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Presidential Reflections on the Importance of Memorial Day

May 24, 2024

As we approach Memorial Day 2024, it’s important to pause amidst the festivities to remember the profound meaning of this day – honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice serving our nation. What began as a day to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers has evolved into a time to pay tribute to all the brave men and women who died defending America across history.

The Origins and Significance of Memorial Day

In reflecting on the establishment of Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day, General John A. Logan emphasized in an 1868 proclamation the responsibility of remembering those who died preserving the nation:

“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided Republic.”

President Woodrow Wilson, speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1914 during the early months of World War I in Europe, honored the sacrifices made in the name of liberty:

“We are met to commemorate the supreme sacrifice which has been made for the liberty of the world by the soldiers and sailors of our own country and the countries with which we are associated in this war. We are met to worship at the altar of patriotism and to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of freedom and justice.”

Just a few years after the end of World War I, President Calvin Coolidge reflected at Arlington on Memorial Day in 1925 on the debt owed to those who gave their lives:

“For what they sacrificed, we must give back the pledge of faith to all that they held dear, constantly renewed, constantly justified.”

President Benjamin Harrison, who served as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War, shared a unique perspective on the meaning of Memorial Day in 1891:

“I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.”

The Human Cost of War

The true cost of war can be measured in the staggering number of lives lost. Over 1.2 million Americans have died in combat since the nation’s founding. Each number represents a life cut short and a family forever changed.

Speaking at the dedication of the WWII Memorial in 2004, President George W. Bush highlighted the scale of the sacrifice:

“Looking across this field, we see the scale of heroism and sacrifice. All who are buried here understood their duty. All stood to protect America. And all carried with them memories of a family that they hoped to keep safe by their sacrifice.”

Reflecting on the Americans who died in World War II, President Bill Clinton offered these words at Arlington on Memorial Day in 1993:

“They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together, and now they sleep side by side. To them, we have a solemn obligation.”

President Harry S. Truman, in a May 1945 address to the Armed Forces just months before the end of World War II, expressed the nation’s eternal gratitude:

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”

In 1941, as the U.S. faced the looming prospect of entering World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded Americans of the constant need to defend hard-won freedoms:

“Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.”

Speaking at Arlington on Memorial Day in 1976, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford reflected:

“All who come to Arlington this Memorial Day must reflect upon the sacrifices made by those continually brave Americans who lie in rest on these hillsides as beneath silent markers at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Pearl Harbor. Their courage won a revolution. Their bravery preserved our Republic. Their perseverance kept the peace and ensured a heritage of freedom.”​

Honoring Courage and Sacrifice

In remembering the fallen, we honor their courage and reflect with gratitude on their sacrifices.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in a stirring Memorial Day speech in 1902, paid tribute to the lasting impact of their service:

“They, the heroes who sleep in their graves, have by their acts consecrated and ennobled the whole fabric of our national life. We, in our turn, must so live as to be worthy of them.”

A century later, in 2009, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments:

“Most of all, America’s veterans and fallen heroes deserve our lasting gratitude for all they have done to defend our nation. Their selfless sacrifices have made it possible for us to enjoy the blessings of freedom, and as we honor their service, we are reminded that no tribute is truly sufficient to properly thank them.”

President Ronald Reagan, in a 1988 Memorial Day address honoring Vietnam Veterans, highlighted their enduring contributions:

“For their service and sacrifice, warmth and compassion, for their patriotism and their patience, and for their quiet courage and integrity, America’s Vietnam veterans have earned our everlasting respect and gratitude.”

Speaking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2012, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. reflected on the profound meaning of their sacrifice:

“They faced down their demons, and they overcame them. They conquered their fears, and they overcame them. At least at war, they were able to hug their battle buddy. That’s why coming home is often the hard part. These memorials are important, but they’re only symbols. The depth of your sacrifice and the magnitude of your courage is what this day is all about.”

The Power of Remembrance and Unity

Memorial Day serves as a powerful reminder of the shared values and experiences that unite us as Americans.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan highlighted this unifying spirit at Arlington National Cemetery:

“The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, reflecting on the diversity of those who served, noted in a Memorial Day address:

“As we stand here at Arlington, we can see the men and women of America—of all races, religions, and national origins—who answered their country’s call to service. All, in the days that were given to them, ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.'”

President John F. Kennedy eloquently captured the significance of who a nation chooses to honor:

“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”

In a Memorial Day proclamation in 1993, President Bill Clinton emphasized how the sacrifices made by fallen heroes transcend differences and unite Americans:

“The Americans of all races, colors, and creeds who died in battle gave their lives for the freedom of all. They lie buried, row upon row, in veteran cemeteries across the land and beyond the seas – reminding us that the ideals and values that unite us are far more enduring than the forces that would divide us.”

President George H.W. Bush, in his 1989 Memorial Day proclamation, underscored the personal connections that bind us on this day:

“Whether we observe the occasion through public ceremony or through private prayer, Memorial Day leaves few hearts unmoved. Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend, and neighbor.”

Preserving Freedom Through Remembrance

The words of past presidents remind us that the best way to honor the sacrifices of the fallen is to dedicate ourselves to the ideals they died defending.

In an 1868 Decoration Day address at Arlington, Rep. James A. Garfield, who would later serve as the 20th U.S. President, reflected:

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For the love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson highlighted in a Memorial Day message how a nation’s monuments reflect its values:

“The true nature of a nation is revealed in the monuments it builds, the memorials it raises, to honor its dead—particularly those who died in the cause of freedom.”

Speaking on Memorial Day in 2022, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. emphasized how the act of remembering binds us to the legacy and sacrifice of the fallen:

“Remembrance is the most powerful form of respect; it is how we show those who came before us that their sacrifices, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, will never be forgotten. By remembering, we not only honor those we lost — we sustain their legacy and memorialize our nation’s commitment to defending the self-evident truths for which they gave their lives.”

In a Memorial Day proclamation in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on Americans to rededicate themselves to the pursuit of peace:

“Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us re-consecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

As you gather with loved ones this Memorial Day, I encourage you to raise a glass to those who gave their lives to secure the blessings of liberty we enjoy today. Share stories of their heroism with the next generation so their legacy endures. Consider how you can support veterans, military families, and others who serve throughout the year.

Most of all, never forget that our way of life has been earned by the blood of patriots. In the immortal words of President Abraham Lincoln during his Gettysburg Adress in 1863 (which preceded but inspired Memorial Day):

“…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I hope you have a nice Memorial Day weekend.