A now-forgotten national event once produced huge parades

The Morning Herald’s 1924 headline proves the idea of parading our military might before the world via giant parades is nothing new. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

President Trump’s call for a Washington military parade is nothing compared with what happened all across America 94 years ago on Sept. 12, 1924. If you lived then, it was almost impossible in any city to avoid celebrating an event called National Defense Day, a demonstration of America’s post World War I military might, as expressed through parades and oratory, both likely much longer than necessary.

The Saturday, Sept. 13 Gloversville Morning Herald, the Amsterdam Recorder, Schenectady Gazette, and hundreds of other newspapers across America recapped their city’s previous day’s parades, although many readers had already watched or marched in them.

Gloversville’s event was typical. The Herald observed, “More than fifteen hundred marchers were included in the contingent representing the City of Gloversville. Forming in North Main Street, the line, headed by Mayor John W. Sisson, plus members of the Common Council and city department officials, moved down Main Street. As a demonstration of the resources of this country, yesterday’s parade furnished spectators with a show that was little short of astounding.”

Virtually every local group participated, including our few remaining Civil War veterans, carefully chauffeured in autos, plus 300 high school students, prophetically dubbed “future soldiers of America” led by the superintendent of schools, the Harold Wilmont American Legion Post, the Gloversville Military Band, the D.A.R., Red Cross, Eccentric and Italian-American clubs, 100 Boy Scouts, various drum corps, and every lodge and labor union.

Fortunately, no fire occurred during this mammoth three-division parade, because Gloversville’s entire fire apparatus was included, headed by Grand Marshall Chief Maxon. National Guard Company H’s two platoons participated, and while this happened in Gloversville on what would normally be just another working Friday, similar patriotic parades occurred in Johnstown, Amsterdam, Schenectady, Albany and as many as 5,000 other cities.

Although held in September, summer heat persisted. The Herald noted, “Marchers faced a glaring sun. Marching in time of war and parading in time of peace are two totally different propositions.”

Traversing the length of Main Street, the parade continued southward to the Gloversville-Johnstown border, where a large expanse known as “the Snyder lot” was the location for speeches, and Gloversville marchers were met there by a similar group of marchers from Johnstown. The combination of twin city marchers plus the general public was estimated to have swelled the scene to well over 3,000 people.

Just what was National Defense Day all about, and why hold it on a week day? As explained by the June 28 New York Times, it was “The anniversary of the World War One Battle of St. Mihiel in France, and was also General Pershing’s 64th birthday.”

Sponsored by the War Department on authority of the 1920 National Defense Act and strongly advocated by Pershing, the expressed purpose of these parades was, “simply a check on what we have as a way of national defense: an opportunity for the country to estimate its strength and weakness.”

Just how massive parades and tedious patriotic speeches were to assess America’s defensive level was never made clear, nor were specific guidelines issued by the War Department. As the Times observed, “The War Department has issued no hard and fast instructions for the event, leaving the details to the Governors of individual states and local committees.”

Why did the War Department sponsor this seemingly unnecessary event? Perhaps partly because, with the ‘Great War’ past, the War Department hadn’t much to do, and also because the influential Gen. Pershing, who rightly — as it turned out — preached the necessity of continuing military preparedness, was alarmed by post-war governmental failure to maintain our armed forces and develop new weaponry, beyond passing the National Defense Act of 1920 dividing our defensive services into the Army itself, the National Guard, and the Organized Reserve. Pershing seethed, and when he spoke, people listened, even though the War Department didn’t.

National Defense Day was, however, controversial. Both pacifist and isolationists strenuously opposed it. Even moderates thought it unnecessary and costly. Mayor Dever of Chicago stated that it only served “to influence larger appropriations from the public treasury for the benefit of munitions makers.”

A powerful Washington Lobby called the National Council for the Prevention of War also opposed it, claiming it sent the world the wrong message, but opposition was largely ignored by organizers and the national press.

When the 3,000 plus collection of sweating marchers and onlookers assembled at the Snyder Lot, they were addressed by two local speakers, J. Ellsworth Stille, insurance man and Gloversville Chamber of Commerce manager, and Johnstown Historical Society president, attorney John T. Morrison.

Stille spoke first and was mercifully brief, although his speech contained one oxzymoronic moment when he declared, “There is nothing militaristic about this: it is merely for defense.”

Listeners were probably too hot to note the irony.

Whereas Stille’s speech took only two Herald columns to reprint, Morrison’s windy exhortation took seven! He used the occasion to stress his favorite topic, a national return to “old fashioned” patriotism, informing listeners, “Defense Day is set aside for the purpose of testing our strength and resources,” labeling it “our strongest and best guarantee of perpetual peace.”

With Morrison’s bombastic rhetoric concluded, both parade groups returned to their respective cities, and our area National Defense Day parades, some including creaky, already obsolete World War One tanks, quickly receded into the realm of forgotten good intentions.

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