This Memorial Day, in the wake of President Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it is worth remembering that the first three-day Memorial Day weekend was repurposed 50 years ago by thousands of American GIs who had recently returned from Vietnam. Having witnessed firsthand what the United States was doing in Southeast Asia, these veterans decided that the occasion traditionally used to honor the war dead was the perfect opportunity to advocate for a peaceable future.
From the beginning, “Decoration Day,” as Memorial Day was originally called, has been riddled with contradictions. The rituals and traditions created to mourn the carnage of the Civil War and later to honor all of the nation’s war dead, including reading their names, decorating their graves and parading past them, reveal that the future life of the nation is widely believed to depend on perpetuating a cult of the dead. And while Memorial Day gives men permission to express grief, it also defines patriotic manhood as steely resolve on the battlefield. Most notably, Memorial Day can obscure the horror of battle by aggrandizing wartime sacrifice.
In 1968, four years after President Lyndon B. Johnson sent troops into Vietnam, Congress further complicated Memorial Day when it proposed moving its observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May as part of a broader effort to create several three-day weekends throughout the year.
The Congressional Record reveals that while the argument was made that such a move would provide “substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation,” the economic reasons for moving Memorial Day were uppermost in everyone’s mind. Underscoring that long weekends would “increase the opportunities for pilgrimages to the historical sites connected with our holidays,” advocates for the Uniform Monday Holiday Act noted that it had the support of the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Indeed, at no point in the deliberations did a member of Congress note that Memorial Day might or should become a more somber affair on account of the skyrocketing numbers of people killed fighting in Vietnam.
By the time the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1971, many returning service members decided to reject not only the commercialization of Memorial Day, but also the holiday’s traditional premise that it was noble to die fighting a war. They embraced the idea of mourning, but directly connected it to highlighting the horror of war itself.