On August 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy and Air Force Days. The single-day celebration stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under one department — the Department of Defense. Each of the military leagues and orders was asked to drop sponsorship of its specific service day in order to celebrate the newly announced Armed Forces Day. The Army, Navy and Air Force leagues adopted the newly formed day. The Marine Corps League declined to drop support for Marine Corps Day but supports Armed Forces Day, too.
In a speech announcing the formation of the day, President Truman “praised the work of the military services at home and across the seas” and said, “it is vital to the security of the nation and to the establishment of a desirable peace.” In an excerpt from the Presidential Proclamation of Feb. 27, 1950, Mr. Truman stated:
Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 20, 1950, marks the first combined demonstration by America’s defense team of its progress, under the National Security Act, towards the goal of readiness for any eventuality. It is the first parade of preparedness by the unified forces of our land, sea, and air defense.
The theme of the first Armed Forces Day was “Teamed for Defense.” It was chosen as a means of expressing the unification of all the military forces under a single department of the government. Although this was the theme for the day, there were several other purposes for holding Armed Forces Day. It was a type of “educational program for civilians,” one in which there would be an increased awareness of the Armed Forces. It was designed to expand public understanding of what type of job is performed and the role of the military in civilian life. It was a day for the military to show “state-of-the-art” equipment to the civilian population they were protecting. And it was a day to honor and acknowledge the people of the Armed Forces of the United States.
According to a New York Times article published on May 17, 1952: “This is the day on which we have the welcome opportunity to pay special tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces … to all the individuals who are in the service of their country all over the world. Armed Forces Day won’t be a matter of parades and receptions for a good many of them. They will all be in line of duty and some of them may give their lives in that duty.”
The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated by parades, open houses, receptions, and air shows. In Washington D.C., 10,000 troops of all branches of the military, cadets, and veterans marched pass the President and his party. In Berlin, 1,000 U.S. troops paraded for the German citizens at Templehof Airfield. In New York City, an estimated 33,000 participants initiated Armed Forces Day “under an air cover of 250 military planes of all types.” In the harbors across the country were the famed mothballed “battlewagons” of World War II, the Missouri, the New Jersey, the North Carolina, and the Iowa, all open for public inspection. Precision flying teams dominated the skies as tracking radar were exhibited on the ground. All across the country, the American people joined together to honor the Armed Forces.
As the people gathered to honor the Armed Forces on this occasion, so too did the country’s leaders. Some of the more notable of these leaders’ quotes are stated below:
“Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 20, 1950, marks the first combined demonstration by America’s defense team of its progress, under the National Security Act, towards the goal of readiness for any eventuality. It is the first parade of preparedness by the unified forces of our land, sea, and air defense.”
Former Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson
“The heritage of freedom must be guarded as carefully in peace as it was in war. Faith, not suspicion, must be the key to our relationships. Sacrifice, not selfishness, must be the eternal price of liberty. Vigilance, not appeasement, is the byword of living freedoms. Our Armed Forces in 1950–protecting the peace, building for security with freedom–are “Teamed for Defense …”
General Omar N. Bradley Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
“Real security lies in the prevention of war–and today that hope can come only through adequate preparedness.”
General Omar N. Bradley, 1951 Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
“Armed Forces Day this year should serve to emphasize the practical application of unification in action, and to remind us of the continued need for unity in our Armed Forces and among all of our citizens in the interests of security and peace.”
Robert D. Lovett, Former Secretary of Defense
“It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953
“Today let us, as Americans, honor the American fighting man. For it is he–the soldier, the sailor, the Airman, the Marine–who has fought to preserve freedom. It is his valor that has given renewed hope to the free world that by working together in discipline and faith our ideals of freedom will always prevail.”
Admiral Forrest P. Sherman
“Our Armed Forces and our national defense system represent a judicious investment of the nation’s resources in the cause of peace. The return on this investment, in terms of national strength, shows the determination of the American people to preserve our way of life and to give hope to all who seek peace with freedom and justice. “
The Honorable Neil McElroy, 1959 Former Secretary of Defense
“Close understanding between members of our Armed Forces and members of civilian communities is most important to preserve the high level of national readiness necessary for safeguarding the free world.”
General Nathan F. Twining, 1959 Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
“We cannot, in this day of exploding world competition on all fronts, be content to maintain the status quo. We must also realize that the preservation of our freedom in the years ahead may require greater sacrifices from us than those made by Americans who have walked before us.”
General Nathan F. Twining, 1960 Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
“Today we are strong enough to meet today’s challenge. But the very fact that we are strong may put off the challenge to another day. The Soviets think that time is on their side. We believe otherwise. But meanwhile we cannot afford to lower our guard.”
The Honorable Robert S. McNamara, 1961 Former Secretary of Defense
“…Word to the Nation: Guard zealously your right to serve in the Armed Forces, for without them, there will be no other rights to guard.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
“Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
“The support of an informed American people is increasingly important to the Armed Forces in these days of rapid technological advance, quick reaction time, and grave threat to our freedom. I, therefore, encourage members of the DoD to observe Armed Forces Day by informing the American people of our ‘Power for Peace’ and by confirming their faith that in our strength we will remain free.”
