A Demonstration for "Everyone": The Preparedness Day Parade 100 Years Ago

"Washington is going to have a monster preparedness parade," The Evening Star announced on its front page on May 27, 1916. A committee of local businessmen, organized with President Wilson's assent, urged everyone to participate in the Flag Day event: "Other large cities have held preparedness parades, and certainly there is no date more fitting than Flag day for such a demonstration in Washington. We want the citizens of Washington to realize that this is every man's and every woman's responsibility... This is a demonstration for everyone, and none need wait upon an invitation..." Organizers hoped the rousing, jingoistic celebration would be a magnificent display of Washingtonian's unity and resolve against the looming threat of war.

Women marching in front of the presidential reviewing stand, June 14, 1916 (Author's collection).

Until that time it had been widely agreed that, as a peaceful nation, the United States should not maintain a significant standing army and navy, and thus in 1916 the military was ill prepared to join the Great War. Preparedness advocates, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt and Army general Leonard Wood, had been pushing for a stronger, better trained military since war had broken out in Europe in 1914. Supported by many prominent urban industrialists and businessmen, preparedness advocates wanted to institute a form of military draft and also sought large investments in military hardware to create a world-class navy. Opposition came from women's groups, churches, ethnic organizations, and many small-town Americans who deeply mistrusted the idea of a military build-up.

But the tide had been turning in favor of the Preparedness Movement since the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May 2015. Wilson had initially opposed the movement but changed his mind after the Lusitania incident. Preparedness parades became an emotional outlet for ordinary people to demonstrate their support.

This advertisement from the Woodward and Lothrop Department Store appeared in the June 8, 1916, edition of The Washington Herald.
On June 1, the organizing committee paid a visit to the president to ask him to review the parade from a stand in front of the White House. Wilson responded that he wanted to not just review the parade but to march in it as well. Overjoyed, the committee began planning for a massive turnout, hoping for an official holiday that would allow federal workers to participate en masse. Though Congress refused to declare an official holiday, Wilson stepped in and issued an executive order closing the federal government for the day. The District government closed as well. Many departmental bureaus and divisions formed groups to march in the parade. Any group could participate as long as it followed a few simple rules—no advertising, no political demonstrations, and only the American flag and colors could be displayed.

Anyone could march in the parade. This entry blank appeared in the June 4, 1916 edition of The Sunday Star.
Support for the parade was far from unanimous, however. When the local school board took up the question of whether to declare a holiday so that schoolchildren could attend the parade, they heard objections from 15 peace advocates. Rev. J. Milton Waldron, representing the District's black ministers, objected that "this parade is to boost the present administration and children should not be dragged into politics." Rep. Warren Worth Bailey, A Democrat from Pennsylvania who had two children in the District's public schools, sneered that "'preparedness' is one of these 'weasel' words we have heard so much of recently. The children should not be inoculated with the virus of militarism.... The preparedness parade is under the auspices of patriots for profit, and patriots for promotion." Belva Lockwood, the famous suffragist who had run for president in the 1880s, declared that the country was going mad. "I would like to see President Wilson reelected," she stated, "but if he participates in this parade, I will despise the act." Intense as they were, the protests fell on deaf ears. The school board voted unanimously to grant the school holiday.

It turned out to be a great day for a parade—clear, sunny and pleasant. At 9:30 in the morning, President Wilson, dapper in a navy blue serge jacket, white duck trousers, white shoes, and straw hat, was handed a large silk flag to carry as he took his spot near the front of the parade at the Peace Monument, just west of the Capitol. He led the 60,000 marchers down Pennsylvania Avenue, smiling and waving to onlookers as crowds cheered so loudly that it was nearly impossible to hear what the Marine Band, marching in front of him, was playing. Peeling off in front of the White House, he watched the rest of the parade with Mrs. Wilson from his flag-festooned reviewing stand.

President Wilson at the start of the parade (Source: Library of Congress).
The parade highlighted a broad spectrum of Washington organizations and professions, including most federal departments, led by their cabinet-level chiefs, contingents from local businesses, area elementary and high schools and bands, and numerous groups of professional workers, from newspaper correspondents to grocers, retail clerks, and tailors. Though it was thought inappropriate for regular military forces to participate, the local National Guard marched, and workers from the Navy Yard displayed a cut-away model of a 12-inch battleship gun on a large float. Another float carried a Curtiss Scout airplane from the aerial coast patrol, and a group of wireless radio operators sent live telegraph messages from yet another float. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing's money wagon, draped in red white and blue bunting, also made an appearance with eight uniformed guards onboard and more mounted guards riding alongside.

The Red Cross float passes in front of the White House (author's collection).

Full stereoview image of women marching in the Preparedness Parade (author's collection).
Women, many dressed entirely in white, drew special attention as they appeared in several different groups. Just three years earlier, the Woman Suffrage Parade had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to be met by unruly crowds of angry men as the police failed to maintain order. Suffragist and labor lawyer Inez Milholland had led that parade dressed all in white and mounted on a white horse. It had proved to be a turning point for public attitudes about women's suffrage, and the suffragists made a point of joining the preparedness parade in 1916. The Evening Star noted "The serious, solemn grave faces of the suffragists as they moved along the line of march showed how intensely interested they were. Indeed, it was generally remarked that while the men in the various divisions marched along laughingly and smilingly, the women were much more serious and absorbed in what they were doing."

The presidential reviewing stand (Source: Library of Congress).
American flags fluttered everywhere, from the small pennants waved by individual marchers and spectators to what was said to be the largest flag in the country, which stretched across Pennsylvania Avenue as it was carried by one hundred men from Maryland. At the parade's end, a sixty by thirty-eight foot long flag was raised atop the Washington Monument.

By April 1917, when the U.S. declared war on Germany, the once-reluctant American public had largely overcome its hesitations and supported the drive to "make the world safe for democracy," drowning out the worries of peace advocates. As a psychological tool to help build public support for the war effort, the Preparedness Day Parade had played its part.

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