Opinion: Give Trump His Parade — on One Condition

Remember the Cold War victory over the Soviet Union

A crowd of West German citizens gathers at the newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz in 1989. (Courtesy The National Archives and Records Administration)
A crowd of West German citizens gathers at the newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz in 1989. (Courtesy The National Archives and Records Administration)
Posted February 12, 2018 at 5:03am

The torch has been passed on Broadway as Bernadette Peters recently replaced Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!” But one of the signature tunes from the revival has clearly touched Donald Trump’s soul.

Before the Parade Passes By” captures the longing to hear “the cymbals crash and the sparklers light the sky.” The lyrics by Jerry Herman end with the lines: “Give me an old trombone/Give me an old baton/Before the parade passes by.”

So it is understandable that the 71-year-old president craves a military extravaganza with soldiers, tanks and maybe even an aircraft carrier rumbling down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there would be Trump, a graduate of a military prep school, standing on the reviewing stand in front of the White House proudly basking in the salutes from the fighting men and women.

Trump has said that he became infatuated with military parades after watching last year’s Bastille Day celebrations in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron. Of course, the persistence of the Bastille Day parade, dating back to 1880, is partly linked with the need to restore French honor after the nation’s abject defeat by the Nazis in 1940.

Perhaps more appropriate for Trump would be the May Day parades in Moscow under Communism. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet watchers endlessly scrutinized pictures of the positioning on the reviewing stand to decipher who was up and who was down under Stalin and Khrushchev.

Given the never-ending turmoil in the Trump White House, today’s reporters would have a field day analyzing how far from Trump on the reviewing stand stood beleaguered White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general.

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The last major military parade in Washington was the 1991 celebration of victory over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. That wasn’t Trump’s type of war, since it was conducted in close collaboration with allies with the limited objective of expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

That restraint reflected the trademark caution of George H.W. Bush.

A different approach

But nearly two years earlier, when East Berliners broke through the Berlin Wall, Bush made the decision to deprive Americans of what would have been the biggest victory celebration since World War II.

In his 2001 book, “War in a Time of Peace,” David Halberstam wrote, “When the Berlin Wall had come down, many in the right wing, and a number of people around Bush himself, wanted some kind of ceremony, for this was a historic moment and they believed it deserved a commemoration not unlike those that had attended V-E and V-J Days.”

But Bush was keenly — and probably rightly — sensitive to the vulnerability of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was allowing the independence of Eastern Europe.

Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater in his memoir, “Call the Briefing,” offers the emblematic Bush story from that fateful day.

When Fitzwater asked the president about making a statement as TV cameras were recording triumphant East Berliners climbing on the wall, Bush responded, “I’m not going to dance on the Berlin Wall. The last thing I want to brag about is winning the Cold War or bringing the wall down. It won’t help us in Eastern Europe to be bragging about this.”

The aftereffects of Bush’s no-dancing restraint in 1989 are still visible in American life today. The toppling of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union represent — in my view — the most important events in American history since Japan surrendered aboard the USS Missouri.

For all the horrors associated with Sept. 11 and for all the subsequent fears triggered by terrorism, nothing compares to the chilling days during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the fate of the world teetered in the balance.

From the moment in 1949 that the Soviet Union demonstrated that it possessed the atomic bomb to the December 1989 Malta Summit when Bush and Gorbachev defused the Cold War, Americans lived in the shadow of a potentially catastrophic nuclear attack.

But because there were no victory parades, no wild embraces in Times Square, the magnitude of America’s victory over Soviet Communism has faded over the past three decades. The major Cold War memorial in Washington commemorates Vietnam — a misguided and heartrending war that ended with desperate helicopters taking off from the American embassy in Saigon.

‘Evil Empire’

Maybe if there were statues in every public park to honor prescient Cold Warriors (maybe George Kennan composing his 1946 Long Telegram proposing a policy of “containment”), Americans might be reminded of what Russia represented in the 20th century. Or that Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer in East Germany, celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall by burning spy files.

Even the Berlin Wall itself lacks resonance for a younger generation. That’s understandable, since just last week, we hit the moment when the 96-mile wall has been down (28 years) longer than it was up. As a result, many Americans fail to understand what a hateful symbol an imposing border wall can be — whether it’s designed to keep people in or keep them out.

So I would give Trump his military parade. But on one condition: The defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War should be a major, if belated, theme.

As floats containing pieces of the Berlin Wall roll down Pennsylvania Avenue, it should remind Americans that a former reality-show host was never needed to make America great again.

This nation’s greatness — under Republican and Democratic presidents — was forever demonstrated to the world when the Soviet Union and its “evil empire” breathed its last. 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.