Military Parades

Updated: January 21, 2021
In this Article

    In past news, President Trump spoke of his desire to hold a military parade in the United States intended to rival or at least be similar to the Bastille Day parade in France.

    Pentagon officials received orders in early 2018 to explore the concept, and plans for a grand military parade were postponed until the 4th of July Parade in 2019.

    History of Military Parades

    These symbolic demonstrations of military might have been happening as long as there have been formal militaries, and while some of the trappings have changed over time, the basic concept of the military parade remains the same.

    That concept includes multiple goals-raising public awareness of men and women in uniform, supporting the troops with a public show of positivity and respect, and using the parade as an example of American military strength.

    The military parade has a long and varied history. Among the oldest and most obvious examples can be found in ancient Roman history and later commemorated in western art. In the 1800s the artist Bartolomeo Pinelli immortalized a parade scene featuring the Roman commander Marcus Claudius Marcellus returning to Rome after defeating Gauls. Marcellus died in 208 B.C.

    Closer to home, the history of military parades in America somewhat follows the timeline of the nation’s major conflicts. Some of the earliest parades, circa 1798 and into the 1800 and attended by then-Presidents John Adams and later Thomas Jefferson, were held to commemorate the 4th of July and the American Revolution. Compared to later efforts, these were smaller affairs.

    The Civil War Grand Review Union Army Parade

    At the end of the Civil War, a “grand review” parade had Union troops marching by the thousands through the streets of the nation’s capital in May of 1865. The May 18, 1865 edition of the New York Times describes a “…review of the gallant armies now assembling around Washington” scheduled to take place over two days the following week.

    This parade featured the “Army of the Potomac”, the Army of Tennessee, and General Sherman’s troops among others. Some 150,000 marchers were met by approximately a quarter million spectators.

    The event was a who’s who of Civil War era famous names including President Andrew Johnson (the former Vice President who was sworn in after the Lincoln assassination), plus General Ulysses S. Grant and the infamous General George Custer.

    Not long after this grand review, some of these Civil War armies were disbanded and the soldiers were “mustered out” as the war years had ended and peacetime began.

    General John Pershing’s World War One Military Parade

    The stage was set for the beginning of World War One in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated with his wife during a visit to inspect troops in Bosnia. Four years later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War One ends.

    Nearly one year later in 1919, General John J. Pershing marched approximately 25,000 soldiers from the American Expeditionary Force’s 1st Division on the Western Front down Fifth Avenue in New York City and later did the same thing in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

    The New York At War Military Parade Of 1942

    The New York at War military parade held in 1942 was done to offer public support to World War Two military mobilization efforts and was thought to be the largest event of its kind with some half a million people marching on Fifth Avenue and more than two million spectators attending.

    This event was held simultaneously with worldwide observations of United Nations Day. The New York At War parade was unfortunately marred by the deliberate exclusion of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans, which brought complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union according to a 1942 report called The Crisis.

    The New York Victory Parade Of World War Two

    Following the end of World War Two, military parades and celebrations were happening all over the United States, but one of the most well-known is the New York Victory Parade in 1946 (more than 150 days after the end of the war).

    This ticker tape parade featured approximately 13,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division with a significant historical contribution from the African-American 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

    The event is said to have been four miles and a whopping eleven hours long, but media reports of the day say the event was more subdued than expected for a victory march.

    The First Armed Forces Day Parades

    When Armed Forces Day was created by then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, the very first observance on Saturday, May 20, 1950, was given a theme: “Teamed For Defense.” Armed Forces Day was intended partly to raise civilian awareness of the military so the parade featured the latest military hardware and marchers from every branch of military service.

    There were parades all over the country and even some overseas. One notable example on that day was the Washington D.C. event with 10,000 troops including cadets, veterans, and currently serving active duty members.

    In New York City, there were more than 30,000 participants and more than 250 aircraft involved. There was even a thousand-troops strong march in Berlin at Templehof Airfield.

