- Historic Sites
Colonel McCormick’s War
The newspaper baron Robert McCormick was a passionate isolationist—yet his brief service in France in 1918 shone for him all his life and gave birth to an extraordinary museum
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
Between the wars Cantigny was much more a millionaire’s estate than a museum, but the 1st Division remained a spiritual presence to McCormick, and when it distinguished itself again in the war he so bitterly opposed, the idea of creating a museum took root. When the colonel died childless in 1955 at the age of seventy-four, he left his money to the McCormick Tribune Foundation (its 1997 assets were $1.4 billion), and its trustees have assiduously distributed millions to good causes each year since. The colonel also told the trustees that he wanted Cantigny to be preserved “perpetually . . . as a public park and museum.”
In 1960 the foundation opened the Cantigny War Memorial of the First Division. It had collected materials from division veterans in the Chicago area, and the mansion’s stables were converted into a modest museum memorializing the division’s exploits in the two world wars. Things jogged along in fairly satisfactory fashion for the next two decades. Cantigny attracted about 125,000 visitors a year, most of them local.
But by 1982 history—and wear and tear—had brewed up a crisis. The 1st Division had spent five years in Vietnam, and the museum’s directors found it hard to squeeze this story into their already crowded quarters. Also, their artifacts were showing signs of age, and there was no place to store the rapidly accumulating acquisitions of papers and other memorabilia donated by division veterans.
Cantigny tries to strike a balance, telling the division’s story without glorifying war or suggesting that the exhilaration of battle can offset its destructiveness.
What to do? The trustees debated divesting the museum of everything but a few items that would constitute a nominal exhibit. The rest could be sent to the U.S. Army’s First Division Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas. But then they asked themselves, “What would the colonel want us to do?,” and that ended all thoughts of dismantling things. Instead they committed quite a few of the foundation’s millions to building an elaborate new museum and recreational complex that would ensure obedience to that “perpetually” in the colonel’s final marching orders.
To make the place partially self-sustaining—and in the spirit of the colonel’s stated desire to improve his home state’s recreational facilities—the trustees hired a celebrated designer to convert more than half of Cantigny’s acres into a twenty-seven-hole golf course. When it opened in 1989, Golf Digest promptly rated it one of the top twenty-five public courses in America. By way of adding a Tribune trademark, one sand trap is shaped like the head of the long-running star of the paper’s comics section, Dick Tracy. Overlooking the course is the Fareways Restaurant, where excellent food is available for reasonable prices.
The reconstituted museum opened in 1992. Tourists now arrive at a gleaming visitors’ center where they see a brief introductory film about Cantigny and Colonel McCormick. They can then stroll over to the mansion and continue on to the museum or vice versa. The mansion is full of antiques the colonel picked up in his incessant travels and a wealth of McCormick memorabilia. The most striking room is the library: twenty-two feet high, with tiers of books and portraits of ancestors looking down. The colonel was the author of a dozen books, including two surprisingly good studies of Ulysses S. Grant.
But for those interested in military history, the 37,700-square-foot new museum is Cantigny’s most impressive feature. The skylight-topped lobby is five stories high. On the floor below it is the library-cum-research center, staffed by skilled and helpful archivists. From the lobby, visitors enter the main exhibit and abruptly pass from the tall, pleasant, sunny lobby to a dim, grubby back street in the shattered village of Cantigny on the night of May 28, 1918. On the left is the wreck of a house; ahead, a replica of the gate of the village’s ruined château. In the distance, between desultory rifle fire, a machine gun chatters.
In the walls are tucked small exhibits featuring captured German equipment, American gear, and eyewitness accounts of 1st Division veterans. One man proclaims that the Germans “couldn’t put the fear of God into the American swine, as they called us. We put the fear of God into the German army with the defense we put up at Cantigny.” This is a superb example of memory versus history. The man had conveniently forgotten that Cantigny was supposed to be an offensive, not a defensive, battle. It also shows how the amalgamation controversy affected not only officers but enlisted men.
From the village street the visitor moves into a trench. Above looms a full-scale replica of a Schneider tank. A side exhibit features the clubs, knives, and other simple, brutal weapons used in hand-to-hand combat. I found myself thinking of my father’s memories of such fighting, which were so grim he could not describe them in any detail without choking up.