Military tanks in President Kennedy's Inaugural Parade.
Abbie Rowe/Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
explainer / power

The History of Military Parades in the U.S.

The Trump Administration has clamored for a military parade. What are the origins of tank-led celebrations?
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.”
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