The Honorable Robert S. McNamara, 1962 Former Secretary of Defense
“… Our Servicemen and women are serving throughout the world as guardians of peace–many of them away from their homes, their friends and their families. They are visible evidence of our determination to meet any threat to the peace with measured strength and high resolve. They are also evidence of a harsh but inescapable truth–that the survival of freedom requires great cost and commitment, and great personal sacrifice.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1963
“…Their contribution to our freedom and safety is measureless. Our national security depends on the maintenance of alert military forces as a deterrent to any possible aggressor.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
“Armed Forces Day, above all, honors the dedicated individuals who wear the uniforms of their country. Each serviceman, wherever he may be, whatever his task, contributes directly and importantly to the defense of the nation. The task of each one is the task of all the Armed Forces: to protect the freedoms which underlie the greatness of America.”
General Earle G. Wheeler, 1967 Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
“Our servicemen and women shoulder the burden of defense as one of the responsibilities of citizenship in this free country. Having participated in protecting our rights and having met oppression on the battlegrounds of the world, they are able to appreciate and savor the blessings of citizenship in the country they serve.”
The Honorable Melvin Laird, 1970 Former Secretary of Defense
“At home and abroad, military men and women are showing purpose and dedication in defending American ideas. They are performing in our country’s best traditions under circumstances both difficult and complex. Thanks to their determined spirit of patriotism and professionalism, our country has a powerful and unified defense team, employing its forces in the constant quest for peace and freedom.”
The Honorable Melvin Laird, 1972 Former Secretary of Defense
The first Armed Forces Day came at a time of increased world tensions, political volatility and communist aggression. Some notable events that marked America’s first Armed Forces Week were as follows:
- Bolivian police broke up “alleged” revolutionary communist-led general strike in LaPaz.
- Two U. S. government buildings in Canton, China were taken over by the Chinese Communist Government. The buildings were U. S. property acquired prior to the Communist takeover.
- The Burmese Army recaptured the city of Prome, a strategic communist-rebel stronghold.
- Nicaraguans elect General Anastasio Somoza to a regular six-year term as president.
- French and West German governments expected to talk shortly on the merger of the coal and steel industries of the two countries.
- Communist China lifted the ban on daylight shipping along the Yangtze River due to the decline of Nationalist air activity.
- Norway receives first US military aid in the form of two Dakota planes.
- U. N. Secretary General Trygive Lie seeks West’s acceptance of Red China in the U. N.
- Iran announced close range news broadcasts to the Soviet Union with $56,000 worth of Voice of America equipment.
- Cuba celebrated the 48th anniversary of the establishment of its republic.
- The Red Cross celebrated its 69th birthday.
- Britain ended rationing of all foods except meats, butter, margarine, and cooking fat.
- The U. S. Congress voted to extend the draft. “A Bill to extend registration and classification for the Draft until June 24, 1952 passed the House 216-11.”
- The Allied Command announced it would “ease” the burden of occupation on Austria and would name civilian high commissioners to replace present military high commissioners.
- Soviet authorities in Berlin withdrew travel passes of the U.S. and British military missions stationed at Potsdam in the Soviet zone of occupation.
- The Soviets returned 23 East German industrial plants to East German authorities. The plants had been producing exclusively for the benefit of reparations to the USSR.
- Twenty-eight Soviet vessels, consisting of tugs, trawlers, and supply ships remained in the English Channel as the Western Alliance prepared for air and naval maneuvers. Observers noted that many of them carried rollers at their sterns for trawling nets although no nets were visible.
- Pravda denounced Armed Forces Day, calling it the militarization of the United States. “The hysterical speeches of the warmongers again show the timeliness of the appeal of the Permanent Committee of Peace Partisans that atomic weapons be forbidden.”
- Western Powers renewed their promise to help Mid-Eastern states resist communism. They also announced an agreement to sell arms to Israel as well as to the Arabs.
Below are some of the themes and ideas that have prevailed over past Armed Forces Days:
- Appreciation of a Nation
- Arsenal of Freedom and Democracy
- Dedication and Devotion
- Deter if Possible, Fight if Necessary
- Freedom Through Unity
- Guardians of Peace
- Lasting Peace
- Pillars of Freedom
- Power for Peace
- Prepared to Meet the Challenge
- Protectors of Freedom
- Realistic Deterrence
- Representatives of the World’s Mightiest Democracy
- Special Opportunity for Thanks
- Teamed for Defense
Again, from the May 17, 1952, New York Times article: “It is our most earnest hope that those who are in positions of peril, that those who have made exceptional sacrifices, yes, and those who are afflicted with plain drudgery and boredom, may somehow know that we hold them in exceptional esteem. Perhaps if we are a little more conscious of our debt of honored affection they may be a little more aware of how much we think of them.”
Armed Forces Day is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of May. Armed Forces Week begins on the second Saturday of May and ends on the third Sunday of May, the day after Armed Forces Day. Because of their unique training schedules, National Guard and Reserve units may celebrate Armed Forces Day/Week over any period in May.