The three-day weekend (the holiday was set at May 30 until the National Holiday Act of 1971 changed it to the last Monday in May) has perhaps made Memorial Day lose some of its original meaning. The holiday is known more as the unofficial start of summer and the Indianapolis 500 automobile race than memorial ceremonies.
To that end the Veterans of Foreign Wars, among other groups, has sought to restore the May 30 date for Memorial Day. The VFW has said, "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a World War II vet, has introduced legislation several times to return the celebration to May 30.
There are special ceremonies that mark the war dead, of course. The president of the United States traditionally lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and each grave at all national cemeteries is marked with a U.S. flag.
But critics argue that this is insufficient to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the United States. With the U.S. armed forces currently serving in two simultaneous and ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the issue has more relevance than in the nearly 40 years since U.S. ground forces were almost fully evacuated from Vietnam.
Some argue that Memorial Day should be removed from the holiday weekend and left to stand alone in an effort to make it more meaningful. But it can also be argued that having a long weekend that marks the start of summer firmly anchors Memorial Day in the national calendar and repeated rhythms of American life. The beginning of the holiday season associated with light, play, happiness and family life can be viewed as a very appropriate time to remember and honor those who served and gave up those pleasures so that so many others could continue to enjoy them in security and peace.
President Barack Obama is using the weekend to highlight themes of national service and duty. On Friday, he headed to Annapolis, Md., to speak at the graduation ceremonies at the Naval Academy in which 749 Navy ensigns and 274 Marine lieutenants were commissioned.
Memorial Day this year also comes right after the dramatically contrasting speeches that President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney gave in Washington Thursday. The president spoke at the National Archives repeating his commitment to close the terror suspect holding facility in Guantanamo Bay, while Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute.
Obama also said some Gitmo prisoners would be moved to U.S. high-security prisons, but none would be released into the country. He also again rejected calls for a "truth commission." He said the Bush White House made the country less safe with its methods and his steps "better protect the people of the United States."
Cheney answered, saying that some Obama policies were "unwise in the extreme" and "recklessness cloaked in righteousness." He defended the decisions of the Bush White House as necessary to protect the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He said the enemies of the United States now see "weakness" in the U.S. leadership.
Both men agreed, however, that a real terrorist threat to the American people continues to exist. And that reality was dramatically confirmed by the arrests of four men in New York who were allegedly plotting terror attacks against synagogues in the Bronx in New York City and against U.S. military aircraft. That news was an appropriate reminder that the American people may have to make more sacrifices to safeguard their traditional liberties as they have been called upon to do so often in the past. It added another sobering point to the commemoration of Memorial Day on another beautiful spring weekend that so many did not live to see.