University President Peter Salovey’s most recent edition of Notes from Woodbridge Hall — “The Power of a Name” — is cleverly titled.  My pulse quickened as I opened the email, wondering what new debate over naming and institutional memory he was about to unleash in the wake of Franklin, Calhoun and “Master.”  I was pleasantly relieved to discover that the email announced Yale’s official commemoration of the 100th anniversary of American involvement in the First World War and the University’s role in this conflict (which, as it happens, is the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Rather than opening a new chapter of institutional soul-searching, the message is intended to reflect on a seemingly uncontroversial site of memory: Memorial Hall.

The title of Salovey’s message is in fact a reference to Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. was inspired by the names carved on the wall of Memorial Hall.  The power of a name, writes Salovey, is to “help us remember individuals even when the number of deaths seems staggering.”  Names “should also inspire us to action.”  As Yale prepares itself to remember its involvement in this world historical event, honor its veterans and promote the reestablishment of ROTC, Memorial Hall would seem to be a reminder of the benefits of university memorials, of the positive power of naming.  There are, however, no innocent memorials.  As much as any other space on campus, Memorial Hall demands critical engagement and must be brought into the ongoing conversation about the physical reminders of Yale’s complicated past.

To be sure, Memorial Hall is a beautiful and powerful space.  Wars that would otherwise seem historically or geographically distant are brought close to home by the individual names and biographical details of the dead. To pass through it is to be reminded of Yale’s tradition of military service and our obligation to remember those who died — as well those who returned.  No commemoration should be taken at face value, however, and a close reading of Memorial Hall reveals something more complicated. To begin with, the number of World War I dead is misleading.  Published and archival sources demonstrate that the University and its peer institutions adopted the broadest possible definition of both service and institutional affiliation to maximize their service and casualty statistics.  Thus, among the names of Yale students who fought in the trenches of the Western Front are those of individuals who never wore a uniform and whose relationship to the University could be described as tenuous.

The inclusion of Confederate dead is a well-known feature of our Civil War memorial, dedicated in 1915.  Less well-known are the  debates contemporary to this decision, which highlight its agenda of racial exclusion. The committee responsible for the design of the memorial studiously avoided endorsement of either the Union or Confederate cause; rather, it sought to emphasize that both sides had been animated by high “principles” and that their common sacrifice “created a solid foundation for the future of the nation.”  Alumni who had fought in the Union Army were understandably livid.  “I do not believe in the ‘high devotion’ of those who fought four years to strengthen and perpetuate human slavery,” one wrote.  “I do not believe that the leaders of this infamous conspiracy against human rights and life ‘thought they were right.’” In building this memorial, which willfully closes its eyes to the war’s origins in slavery, Yale leant its weight to the cultural foundations of Jim Crow’s America.

Finally, in their efforts to demonstrate an unbroken tradition of service going back to the Revolution, the space’s architects also included a plaque to the Spanish-American War and “Philippine Insurrection.”  The Spanish-American War launched the United States on a shameful course of overseas imperialism.  It culminated in a decades-long occupation of the Philippines.  The names on this plaque are a searing reminder of Yale’s complicity in these events.

Yale’s observance of the centennial of the First World War gives us much to celebrate.  Nearly 10,000 Yale students and graduates joined the war effort.  227 gave their lives.  Without a doubt, the University made a meaningful contribution to the Allied victory.  But the many legacies that converge in Memorial Hall are far from the uncomplicated source of pride Salovey presents.  Names should indeed inspire us to action.  What else will we do to confront our history?