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The History Of Military Parades In The U.S.


Let's ask Cokie how Americans celebrate their military. President Trump faces criticism after calling for a parade in Washington, D.C., which seemed authoritarian to some, but there have been military displays in the nation's capital, like one during the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This patrol boat is identical to the one commanded by President Kennedy during his service in the Pacific in World War II.

INSKEEP: That same parade featured missiles and tanks traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue in the midst of the Cold War. Many of you had questions on this subject for Cokie Roberts, who takes your questions about how politics and the government work. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. And it's appropriate since it's the day after Mardi Gras, and I know from parades.

INSKEEP: (Laughter). There we go. Exactly. But when is the Cokie Roberts parade? That's what I want to know.

ROBERTS: Not soon enough.

INSKEEP: Not soon enough. Ok. Here's our first listener, on military parades.

MEGAN LAVELLE TRAINOR: This is Megan Lavelle Trainor from Fishers, Ind. When is the last time the federal government put on a military parade that wasn't about Veterans Day?


ROBERTS: Well, in 1991, there was a parade celebrating the victory in the first Persian Gulf War. That's what normally these parades have been used for, victory - after World War I, after World War II. And the Persian Gulf is the only real victory since then. The most famous victory celebration, Steve, remains the two-day march of some 145,000 troops through the capital after the Civil War. People came from all over the country to watch this even though they were still saddened by Lincoln's assassination. And a wonderful story from there is Mother Bickerdyke who rode by herself on horseback in her gingham. She had gone around the West cleaning up camps, staring down generals, making sure that soldiers were taken care of, and General Sherman invited her to march.

INSKEEP: Wow. And you can see in those victory parades a sense of trying to congratulate the people who had served and in many cases were heading back into civilian life. Now, we have a question here from Courtney Batterson, who asks...

COURTNEY BATTERSON: I'm wondering what presidents have held military parades in America, where have they held them, and why? And what does that say about President Trump?


ROBERTS: Well, as I said earlier, President Kennedy certainly did. I remember as a child one of my first memories is President Eisenhower's inauguration and seeing all these tanks go down the street. My mother described, in her book, FDR's third inaugural as a terrible shock, huge amounts of military equipment slowly passed by. She saw it as a harbinger of coming war.

INSKEEP: And that was an inauguration in 1941 so it basically would've been.

ROBERTS: That's exactly right. I don't think that this tells us anything about Trump other than the fact that he likes the military and he likes grand displays. I do think that the fact that presidents stopped dragging in the hardware tells us about changing times.

INSKEEP: Nanci Boice also wrote us to ask, (reading) who pays for parades? I mean, you do have to gas up the tanks. There's logistics. There's clean up. You might bust up the streets. Who pays the bills?

ROBERTS: Well, that's where the real grousing about the prospect of a parade comes from. The 1991 parade was estimated at about $12 million so then add, you know, 20-plus years on to that, and you up the price. Three million of that was from the government, the rest from private donations. Now the mayor of the District of Columbia is saying Trump should pay for the parade because she doesn't want to bear the cost of thousands of police, and then the street and pipe repairs, which modern-day tanks would cause. And, predictably, the Democrats in Congress have introduced a bill to ban government spending for the parade. Still, the Pentagon is following the presidential directive for a parade like the one in France. It's in the early planning stages.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. Remember that you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.