Beyond  /  Explainer

How the U.S. Designed Overseas Cemeteries to Win the Cold War

Building large memorials to display power and dominance, the US government hoped to inspire Judeo-Christian and capitalist ideals with their cemeteries.

Americans commemorate our fallen soldiers differently than other countries do. You can see the difference most clearly overseas. While innumerable war cemeteries in Europe and the Philippines account for the dead from all participating nations of World War I and World War II, only the American war cemeteries feature highly designed landscapes and major works of art and architecture.

The decision to build these monuments and place them in park-like cemeteries reflects the Cold War of the 1950s as much as the World Wars that these sites commemorate. Over time these cemeteries helped establish an idealized American legacy in Europe, one that told the story of triumph over evil. Among the ideas these memorials convey is an insistence on Christianity as a spiritual beacon. They also offer an artistic presentation of American militarism with the aim of teaching a pointed lesson about the vastness of American power.

Five American World War II cemeteries in France offer a window into the 23 worldwide war cemeteries and 11 monuments built by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). These five are the permanent burial sites for approximately 30,402 Americans, and like most American war cemeteries, the sites are located on or near the former battlefields: Omaha Beach and the Cotentin in Normandy; the Vosges Mountains and the German border area in Lorraine; and the assault beaches in Provence.

The World War II cemeteries were the first multi-site, government-funded design project after the war. During the initial phase of the American war cemetery, there were 24 temporary American burial grounds in France for just under 87,000 graves. Between 1947 and 1949, 64 percent of these bodies were repatriated upon request of the next of kin. The rest of the fallen soldiers were buried overseas, a decision made for the most part by their families. By 1949, only five of the original 24 cemeteries remained.

Between 1948 and 1952, designs for these five permanent sites in France were finalized and construction began in 1952, concluding in 1956. The care and maintenance of American graves was placed under the official auspices of the American government, and to this day the cemeteries are the responsibility of the ABMC and paid for by American tax dollars.

It is no coincidence that American government officials planned the cemeteries in the height of the Cold War and almost immediately after the United States State Department designated France as the key battlefield between Communists and the West in 1947. U.S. officials had been panicked since the elections of October 21, 1945, when the Parti Communiste Français—the French Communist Party—won 365 seats out of 586 in the French parliament, 62.2 percent of the whole. And, as illustration artist J. N. Darling noted in his political cartoon of 1947, French Communists were aggressively commandeering the postwar economy.