By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Back in 1926, nobody balked when President Calvin Coolidge dedicated Kansas City's towering Liberty Memorial as the national memorial to the First World War.
But as the 100th anniversary of the beginning of "the Great War" approaches in 2014, a tussle has broken out between Kansas City and Washington, D.C. over which city should be the site of the nation's "official" World War One memorial.
In 2004, Congress voted to designate the Kansas City memorial as the official museum, but late last year support emerged for having the memorial on the National Mall in the nation's capital.
A bill designating both locations as national memorials has also stalled, delaying fundraising for the U.S. observation of the approaching centennial.
World War One started in 1914 when the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The war drew all the great powers into battle and the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917 on the side of allies fighting Germany. An armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918.
U.S. losses in the war, while not approaching the millions of dead in Europe, were 116,516 casualties, including combat and non-combat deaths. After the war there was a groundswell in Kansas City to honor those who served in the conflict.
"It's very frustrating for us," said Brian Alexander, president and chief executive of Kansas City's National World War I Museum, which adjoins the Liberty Memorial.
"Our goal is to be recognized as the national memorial because to a large extent we have been the defacto national memorial since the 1920s," Alexander said.
At stake for Kansas City is prestige, recognition and national distinction as well as a powerful draw for generations of visitors. Nearly $5 million is being spent to spiff up the Liberty Memorial in time for the anniversary.
The stone, cylindrical memorial rises 217 feet atop a hill overlooking Kansas City, and has an observation deck on top.
An argument favoring Kansas City as the site for the national memorial is the museum, which houses the largest American collection of artifacts from the war.
"It's all right here," Alexander said.
The National Mall in Washington is home to memorials to the other major American wars, which supporters argue makes it a proper choice for the World War One memorial.
"Kansas City has an impressive memorial but, in all due respect, it doesn't get 25 million visitors a year that the Mall gets," said Edwin Fountain, a prominent historic preservationist and Washington lawyer who has backed Washington's claim.
The Mall already has a memorial to the war, Fountain said. It is the D.C. War Memorial, dedicated in 1931 to honor more than 26,000 district residents who served. The names of 499 who died are inscribed on the monument.
Some lawmakers saw a compromise and co-sponsored a bill that named both the Washington and Kansas City monuments as national memorials.
U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, who sponsored the bill to designate the memorial in his home town, reluctantly signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill to share the honor.
But at a hearing on the bill last month, Washington's non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, testified against giving the D.C. War Memorial national designation. That would be another example, she said, of overlooking the district -- which is already denied statehood and voting representation in Congress.
Norton said broadening the D.C. War Memorial to represent everybody who served in the war would diminish the sacrifice of the 499 Washington residents it honors.
But Cleaver said time is running short to form a centennial commission to raise money for events marking the war's anniversary. That should have started a long time ago, he said.
Support persists for giving Washington a piece of the national memorial distinction, which led to yet another idea: Turn Pershing Park near the White House into the site of a co-national memorial alongside Kansas City's.
Pershing Park has a statue of General George John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the war, as well as paintings depicting major World War One battles.
Norton said the broad tribute to all World War One veterans has made Pershing Park the proper place to recognize everyone who served in the war.
Fountain gave grudging support to the idea of twin memorials, though he said Pershing Park is not ideal because it is off the National Mall.
"If it's Pershing or nothing, I'd go with Pershing," he said.
Alexander also said he would be willing for Kansas City to share the distinction with Pershing Park.
"Our concern is that we get acknowledged," Alexander said. "Whether it is shared or not is not an issue."
Norton said she could support two national memorials, though she is not pushing for enabling legislation. Nor yet is Cleaver, who still prefers his original bill but said he could live with adding Pershing Park in a dual designation.
"Some say this fight is over, I say they are wrong," Cleaver said. "I will continue to work to see that Kansas City gets what it so richly deserves."
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Andrew Stern and Greg McCune)