Memorial Day 2021 was the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaring Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1971.
The earliest record of honoring those who died in wars was in 431 B.C. In the intervening 2,402 years to 1971, the need to honor fallen military is a commentary of the continuing saga of the human race not being able to live in peace.
The ensuing 50 years have not been any better.
The U.S. had to fight the Revolutionary War to establish itself as a nation. After a variety of armed conflicts, such as the War of 1812, the Civil War split the country as an estimated 400,000 soldiers perished.
Multiple U.S. cities, including Charleston, S.C.; Macon and Columbus, Ga., Richmond, VA., and Carbondale, IL., claim that their celebrations in 1866 were the birthplace of what is now Memorial Day.
A century later, in 1966, President Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day based on its ceremony of May 5, 1866 (and perhaps because it was not in the South).
In 1868, Major General John Logan, head of the Union Veterans (the Grand Army of the Republic or “GAR”), established Declaration Day as a day to decorate the graves of soldiers. The day selected was May 30 because flowers would be in bloom around the country. The place was the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Arlington Virginia. General Grant presided over those ceremonies at what has become Arlington National Cemetery.
General Logan’s presentation from the veranda of Lee’s former home included ordering that the Arlington graves be decorated with “the choicest flowers of springtime.” Some 47 years later the Canadian medic John McCrae in the spring of 1915, after the World War I battle of Ypres, was moved to eloquently write about the relationship with fallen soldiers’ graves and flowers with:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
“Between the crosses, row on row
“That mark our place…
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
“We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
“Loved and were loved, and now we lie
“ In Flanders fields.”
John Logan, on that faithful day in Arlington, continued, “We should guard their graves with sacred diligence … Let no neglect, no ravages, of time … testify… that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic” which continues today.
The commemorations continued in each state as the U.S. was involved in a series of wars in Asia. Winston Churchill’s words early in World War II — “Never was so much owed by so few to so many” — proved to be a universal truism. Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, which, of course, also involved Germany and other countries. The great U.S. General George Patton, who is buried “facing his troops” in Luxembourg, captured an essence with “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God such men lived.”
Here, as in Normandy, the graves of all ranks and military branches being buried next to each conveyed to me that “all men really are created equal” while the young ages on the stones conveyed many went from high school to death. For the U.S. military there are far too many “Flanders fields” scattered around the world.
Far too few years after World War II, U.S. troops fought to help others maintain their freedoms in Korea and about a decade later in Vietnam. From time eternal wars not only impact those who serve but entire families. For example, when I was drafted for Vietnam, my wife said she would volunteer as a nurse to also go, to which I replied “I am going so that you, and others, don’t have to go.” At the last minute the draft board suspended my orders.
Vietnam was very disruptive and confusing as the U.S. never declared war, and President Johnson made it like a schoolyard game of tag where the enemy could strike and then be safe at their “base” in another country. While we do not have statistics for those killed in most wars, the statistics listed on the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. is 58,212 and 8 women, of whom:
7,243 were black.
139 were Asian.
349 were Hispanic.
49,830 were white
759 were in other categories.
During Vietnam, after the election year 1968 began with North Korea capturing the USS Pueblo, North Vietnam launching its Tet offensive, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Congress in June focused on increasing the number of three-day weekends for federal employees by passing the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that was signed by President Johnson.
In November Richard Nixon was elected president. In 1971, as President Nixon was withdrawing troops from Vietnam, he signed a declaration making Memorial Day a National Holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Subsequently, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were included because the U.S. Congress authorized the “Use of Military Force in Iraq Revolution of 2002,” which was not a formal declaration of war but did authorize the president to “use the armed forces of the United States as he determines necessary and appropriate.” A similar resolution authorized the use of force in Afghanistan.
Memorial Day honors the estimated one-million military personnel (400,000 in each of the Civil War and WWI) who perished in the service of their country, all those wounded, and their families who supported them. The words of General John Logan, John McCrae, General George Patton, Winston Churchill, and many others honored them, but perhaps the spirit of those honored was best captured in the farewell speech to West Point by General Douglas MacArthur: “Duty, honor, country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be.”
Happy 50th National Anniversary to Memorial Day.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.