Like many federal holidays, Memorial Day has become a day that more often is associated with fellowship, food and fun than its founders' original intent. But we should never fail to remember the sacrifices of servicemen and women who have fallen in American wars. The entire nation should take time to honor and give thanks to those who gave their lives to protect this country's freedoms and the spread of democratic ideals around the world.
Memorial Day draws its roots from the Civil War. In May 1868, three years after the war ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day. It was a time intended for the nation to festoon the graves of those killed in the war with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan decreed that the day should be observed on May 30, when spring flowers would be in bloom nationwide. The first observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife presiding over the ceremonies. Orphans and members of the Union veterans group sang hymns and spread flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.
At least two years before the national ceremony, local observances were held in states from Georgia to New York, each claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, a title eventually bestowed upon Waterloo, N.Y., which held a ceremony on May 5, 1866. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, designating it as the last Monday in May.
This year Memorial Day takes on special significance as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, whose participants once numbered 16 million men and women and who are now relatively few in number. We should honor their sacrifices and thank them at every remaining opportunity.
We also should appreciate those who serve in this country's present-day military, which looks much different than it did in the 19th century and faces far more sophisticated foes. Women, once relegated to supporting troops back home, now serve in combat, though in still small numbers. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed thousands of lives and sent far too many soldiers home with mental or physical disabilities to face the challenges of reintegrating into society.
Despite these tragedies, which should unite us, the United States of America remains at odds with itself. Already, the nascent 2016 presidential campaign shows a deeply divided electorate. Clashes between protesters and police officers illustrate long-festering issues around race, class and power. And the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor bears witness to the challenges of too many Americans who struggle to make ends meet. Yet America remains the world's greatest nation whose ideals are worth defending, even at the high cost of financial and human treasure.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which designates 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to encourage the nation to pause and give thanks for armed services members who have died in service to our country. Taking a moment to appreciate their sacrifice is a simple, yet profound and unifying way to show solidarity.