President George H.W. Bush stood in a shirt and tie surrounded by bulletproof glass in Washington in June 1991 as 8,800 U.S. troops and the weapons that helped the United States win the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein rumbled by him.
The spectacle, held on Constitution Avenue a few months after Operation Desert Storm ended, was part of what the White House called a National Victory Celebration.
Helicopters buzzed by the Washington Monument. Abrams tanks and Patriot missiles systems rolled past cheering civilians. Fireworks burst, marching bands played, and Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., the chief of U.S. Central Command, led the troops before saluting Bush and enjoying the rest of the display alongside him.
The $8 million-plus event attracted at least 200,000 people and was followed by an even larger celebration the next day in New York. It was a celebration of American martial history and prowess, and a good example of what it appears President Trump wants sometime later this year. The president has suggested that he has wanted one for more than a year, and the White House and Pentagon are now examining options.
Trump’s interest in having a large-scale military parade now is likely to receive a mixed reception, especially among those who are concerned about nationalism, militarism or the president’s past praise for authoritarian leaders. The tradition stretches back centuries but typically has followed the conclusion of wars.
After the Civil War, a two-day celebration that included a military procession known as the Grand Review of the Armies occurred on May 23 and 24, 1865, with President Andrew Johnson presiding just weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. More than 145,000 Union soldiers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, according to the nonpartisan Civil War Trust.
After World War I, parades in New York, Washington and other cities greeted “doughboy” soldiers as they returned home from the battlefields of Europe. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, often cited by Trump as a hero, led thousands of soldiers through the streets of New York on Sept. 10, 1919, as they returned home. Pershing then did the same about a week later in Washington.
After World War II, a similar parade was held Jan. 12, 1946, to celebrate the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and the other Axis Powers. About 13,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division marched through the streets of New York, representing U.S. troops everywhere in a celebration that included tanks and planes.
National military parades after that were scant — in large part because the United States could not declare victory in Korea or Vietnam — although some past commanders in chief, including President Harry S. Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, have had military equipment, including tanks, involved in their inaugural parades.
More recently, the United States has grappled with whether to recognize veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a national parade — and when.
After the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, a U.S. military spokesman told reporters that although there was a groundswell of support to honor Iraq War veterans with a ticker-tape parade in New York, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had reservations because the war in Afghanistan was still underway.
“We simply don’t think a national-level parade is appropriate while we continue to have America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way,” Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for Dempsey, said in 2012.
The national military parade of 1991 — the last of its kind — had its detractors. The Washington Post reported at the time that interviews with 50 citizens showed that public opinion was “sharply divided” about it, with some calling it a waste of time and money and others saying it was a chance to be excited about a war ending successfully after 43 days.
“Doesn’t it sound a little ridiculous?” Bruce J. Rummel, a Marine veteran who had served in World War II, told The Post at the time. “It just seems like a little too much.”
“ ‘Excited’ is not even the word to use,” Lisa Lowe said in another interview ahead of the parade. “I just can’t wait.”
Her brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Eddie Lewis Lowe, served in the war.
“There was so much stress during the war, people not knowing if their brother or sister would come back alive. For us, we missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, Eddie’s birthday,” she said. “Now we’ll have this to celebrate.”