Continuing Daniel Inouye’s fight to restore Memorial Day’s meaning

Daniel Inouye, who passed away in December after a half-century representing Hawaii in the U.S. Senate, was one of America’s most beloved public servants. Even before he arrived on Capitol Hill, Inouye had already distinguished himself in a different kind of national service. Enlisting in a Japanese-American volunteer regiment during World War II, he bravely led his platoon in a successful assault on an enemy-controlled ridge in Italy, personally neutralizing enemy machine gun emplacements. Inouye eventually was presented with the Medal of Honor for his heroism under fire, though the battle cost him his right arm.
Inouye, however, knew that other American service members have made even greater sacrifices in wartime. That is perhaps why, for the last quarter-century of his life, Inouye carried on a lonely fight to restore Memorial Day to its proper focus as a time for honoring Americans who have lost their lives in service to our country.
Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday was born shortly after the Civil War. It was marked by decorating the graves of soldiers who had perished in that bloody conflict. Later broadened to honor all fallen American service members, Memorial Day was traditionally observed on May 30.
Then in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, relocating several holidays to create longer weekends, which took effect in 1971. Today, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May, and the resulting three-day weekend is regarded as the start of the summer season.
Absorbing Memorial Day into a long weekend, though, has had some regrettable consequences. The annual tributes to America’s fallen servicemembers are too easily overshadowed by the festive weekend’s barbecues, getaways, sporting events and sales. A day that should be devoted to gratitude is instead too often given over to self-gratification.
{mosads}Inouye lamented that “in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”
To rectify this state of affairs, Inouye in 1989 sponsored a Senate bill to restore Memorial Day to May 30. He reintroduced the measure in every single Congress thereafter as long as he lived.
But despite receiving the backing of veterans groups, Inouye’s effort failed to gain traction. In the Senate, his bill never garnered more than a single co-sponsor, and even that was a rarity. For a time companion bills were regularly introduced in the House of Representatives, but the last one of those was in 2002.
For the past decade, the legislative effort to restore Memorial Day to its traditional date was a solo mission, stubbornly carried on by the decorated World War II veteran. Now, with Inouye gone, there is no such bill in the current Congress.
This is a shame. The U.S. Armed Forces have lost more than 6,600 men and women in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Memorial Day, as all too many Americans mourn loved ones so recently lost, many of their compatriots will be enjoying a day of carefree recreation and shopping. Though any insensitivity is surely unintended, one can imagine the sense of pain and alienation that this disconnect might cause some grieving families.
Returning Memorial Day to a fixed date would help restore the proper focus to this sacred and somber day. So as not to deprive Americans of a three-day weekend, some advocates have helpfully suggested making the Monday after Armed Forces Day (currently the third Saturday in May) a federal holiday.
Restoring Memorial Day to its traditional date would be a fitting tribute to Daniel Inouye and his distinguished seven decades of service. More importantly, it would be a step toward better honoring the men and women whose sacrifices for our country prevented them from enjoying equally long and fulfilling lives.

Treiman is a former opinion editor of the Forward, the national Jewish newspaper.


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