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'Tanks' a lot: Trump 4th of July celebration isn't first time armored vehicles have rumbled into Washington

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The U.S. tradition of military parades dates back to the Civil War era.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Tanks rumbled down Pennsylvania Avenue for Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural parade in 1953. John F. Kennedy deployed them eight years later – as well as missiles. Even a 1939 visit by England’s King George VI prompted a splashy display of armored hardware rolling through the nation’s capital.

President Donald Trump’s demand that tanks be part of his “Salute to America” on the National Mall Thursday to celebrate the 4th of July has prompted critics, including Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, to call it a jingoistic display befitting a despot.

“One of the reasons I joined the military was that in a small way I wanted to be part of seeing to it that my country was not the kind of place where a leader feels the need to boost his own ego by rolling tanks down the streets of our capital,” the former Naval intelligence officer said on CNN Wednesday. “We’ve always been bigger than that.”

But tanks have long been a part of national moments of celebration in Washington, although mainly associated with presidential inaugurations and military victory parades.

The last ones thundered through the nation’s capital in 1991 when the nation commemorated victories over Iraq.

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“The Pentagon our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Incredible Flyovers biggest ever Fireworks!”

Here are several occasions where tanks were part of a celebration in the nation’s capital:

Royal welcome

On June 8, 1939, Washington and President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a welcoming parade for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Their procession was led by a small group of tanks.

The parade took place on the eve of World War II with soldiers, Marines and sailors standing at attention along the route as the cars carrying the monarchs passed by. Cheering throngs lined every foot of the parade route.

“No reigning British Monarch had ever set foot on American soil, not even in colonial times,” according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. So “Roosevelt’s invitation to the King carried great significance in the history of Anglo-American relations because it signified the dawn of a new era in American and British cooperation.”

First and second Eisenhower inaugurals

Eisenhower, the famed Army general turned president, had multiple tanks rolling on Pennsylvania Avenue at not only his first (Jan. 21, 1953) inauguration but his second (Jan. 21,1957) as well.

By then, tanks had become familiar components of parades thanks to the numerous victory celebrations following World War II. President Harry S. Truman’s inaugural parade in 1949 featured tanks too.

None rivaled the New York Victory Parade on Jan. 12, 1946. The ticker-tape parade up 5th Avenue was an estimated four miles long, lasted 11 hours and featured Sherman Tanks.

JFK inauguration

By the time John F. Kennedy held his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961, tanks had become a staple of the presidential festivities.

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But his parade, during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, featured something even more eye-popping: missiles.

Army Pershing, Lacrosse, Nike Hercules and Nike Zeus were among the missiles prominently displayed during the route.

Desert Shield/Desert Storm

The last time tanks showed up in Washington was in June 1991 when tanks and other weapons were featured in a celebration of the U.S. armed forces’ victory over Iraq in the operation known as Desert Storm.

Hundreds of thousands turned out for the National Victory Celebration, which recognized the U.S. military’s biggest triumph since World War II.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf led the event, which featured Patriot missiles and stealth fighter jets flying above.

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