It has been 28 years since tanks last rolled through the streets of Washington, leaving heavy tread marks in the asphalt along the way.
On Tuesday night, they came back. Specifically, two M1A2 Abrams tanks, weighing 70 tons each, with several other military vehicles, were moved onto the Mall via flatbed trucks for President Trump’s “Salute to America” July Fourth extravaganza.
No president since Richard Nixon has participated in an Independence Day celebration — and Nixon didn’t speak in person. This one will feature a speech by Trump in front of the Lincoln Memorial, ticketed VIP seating for Trump donors, two fireworks displays, flyovers by the Blue Angels, Air Force One and other military jets. The National Park Service has diverted $2.5 million from its entrance and recreation fees to help pay for it all.
But it was the appearance of the Abrams tanks that many in Washington found most astonishing.
Tanks weren’t always such a rare appearance in the capital city, though. Here’s a brief history of armored vehicles in Washington.
MacArthur rolls over the ‘Bonus Army’
In the middle of the Great Depression, nearly 20,000 World War I veterans converged in Washington, demanding bonus payments they were promised be paid out earlier than scheduled to help them make ends meet. Some of the self-described Bonus Army started squatting in abandoned buildings slated for demolition, as The Washington Post’s Terence McArdle has reported. The government used that as a pretext to evict them.
On July 28, 1932, police began pushing them out. They quickly lost control, and none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur came to the rescue. He assembled 200 soldiers on horseback, plus infantry and five tanks to roll through the encampment.
When the first camp was destroyed, MacArthur ordered his troops to march on the other two — ignoring a White House order to stand down.
“Newsreels showed the military with tanks, routing unarmed veterans,” McArdle wrote. In New York, presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly told an aide, “Well, Felix, this will elect me.”
Army Day parades
For decades after World War I, Army Day was observed every year with military parades in Washington and New York, including displays of the latest in tank technology.
In 1949, Army Day was abolished and became part of Armed Forces Day, which is observed on the third Saturday of May. Nowadays it’s a smaller affair, including picnics on military bases and military-family discounts.
Several presidents have elected to include tanks in their inaugural parades, among them Roosevelt in 1941, Dwight D. Eisenhower in both 1953 and 1957, and John F. Kennedy in 1961.
A victory parade
The parade celebrating U.S. military victory in Iraq was perhaps premature, considering every commander in chief in the last 28 years has overseen some kind of military action there.
Still, on June 8, 1991, 8,800 veterans of the Persian Gulf War paraded down Constitution Avenue, with a crowd of 200,000 lining the way.
The parade cost $12 million and was criticized by some as a political show. One veteran of the war complained to the Los Angeles Times, “The parade is sort of a campaign boost for Bush and the Republicans.”
(Not enough of a boost, apparently; Bush lost his reelection bid the next year.)
Streetlights had to be temporarily removed to make room for M1A1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other military equipment. The heavy weight of the machinery caused minor damage to roads, but it was not as bad as officials had feared it would be.
One thing that was worse than expected: the closure of Reagan National Airport, then called National Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration had planned to shut down air traffic for only 30 minutes to make way for warplanes to fly over the parade route. National ended up being shut down for an hour and 15 minutes, The Post reported then.
This time around, another flyover is planned, and the FAA expects air traffic will be shut down for even longer — one hour and 30 minutes.
clarification: This story has been updated to provide more context about the payments the Bonus Army veterans had been promised and wanted early.
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