The latest news cycle is full of reports concerning President Trump’s desire to have a grand military parade in Washington D.C. The impetus behind this supposedly lies with the President’s positive reaction to experiencing France’s annual Bastille Day parade in person and a desire to recognize the service of the men and women of the United States military. As a number of news articles have observed, America has had such parades before–George Bush Sr. had a welcome home parade after the Gulf War in 1991, Kennedy had military vehicles in his inaugural parade, etc. Historically, however, these displays of military power have been confined to wartime successes.
You can find moving pictures from the Grand Review of the Army in 1866; the soldiers, infantrymen, and ambulance drivers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue are impressive, but the intent is clearly less might and more relief that the war had ended and celebration of the loyal men who survived. You can also find charming pictures from very recent Memorial Day parades in Washington D.C. with antique vehicles from the World Wars filled with veterans. Again, the intention here is not to demonstrate the power of the military today but to celebrate veterans and American history.
If we take an even longer look at America and military pageantry we see a long history of fears of a standing army and refusals to show this kind of force. One of the more famous images of George Washington is his glorious entry into New York City in 1783 after the evacuation of the British. It is wonderfully military: Washington is on a white horse with disciplined rows of cavalry behind him. Flags wave and onlookers look jubilant.
That image is certainly a military celebration of victory, but it is also only part of the story of the Continental Army and the evacuation of the British. Americans were mostly terrified of the idea of a standing army. Before the American Revolution, colonists worried about the presence of British regulars in the backcountry and wrote often about the moral superiority of a voluntary militia.
As the Revolution ended, government officials and citizens alike worried about what would become of the Continental army. After Yorktown, Washington began to decommission the army but left a cohort of officers and troops intact until the British left New York and Savannah. These men had served in the army for years and were afforded the honor of accompanying Washington into New York City. The display of military might in 1783 was also one final moment of recognition for the officers who had worked, often times for free or almost no pay, for years alongside Washington.
Yet, there was reason for the nation to fear the army. Conspiracies and anger at the lack of pay had created serious threats to the nascent nation. Officers and long term soldiers recognized that they had skills they could use to make the nation do their bidding. The most well-known of these threats, called the Newburgh Conspiracy, was rooted in the idea that the army could solve the political problems of the nation.
Eighteenth-century Americans embraced the idea of the citizen-soldier. The best defense, they thought, was that accomplished by citizens themselves. Embedded in this idea is a related one–that it is not military might but the heart of the soldier that wins wars.