Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day -- Navy, National Preparedness and Unity

by Bill Doughty
Commander-in-chief President Herbert Hoover said this in a Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery in 1929 -- exactly midway between World Wars I and II: 

"Our Navy is the first and in the world sense the only important factor in our national preparedness. It is a powerful part of the arms of the world," adding, "To make ready for defense is a primary obligation upon every statesman, and adequate preparedness is an assurance against aggression."

Hoover wanted to prevent a world arms race. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan instead chose aggression. The Axis nations ignored agreements, treaties and promises in the decade that followed, leading to wars in Europe and across the Pacific.
Ship's company poses with President Hoover during his cruise aboard USS Arizona, March 1931. The president is seated front center.
Two years after his speech, in 1931, Hoover took a brief trip to the Caribbean aboard USS Arizona (BB-39) just before the battleship underwent post-modernization sea trials.

When Hoover spoke in 1929 there were still Civil War veterans alive to hear his words.

Hoover said, "This sacred occasion has impelled our Presidents to express their aspirations in furtherance of peace. No more appropriate tribute can be paid to our heroic dead than to stand in the presence of their resting places and pledge renewed effort that these sacrifices shall not be claimed again."

Frederick Douglass
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Decoration Day, precursor to Memorial Day, was established three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868 as "a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers."  Springtime tributes to Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors had sprouted in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia and other states.

Three years later, on May 30, 1871, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave Decoration Day remarks at Arlington. His speech is rich with themes that still resonate today: unity, dignity, universal freedom, noble sacrifice, devotion and remembrance:
Friends and Fellow Citizens, 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence. 
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring today is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.  
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country. 
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph. 
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country. 
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.  
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my "right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth," if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.  
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones -- I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember? 
The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. 
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation's destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.
Douglass wrote his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and many of his speeches in his Cedar Hill library.
In 1971, on hundred years after Frederick Douglass gave his remarks, Memorial Day became a national holiday through an Act of Congress. Douglass, a scholar who loved books, is a gifted writer whose insights are worth reading today.

According to the VA, "The origins of special services to honor those who die in war can be found in antiquity. The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago that could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in the nation’s wars: 'Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.'"

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