President Eisenhower rejected the idea of military parades, saying they "would make us look weak."
President Donald Trump’s reported request to create a grand military parade caused controversy in early 2018, with critics condemning the idea as “authoritarian.” Others urged tolerance of the plan, pointing out that previous U.S. presidents — John F. Kennedy and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — had included troops and weaponry in their inaugural parades.
Against this background, a widely-shared meme emerged in February 2018, containing a purported quotation from General Eisenhower which would lend support to those critical of Trump’s proposed parade.
When asked if the United States should have a military parade to show off its might, this was then President Eisenhower’s response:
“Absolutely not. We are the pre-eminent power on Earth. For us to try and imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square would make us look weak.”
We received several enquiries from readers about the authenticity of this quotation.
In reality, this is not a direct quotation by Eisenhower, but rather a paraphrasing of the general-turned-president’s position on military parades, which originated in remarks made by the renowned presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” broadcast on 7 February 2018, Beschloss pointed out that previous Commanders-in-Chief had held military parades as recently as 1991. However, he noted a major distinction between victory parades for national triumph and the circumstances under President Trump:
During the inaugural parades for Harry Truman, all the way up to John Kennedy, you had tanks, you had Pershing and Nike missiles and things like this, and at the end of many of our wars — from [the] Civil War, World War I and II, [the] Gulf War — you would have parades in Washington and sometimes in New York.
But to have a parade like this in Washington without an event like that, that’s a little bit outside our tradition.
During the Cold War, Eisenhower’s aides suggested to him that the United States should emulate and rival the grand military parades frequently held at that time by the Soviets. Eisenhower rejected the proposals, according to Beschloss:
Eisenhower said ‘Absolutely not. We, the United States, are seeking peace, we are the pre-eminent power on earth. For us to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square would make us look weak.’
Eisenhower was not entirely opposed to military rallies. After the end of World War II, in August 1945, the general even joined Stalin in Moscow for a victory parade at Red Square. And as we’ve mentioned, his inaugural parade in 1953 featured troops marching in formation, as well as a display of weaponry.
However, several historians we spoke to told us “Ike” would indeed have been opposed to a show of military strength that was not linked to a specific military victory, or a special occasion.
None of the experts we consulted knew of a specific conversation between Eisenhower and his staff in which he rejected the idea of a Soviet-style military parade, and we were unable to pinpoint any such proposal or conversation, in a number of books about the 34th president.
We were also unable to contact Michael Beschloss, in order to clarify the origins of his remarks about Eisenhower’s stance on the prospect of a military parade.
However, the comments don’t appear to be a quotation from Eisenhower, but rather a paraphrased summary of his views on the matter. In an email, Ohio University historian Chester Pach told us he concurred with Beschloss’s interpretation.
Pach, who is co-author of The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, told us the general would have responded negatively to any proposal to hold a Soviet-style military rally:
My guess is that Eisenhower would have rejected that advice if he got it. He wasn’t someone invested in pomp and circumstance. He knew that power had to be effective in ways other than elaborate displays of military might.