Tomb would be “a tribute from the nation, to pay not only to the unknown dead, but to all who gave their lives, and those who risked their lives for their country.”
On March 4, 1921, in one of the final acts of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson signed Fish’s bill into law.
President Warren G. Harding’s speech on Nov. 11, 1921, reflected on how the Unknown Soldier stood for any, and all, Americans. “In his speech during the Unknown’s funeral, President Harding explained that the Unknown ‘might have come from any one of millions of American homes.’ The Allied nations presented the Unknown with medals, and he was laid to rest in a hastily constructed tomb overlooking the nation’s capital.”
The first design of the Tomb was a controversy. Multiple versions, including one that was installed in plaster and others that were much bigger and more ornate, were considered. Eleven years later, following a national design competition, the familiar, simple design was installed.
The actual location of the Tomb was among the issues Congress debated in early 1921. One site suggested was the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. “An interesting thought,” Brands said, “and lucky for all of us, they didn’t do that because, can you imagine with 2021 security, trying to visit the Tomb of the Unknown inside on a daily basis if it is located inside the Capitol?’”
Prior to the Tomb’s arrival, Arlington National Cemetery was largely the final resting place of military personnel from the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. The Tomb’s arrival, followed by around-the-clock military protection and the “changing of the guard” ceremony that draws millions of visitors each year, changed the national cemetery’s identity.
“Although it began as a First World War grave, the Tomb … started to serve even more as a symbol of nationalism and American military power,” Finkelstein said.
At the time of its dedication, shortly after the Spanish flu pandemic killed millions worldwide, including tens of thousands of World War I personnel, the Tomb’s appearance likely resonated on multiple levels, Finkelstein said. “Think about the creation of the Tomb right after the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Think about these people mourning in 1921. They haven’t just experienced war deaths from combat. But they experienced war deaths from influenza. They experienced civilians – their neighbors, families and friends – dying and suffering from influenza. We can all connect to that today. So, they are not that different from us.”
In the mid-1930s, some believed America had already fought the “war to end all wars.” Future realities would change ABMC’s mission and, eventually, deepen the meaning of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington.
“America’s entry into another war was going to expand the mission of both ABMC and the Tomb and what we thought they were going to be,” Brands said. “There was actually a period in the ‘30s when ABMC was preparing to shut down as an agency and turn over care for the cemeteries to the embassies, but that didn’t occur, partially because President Roosevelt decides that he is not going to shutter ABMC while Gen. Pershing is still alive. What he didn’t know at the time is that Gen. Pershing would outlive him by three years, and then, of course, World War II changes things.”
Plans for a separate World War II Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were scuttled when the Korean War broke out. “Any plans to dedicate assets, to bring an Unknown home, were put on hold,” Brands told the group.
After the Korean War, talk of any separate, stand-alone tombs on the site disappeared. Unknown Soldiers from the Pacific and the European Theaters were chosen, as was a Korean War Unknown, for ceremonies in 1958. They would be buried in crypts in front of the original tomb.
By adding two new Unknowns, the Tomb evolved, Finkelstein said. “Many ceremonial events that had been done in 1958 were repeated. Then, on Memorial Day 1958, a dual funeral interred these two Unknowns at the Tomb. It’s important to know that this differentiated the American tomb from many others. Most countries did not have Unknowns from later wars added to their tombs. The Tomb was now even more uniquely American.”
“Many Americans who go to Arlington and visit the Tomb and watch the changing of the guard probably don’t know that there are three bodies there,” Brands said. “I think many think it’s a single one. Some might even believe it is empty, just a symbol.” He said that’s a common misperception even at the ABMC cemeteries in Europe.
In 1984, the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier was buried in a crypt in front of the original Tomb, alongside the others. By that time, with advancing technology, the question arose about whether or not he would remain unknown forever. He did not.
DNA testing revealed in 1998 that the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier was actually U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, who was disinterred and moved to the Jefferson Barracks Cemetery near St. Louis following the revelation. His empty crypt “now stands as a monument to all missing and unknown Americans who served in the Vietnam War,” Finkelstein said. “It signals that there may never be another unidentified servicemember buried at the Tomb.”
Brands said the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, with support from ABMC, identifies “a dozen or so” previously unknown World War II personnel buried overseas, through DNA testing, after thorough historical and genetic research. “They have a huge staff of historians that does research and tries to correlate specific unknowns to specific individuals,” Brands said. “They track down descendants, take DNA, and if they get to a certain probability, they will disinter remains and do DNA testing.”
Still, nearly 6,000 Americans who served in World War II are “known but to God,” as are more than 1,600 from World War I. They join the nearly 79,000 from World War II who remain missing in action and the 4,453 from World War I whose names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at ABMC cemeteries. The 8,201 missing from the Korean War and 2,504 MIA from Vietnam are honored by name at the ABMC memorial in Honolulu, Brands said.
“So, I think there is a very strong connection in the universality of the Tomb and the significance of our sites,” Brands said. “Our sites also serve, much as the Tomb does, as a place of mourning and remembrance.”
As Arlington National Cemetery and ABMC continue to grow their portfolios of online, virtual and printed educational materials for new generations – who may never see another Unknown Soldier interred anywhere – the vision of 1921 remains intact.
“Congress and the War Department repeatedly created opportunities for the public to participate and connect to the Unknown Soldier,” Finkelstein said. “They understood, even in 1921, that for many people, this could be a moment of possible closure from the tragedies of the war, or the chance, perhaps, to say good-bye to a fallen family member or friend … Even early on, it was really intended to be a people’s memorial, accessible to all who wished to engage with it.”
Future understanding, she added, is “about teaching Americans and people around the world about the Tomb, finding that human connection, and incorporating it into curriculum. I think it also has to do with making people feel invested. If you don’t feel like this matters to you, then why, 20 or 30 years from now, are you as an American going to be interested in the Tomb? You are not. That’s why personal parts of the story are important … to explain to people that the Tomb doesn’t belong to the people of 1921; it doesn’t belong to just veterans; it doesn’t belong, if I may, to just tomb guards. It really belongs to everybody, and everybody has a stake in it.”

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