    Military Parades: Eisenhower and JFK

    Presidential inaugurations in the 1950s and 1960s were marked by military parades and military-style parades. The 1953 inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower included participation by more than 20,000 troops and even featured a nuclear-capable cannon.

    In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade included a display of American military hardware including the Nike Zeus missile and the Nike Hercules missile.

    President Ford, Vietnam, and The Delayed Parade

    In the 1970s, President Gerald Ford declined to participate in military parades designed to commemorate the bicentennial, stating that the spectre of the Vietnam War overshadowed such events. Those returning home from Vietnam would not get a parade honoring them until decades later in an emotional event in the nation’s capital.

    A New York Times article from 1982 declares:

    Thousands of Vietnam veterans marched away from a decade of indifference today and paraded proudly past the White House to a memorial whose history recalls the divisiveness of their war.

    This was written about a five-day long event in 1982 called the National Salute To Vietnam Veterans which featured a 15,000-strong march to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.

    The NY Times reported then:

    The camaraderie was almost palpable as veterans embraced in the streets or locked hands in ritual handshakes. After years of self-doubt and resentment at public indifference, they were staging their own celebration, a coming-out party given by veterans for veterans. But it was not the heroes’ welcome, the ticker-tape parade with roaring crowds and an outpouring of gratitude, that many veterans openly long for…

    The Gulf War Military Parades of 1991: The National Victory Celebration

    Many news outlets have reported in 2018 that the last time America experienced a major military parade featuring hardware, troops, and commanding officers was in 1991. The National Victory Celebration featured approximately 200,000 spectators cheering on 8,000 troops as tanks and Patriot Missile batteries were rolled out across the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington D.C. on June 8, 1991. General Norman Schwarzkopf led this event, with Stealth fighter jets flying above.

    New York City Holds Its Own Gulf War Victory Parade

    On June 11, 1991, New York City held a massive Gulf War victory parade that included more than 24,000 marchers from 17 countries allied in the war effort. This was said to be (at the time) the largest publicly attended event in New York City history, with more than four million along with a one-mile parade route supporting the troops. This parade also featured military hardware including Patriot missiles, tanks, and artillery.

    President Trump’s Salute to America Parade 2019

    After long speculation and controversy over President Trump’s desire for a military parade, the event was held on July 4, 2019 at Washington D.C.’s National Mall in conjunction with other Independence Day celebrations. Thousands attended the event and millions tuned in on news networks to cover highlights of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, flyovers, tanks, and fireworks. President Trump delivered a speech on patriotism at the Lincoln Memorial, the first president to speak at the Lincoln Memorial in 68 years.

    How Much Do Major Military Parades Cost?

    There have been many military parades since 1991, but none with the scale or intensity of the World War Two or Persian Gulf events. Spending on these recognitions is often an issue. The cost of the New York City Persian Gulf parade was estimated at over four million dollars alone, though the New York Times reports that the expenses were not paid by the City of New York.

    Compare that to the figure cited in a Chicago Tribune report that estimated the proposed Veterans Day military parade during the Trump administration mentioned at the beginning of this article would have cost over $90 million.

    According to the Tribune:

    Preliminary estimates from the Pentagon showed that roughly $50 million would cover military aircraft, equipment, personnel and other support. The remainder would be borne by other agencies and largely involve security costs

    In truth, the Salute to America was reported to have cost $5.4 million dollars.

    Public Opinion on Major Military Parades

    Pentagon officials balked over the price tag of military parades, some veterans’ groups publicly announced opposition to the concept of a military parade without a decisive victory to celebrate. The American Legion went on record in the similar fashion; National Commander Denise Rohan issued a statement on its’ official site in 2018:

    “The American Legion appreciates that our President wants to show in a dramatic fashion our nation’s support for our troops…However, until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home, we think the parade money would be better spent fully funding the Department of Veteran Affairs and giving our troops and their families the best care possible.”

    American military parades have been questioned, and the issue of parade fund spending launched a significant amount of debate and discussion. As shown in history, the goal of any major military parade is to raise awareness of the military, their sacrifices, and the quality of life for American troops and their families, but the most recent military parade succeeded in starting some important conversations.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team