What is Memorial Day and Why Do Americans Celebrate It?

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Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. Cities and towns across the US host military parades, Americans gather to have cook-outs with friends and family or go shopping.

This day also marks an unofficial beginning of the summer season as schools and universities adjourn and daytime temperatures go up. However, it is much more than a jolly three-day weekend.

Why Do Americans Celebrate Memorial Day?

Initially, the day was known as Decoration Day, originating from a post-Civil War era.

The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) was fought between the Union and 11 Southern states that formed the Confederate States of America. An estimated 620,000 men, or a whopping 2% of the nation’s population, lost their lives in the line of duty. Experts say that taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would have equated to six million people.

Remarkably, Russia played a role in the Union’s victory. At that time the United States was threatened by Great Britain and France, although the European powers did not directly intervene in the course of the war. However, London and Paris were expected to interfere due to their close trade ties with the South.

The arrival of Russian warships in San Francisco and New York in 1863 nullified the possibility of a foreign invasion and stripped the South of an opportunity to attack the California coast. Northern commanders gave a warm welcome to Russian admirals on the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts.

In fact, the Russian Empire returned the favor to the young American nation: eight years earlier, the United States became the only Western country that tacitly supported Russia during the Crimean War of 1853-1856.

The bloody Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, Americans had begun holding springtime tributes to fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers.

Where is the Official Birthplace of Memorial Day?

It is unclear where exactly the tradition originated: approximately 25 places have claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday.

According to some sources, three women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, began to decorate the graves of their loved ones who died during the Civil War as early as in October 1864. In July 1865 their fellow citizens joined them for a general commemoration. A similar event took place in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.

According to other sources, in early March 1866, Mary Ann Williams, secretary of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, wrote a letter calling on Southerners to come together one day a year to put flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. Her letter was published in the Columbus Daily Sun at that time.

Meanwhile, Henry Welles, a Waterloo, New York, pharmacist, is said to suggest formally setting a day for the town to honor those killed in the war in 1865.

Eventually, in 1966, US President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day: the town had started to hold celebrations since May 5, 1866, during which businesses were closed and residents decorated the graves of military soldiers with flowers and flags.

Why Did They Call it Decoration Day?

On May 5, 1868, John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30 as a memorial day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Having started his political career as a Democrat, Logan returned to politics after the end of the Civil War as a Republican who advocated African-American rights. He repeatedly won House elections, and was also one of the seven impeachment managers in the trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.

Logan’s political and military influence was immense, with GAR becoming a powerful lobbying group. He used his charisma to nationalize multiregional grave-decorating in a national holiday which he called “Decoration Day.”

When Was the First Decoration Day?

The first national celebration of Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, which has become the most famous burial ground for many US military heroes.

Around 400,000 veterans from every American conflict – starting with the Revolutionary War and ending with Iraq and Afghanistan wars – have been buried there.

On the first Decoration Day, James Garfield, then an Ohio congressman who had previously served as a Union major general, delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery:

“I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost,” Garfield said. “That the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of the great deeds of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

On that day, five thousand participants of the celebration decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. In March 1881, James Garfield was sworn in as the US president; unfortunately, just months later he was killed by an assassin which made his tenure the second shortest in US history.

When Did Memorial Day Become a Federal Holiday?

During the First World War I (1914-1918), the US fought on the side of the Allied countries led by Russia, Britain, and France against the Central Powers led by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Even though at the start of the war, US President Woodrow Wilson declared neutrality, Germany’s sinking of 120 US citizens traveling on the British ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, prompted a nationwide outrage. Berlin’s subsequent attacks on American vessels and attempts to interfere in US-Mexican relations forced Washington to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Around four million US soldiers were mobilized at the time. Eventually, the conflict claimed the lives of approximately 117,000 military personnel who died during combat and from other causes including wounds and influenza.

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The Second World War (1939-1945) is seen by some historians as a logical continuation of the first. This time Moscow, London and Washington countered the Nazi Germany-led coalition.

