“Armed neutrality is ineffectual enough at best… it is likely only to produce what it was meant to prevent; it is practically certain to draw us into the war without either the rights or the effectiveness of belligerents… the wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.”
-Woodrow Wilson, Speech to Congress, April 2, 1917
The decision to intercede in World War I remains a controversial one to this day, haunting the legacy of the Wilson administration. In addition to setting the tune of American foreign policy with an internationalist ring, Wilson committed 4,000,000 soldiers to France during the war. Of these doughboys, roughly 1,000,000 were processed through Camp Merritt, New Jersey.
The trial endured by the citizen soldiers of the Great War, while popular in historical memory, is less well championed by the general public. How wars are memorialized is an integral step to healing the wounds it has caused. Additionally, memorials themselves are important to remembering what transpired and who was affected. Today, there is no museum where the army base once stood, only a single lonely obelisk in the middle of a Cresskill traffic loop. Though an impressive sight, when juxtaposed with the monumental importance of Merritt, the obelisk seems more like a testament less to those who served and more to how lost Hemingway’s generation was.
The camp itself served as a way point and training station for US servicemen on their way to France. Of considerable size, Merritt stretched across 770 acres of land that now makes up the Boroughs of Dumont, Cresskill, Haworth and Demarest. The camp boasted a whole self contained society that included amenities such as tailor shops, fire departments and athletic clubs. This infrastructure was needed to mitigate the impact of the 1919 influenza outbreak that hit the base in March. As many as 1000 cases of hospitalization from Spanish Influenza were reported by October that year. Merritt was closed in January 1920 and its staff was reassigned to Fort Dix.
In 1924, during a procession overseen by General John J. Pershing, the 65 foot obelisk that currently stands in Cresskill was dedicated opened to the public. Now the monument stands alone in a park with no chairs or recreational attractions, only a few trees as company. It lumbers mute and somber over passing cars and local East Asian eateries; it is almost an unwelcome anachronism reminding the locals of what transpired in their town. The 578 lives lost in the camp adorn the sides of the monument while the front brandishes a relief of an idealized soldier in the Neo-Classical style that characterizes much of American art.
The monument lets you know that people died there and that the location related in some way to the war. However, the monument clearly does little to tell the story of Camp Merritt; nothing is truly said about what happened in Cresskill in 1917 or how important the work done by the Americans there was to the defeat of the Central Powers. Does the memorial truly help America remember the sacrifices endured by the million soldiers who were processed through Merritt or is it merely paying lip service to the war that fundamentally altered a generation of Americans?
For Further Reading:
Kevin Wright, “Camp Merritt,” Bergen County Historical Society, http://www.bergencountyhistory.org/Pages/campmerritt.html.
Bartholf, Howard E. “Camp Merritt, New Jersey,” On Point: The Journal of Army History, 2008 vol. 14, no. 2.