The History of Military Parades in the U.S.

Displays of military might aren’t common in modern America outside of wartime

JFK Inaugural Parade
Inaugural Parade for President John F. Kennedy Abbie Rowe via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/White House Photographs

President Trump has spoken of his desire for a grand military parade since the early days of his presidency. During a January 18 meeting, he directed top generals to organize such a parade on the scale of France's Bastille Day celebrations, reports Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker for The Washington Post. This Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers confirmed the U.S. Department of Defense is in the process of reviewing potential dates for a parade.

What would such a display look like? Military parades outside of holidays such as Veterans Day, the Fourth of July or Memorial Day aren't typical in this country in recent decades, but there is a history of them.

Most recently, in 1991 more than 8,000 troops marched down Washington D.C.'s Constitution Avenue in a victory parade celebrating the end of the Persian Gulf War. Stealth fighter planes passed overhead while tanks and Patriot missiles rolled by a crowd of 200,000, according to William J. Eaton and Beth Hawkins of the Los Angeles Times. The attendance was below the 1 million-plus spectators predicted to turn out to view the $12 million event. But by that evening's fireworks display, the turnout swelled to 800,000.

The reporters quoted some mixed feelings over the parade. "I think the celebration and things going on are a little too extreme," Jeff Benton, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm commented. "The parade is sort of a campaign boost for Bush and the Republicans." But a veteran of the Vietnam War had a different perspective: "When we came back from Vietnam, people wouldn't talk to you, like you had AIDS or something," Paul Barton told Eaton and Hawkins. "I made myself a promise 20 years ago that, if there ever was another shooting war--even if I was the only one on the side of the road--there would be a parade."

Gulf War 1991 National Victory Celebration

The parade was the largest military celebration since the end of World War II. Such displays typically follow a military victory, Dan Lamothe points out for The Washington Post. Without victory, or even a clear cut end to engagement, there haven't been national parades commemorating the wars in Korea or Vietnam, or parades to honor veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (As Indiana University-Indianapolis history professor Raymond Haberski, Jr. notes in his book God and War, even when the U.S. readied to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1976, President Gerald Ford did not march in a military parade. "The horror of Vietnam still hung in the air," he writes, "deflating any comparisons with the war for American independence.")

That being said, the Cold War era wasn't without military displays.

The inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 included a parade featuring dozens of missiles as well as soldiers and sailors aboard Navy boats towed along Pennsylvania Avenue, writes Nicole Chavez for CNN.

President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural parade included 22,000 military service members. The marchers were joined by a cannon capable of firing a nuclear warhead. It was "the most elaborate inaugural pageant every held," according to the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum.

When World War II still raged, more than 30,000 men and women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City for Army Day Parade in 1942, an occurrence The New York Times heralded as the "first big military display" of the war. Victory parades also celebrated the war's end, including a display led by the 82nd Airborne Division under General James M. Gavin down the Fifth Avenue in New York City.

82nd Airborne Victory Parade NYC in 1946

Jumping back to the early days of the American presidency, it was once somewhat common for a president to review a military parade on the Fourth of July. According to a timeline established by American University librarian James Heintze, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Martin Van Buren and James Polk all reviewed military parades on America's independence day. The tradition ended with Polk, though. His sucessor, Zachary Taylor, did not attend one. Instead his agenda for the day included making an appearance at a ceremony at the Washington Monument and infamously eating a "bowl of cherries and milk," which may have led to him falling ill and dying just days later. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive military parades in U.S. history was the Grand Review of the Armies held on May 23 and 24, 1865. President Andrew Johnson declared that Civil War hostilities over on May 10 and called for a formal review of the troops, according to the nonpartisan Civil War Trust. "The event, huge in scale and pageantry, generated a near-carnival atmosphere that did much to diminish the pall that had settled on the city following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln," an article about Lincoln's funeral and the Grand Review explains. On the first day, Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac's infantry marched 12 abreast and the calvary stretched seven miles. The second day's procession, led by Major General William Sherman, ended with a trail of civilian refugees that had followed the army up from the Carolinas. 

Trump's desire to revive the tradition of military parade has spurred concern among historians over the tone such an event may convey.

“If the message is: ‘I want to express how much I honor our military,’ that’s a wonderful thing,” Michael Beschloss, presidential historian, told Michael D. Shear of The New York Times in September, when President Trump previously spoke about his desire for a Fourth of July parade of military strength. And according to a statement by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House is billing the proposed parade as a "celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation." However, Bescholls also cautions that military parades can serve other purposes. “If the idea is to mimic other countries’ military might, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” he said.

In 2009, Time reporter Ishaan Tharoor's observed a parade marking 60 years of communist rule in China and wrote: "some of the strict measures applied to troops marching in Beijing on Oct. 1 — like the precisely prescribed distance between an infantryman's nose and that of his colleagues on either side — can be traced to the diktats of Prussian tacticians," He then pointed out that military rallies and parades are common in totalitarian states and quoted George Orwell's essay penned during the Blitz of 1941: "Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army."

Such unease is also part of American history. In a letter to the editor in 1866, "A Veteran Observer" told The New York Times"…I have no admiration for the military profession, no desire that war should continue, and nothing but contempt for what are justly thought the mere pomp and glitter of military parade. But alas! for our poor human nature, wars must come, and military pomp will attend them."

Sourcing H/T to Jared Keller via Twitter and a discussion from AskHistorians on Reddit.

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