Over two days in the spring of 1865—May 23 and May 24, just weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and Abraham Lincoln’s tragic death—roughly 150,000 Union soldiers marched in full regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., for the now-famous Grand Review. With the new president, Andrew Johnson, and General Ulysses S. Grant positioned in a VIP review box, first the men of George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and then the men of William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee staged the largest and most elaborate military exposition in American history to that date. Grant doubted that “an equal body of men of any nation, take them man for man, officer for officer, was ever gotten together.”
Like Grant, Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, also enjoys a good parade, and as luck might have it, he enjoys the constitutional authority to order one assembled. After witnessing a military cavalcade in Paris last Bastille Day, he has reportedly instructed the Pentagon to plan an enormous show of American might—columns of service members, tanks, weaponry and the like—in the nation’s capital.
On the surface, it’s all pretty similar to the Grand Review of 1865. Except it isn’t at all.
In keeping with his “Make America Great Again” motif, Trump aspires to project strength by showcasing the might of our armed forces and the depth and breadth of our arsenal. To be sure, there have been moments in American history when the country placed its military on public display. But those moments stand as a reminder that Trump’s proposal violates American political norms. In 1865, 1919 and 1945, mass military parades celebrated returning troops who—as everyone understood—were about to return to civilian life. They marked the wind-down of wartime mobilization and the dismantling of large volunteer armies. These parades were in keeping with a long political tradition that viewed standing armies warily.
In this sense, Trump’s military parade is just one more example of how far we’ve traveled from longstanding traditions.
Aversion to brute displays of military force is well-ingrained in American history. Deeply immersed in the intellectual tradition of England’s Whig opposition, the men who propelled the colonies toward revolution in the late 18th century viewed “standing armies”—permanent institutions that existed in peacetime and wartime alike, populated by professional soldiers rather than volunteer militiamen—as the instruments of despots. Redcoats occupying the streets of Boston and Hessian soldiers of fortune hiring themselves out to do the king’s dirty work seemed the very embodiment of this coercive and corrupting force.
When they incorporated the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, the framers purposely included the Third Amendment, which prohibited the mandatory quartering of soldiers in civilian homes during peacetime—a measure that reflected very real and recent experiences with British forces and Americans’ distrust of professional soldiers. In the early 1790s, Congress debated whether to have a standing army at all, and if so, whether to cap it at 3,000 soldiers, as Representative Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts suggested. Many of Gerry’s fellow Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans agreed, though President George Washington—who wryly suggested an accompanying requirement that “no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any time, with more than three thousand troops”—ultimately won the day. The new nation would have a standing army and navy, with no particular manpower limit.
Nevertheless, for the first 75 or so years, the United States maintained only a small and widely dispersed military. On the eve of the Civil War, a mere 16,000 troops, led by a thin officer corps, composed the entirety of the nation’s armed forces. It was only with mass enlistment, later enforced by a draft in 1863, that the United States Army temporarily swelled to impressive numbers. More than 2.5 million men served on the Union side during the war. And many of those men were proud to mark their imminent demobilization at the Grand Review in 1865.
In the words of the Philadelphia North American, the Civil War parade was “as great a tribute to free government as was been paid.” The Union Army wasn’t a standing force. It was composed of civilians—small shopkeepers and farmers, college professors like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and lawyers like James Garfield—who would leave Washington and soon return to civilian life. By January 1866, only 90,000 troops remained stationed in the South. That number would dwindle in the coming year so that by the late 1860s, a small and increasingly isolated number of career enlisted men and officers struggled to enforce Reconstruction-era laws, while a slightly larger number spread out along the vast western frontier to provide muscle for the expansion of railroads and settlements. The Grand Review was very much the last hurrah for the massive Army that Abraham Lincoln had raised.
The same was true in 1919, when over 200,000 “doughboys”—the popular nickname for American servicemen during World War I—marched in roughly 450 victory parades nationwide. The grand processions ranged from New York City’s, which held six massive displays of military splendor, to Harrisburg’s, where the city feted 100 of the first soldiers to return home and doff their uniforms. Like their Civil War predecessors, they had been part of a mass-scale mobilization of citizen soldiers and sailors: On the eve of America’s entry into the war, the Army had roughly 140,000 officers and soldiers; over the course of two years, 4.5 million men enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces, and at the height of the war, over 2 million were stationed in France. By 1920, only 130,000 remained in uniform. The grand parades of 1919 were meant to welcome the boys back to civilian life.
So it was the case on January 12, 1946, when between 2 million and 4 million New Yorkers greeted a procession of 13,000 airborne troops with a rollicking ticker-tape “Victory Parade,” in lock step with dozens of other cities that welcomed home the roughly 16.4 million men and women who served in uniform during World War II. The parade featured not only the returning troops, but also row after row of 36-ton Sherman tanks, tank destroyers, howitzers, jeeps, armored cars and anti-tank guns. The “showered blessing, shrill whistle, waves of handclapping, hoarse cheering, and here and there open tears” were “unstinting,” the New York Times observed. But again, the Victory Parade was intended to celebrate soon-to-be veterans as they reverted to civilian life. By spring 1946, less than one-quarter of Army soldiers remained in uniform—this, at the dawn of the Cold War.
To be sure, Americans have grown comfortable with the idea that permanent armed forces are a necessity in the modern era. We no longer live in colonial times. Roughly 1.3 million active-duty soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors compose today’s large, professional military. And to that end, we have held military parades—notably, in 1991, when 200,000 onlookers converged in Washington, D.C.—to celebrate professional service members. This occasion was different from most that preceded it: Citizens cheered for a permanent, “standing Army.” But the context—a resounding military triumph in the Gulf War—was the same.
What Trump proposes to do is altogether out of step with American tradition, and that is precisely why his parade makes some people uncomfortable. Not just liberals, who might remain mute in their opposition for fear of appearing anti-military, but conservatives like Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who offered that “confidence is silent and insecurity is loud. America is the most powerful country in all of human history; you don’t need to show it off.” No less a military icon than Dwight Eisenhower strongly disavowed such displays when he served as president. “Eisenhower said absolutely not, we are the pre-eminent power on Earth,” historian Michael Beschloss explained. “For us to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square would make us look weak.”
But this, of course, is Trump—a man who continues to relitigate the size of his inauguration crowd. In the same way that Soviet autocrats and third-world strongmen traditionally used the trappings of military might to enforce the false appearance of strength and conformity, Trump is a historically unpopular president presiding over a deeply divided and disquieted country. But he controls the soldiers and the tanks. And he now becomes the very embodiment of the founding fathers’ worst nightmare.
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