Initially, the US just provided military aid and other assistance to the Allies and joined the conflict following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

It is estimated that during WW2, the US lost around 407,000 soldiers and around 12,000 civilians. During WW2, the US became the first country to build nuclear weapons and the only one to have used them in combat by bombing Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the Second World War, the Cold War between the “capitalist” and “communist” camp began with the US proceeding with their overseas operations. US soldiers joined the war on the side of South Korea in 1950 against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) backed by the USSR and China at the time.

Fighting ended in 1953 with the DPRK upholding its independence and the two Koreas remaining split. In total, approximately 36,574 US soldiers were killed in the Korean War theater. The DPRK and China accused the US of using biological or germ warfare weapons during the conflict, something that the US government denied.
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Just a year later, in 1954, the US got involved in another conflict providing military support and training to Northern Vietnam against the Communist South. Washington’s interference in Southeast Asia affairs was at the time justified by the “domino effect” concept.

A memorandum from the Board of National Estimates to the Director of Central Intelligence, dated June 9, 1964, explained that the “‘domino effect’ appears to mean that when one nation falls to communism the impact is such as to weaken the resistance of other countries and facilitate, if not cause, their fall to communism.”
In March 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent US troops into Vietnam. As per Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, the US entered the hostilities under a false pretext. Moreover, the US military resorted to the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, including the infamous Agent Orange, a potent chemical herbicide.

The Vietnam War polarized US society, triggering a series of nationwide protests. Student protests concerning the “draft” started on May 5, 1965. The October 15, 1969, peace protests brought together around 15 million Americans. The exhaustive war lasted until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and claimed the lives of 58,220 US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese.

In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which turned Decoration Day into a federal holiday called Memorial Day. It was stipulated that the event would be held on the last Monday of May honoring all Americans who served and died in US wars.

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What is the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Apart from Memorial Day, the US also celebrates Veterans Day. While both holidays honor American military soldiers and their sacrifices for the sake of the US freedoms and national interests, Memorial Day commemorates those who lost their lives, and Veterans Day honors all those who served in the US Armed Forces. Veterans Day is observed on November 11, regardless of what day of the week it falls.

What Do Americans Do on Memorial Day?

On that three-day weekend, Americans usually travel to see their friends and family. They also visit history museums, attend military parades and competitions. Many Americans also visit cemeteries to honor their relatives who died while serving in the US Armed Forces.

Each year, Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony of placing a small American flag on each grave by the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Old Guard”. The tradition, which is known as “Flags In,” originates from 1948 when the Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit. All in all, small American flags are placed in front of over 228,000 headstones as well as at the bottom of thousands of niche rows in Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. After Memorial Day, all flags are removed.

The president of the United States usually delivers an address at the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The president or vice-president also lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on that day.

Is it Appropriate to Say ‘Happy Memorial Day’?

While some Americans believe it is okay to say “Happy Memorial Day”, others doubt that this phrase is appropriate: for those who lost their loved ones this is a period of grief and reflection. This is a day to honor American history and its heroes and mourn a dear relative or friend who died while serving the nation.

Some American websites offer more appropriate phrases to say on the day. For instance: “I will be taking a moment this weekend to honor those who served our nation and are no longer with us.” Or simply: “Thank you for your service.”

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What is Hybrid Warfare and Why is It More Dangerous Than Missiles and Bullets?

Over the past 30 years, the US has continued to beef up its military presence across the world and take part in overseas conflicts. New sophisticated weapons and military tactics allowed lessening US combat casualties.

Thus, the Gulf War of 1990-1991 saw only 383 US troops killed, while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed the lives of 6,840 or 8,498 American soldiers, according to different estimates. The new US hybrid war doctrine, first detailed by Ret. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman, US Marine Corps, in the early 2000s, led to the increasing use of foreign proxies and mercenaries in various war theaters that allowed diminishing US military casualties even further.
Nonetheless, as per the National Institutes of Health, half of the men who die every day in the US are military veterans. According to some estimates, over 600,000 American veterans are dying every year, due to natural causes. Moreover, the US loses over 6,000 US military veterans to suicide each year.

All passed away soldiers who did their duty and patriotically served the country deserve remembrance and respect. Therefore, people across the world pay their tribute to fallen defenders.





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