History of Veterans Day

Chrissie Reilly, Staff Historian, U.S. Army CECOM

World War I happened nearly a century ago and in a land most school aged kids couldn’t tell you if pressed. Frank Buckles, the last living WWI Veteran, died last year at the age of 110. It was the sacrifice of he and of his comrades that inspired the holiday we are about to observe—Veterans Day. The United States has evolved since the first celebration—so too has Veterans Day transformed. Now inclusive of all service members, Veterans Day is a national holiday of remembrance and recognition of all those who served regardless of branch or duty status, Reserve or Active Component.

Looking back on Veterans Day as Armistice Day is at once nostalgic as well as historically mindful. Historian Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University Bloomington reminds readers that what was once a staple celebration represented by WWI era artifacts and culture was translated into a holiday that could span generations. In his work, “Oatmeal and Coffee: Memoirs of a Hoosier Soldier in World War I,” Ferrell outlines those Great War soldiers were a very different breed than their World War II counterparts. Doughboys, as WWI soldiers were called, were not the same as the Yanks or G.I.s of WWII.

Armistice Day

An armistice, or temporary cease fire, between the Allied Nations and Germany stopped the fighting of World War I on November 11, 1918.  Known at the time as the Great War, the end of combat became effective on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The official end of the war would not come for another seven months, on June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed. A publication from 1918, America Magazine, marked the day as one of triumph and joy, even amongst those suffering from losses. A passage from this magazine read: “There would be time and enough in the future to grieve for the ravages war had wrought in their own lives, but on the day of the armistice all gave way to universal rejoicing, because mankind was once more free.”

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1919, to show solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service. Wilson declared “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service…” The original concept for the celebration was for the suspension of business for a two minute period beginning at 11 a.m., with the day also marked by parades and public meetings.

In 1920, France and the United Kingdom each held ceremonies honoring their unknown dead from the war. An “unknown soldier” of the Great War was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor: in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe. This holiday is now known as Remembrance Day in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium, and commemorates all who served.

In 1921, an unknown American soldier was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional Resolution (44 Stat. 1982). This proclamation read: “It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated… to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

Changes in Observance

In 1938 Congress declared Armistice Day a legal holiday (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a), to be held the 11th of November in each year. This was to be a day dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day."

If World War I had indeed been “the war to end all wars,” Nov. 11, might still be called Armistice Day. Hostilities across the Pacific escalated during the 1930s, battles erupted in Europe in 1939, and the world was once again overrun with war.  The ideal of a lasting peace was laid to rest. Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but World War II saw the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history. Approximately 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War II.

Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, Ala., organized a Veterans Day parade for that city on Nov. 11, 1947, to honor all of America's Veterans for their loyal service. The First World War, unfortunately, was not the war to end all wars, and both World War II and the Korean War dramatically increased the number of American war veterans. Recognizing that Armistice Day was limited to a specific conflict and group of soldiers, the name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

Later, U.S. Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all who have served in America’s Armed Forces. On 1 June 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the legal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

Moving the Observance

In the 1960s, federal legislators attempted to make Veteran’s Day fall on a Monday, like Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Uniform Holiday Bill (Public Law 90-363 (82 Stat. 250)) was signed on June 28, 1968 to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day.  The intention was to encourage travel, recreational and cultural activities, and stimulate the economy during the long weekends. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, however, many states did not agree with this decision. The U.S. Army Center of Military history reports that “forty-six states had either continued to commemorate November 11 or had reverted back to the original date based on popular sentiment.”

Confusing and unpopular, the first Veterans Day under the new law was observed on October 25, 1971. It mattered to the citizens that Veterans Day was a specific remembrance, and not just a generic type of holiday.  On September 20th, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a law which returned the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date of November 11, beginning in 1978.

Collective Memory and the Modern Holiday

Just as personal memories evolve throughout the course of life, so to do things like memorials and holidays. What used to be recognized as a celebration of the end of “the war to end all wars,” our modern consciousness sees it differently. It once commemorated a specific day and a group of people involved, and now is emblematic of service and sacrifice for all military members. In Sarah E. Drake’s article from 2002, “The Postwar Home Front: Memorializing Veterans,” she wrote about how those service members from World War II and the Korean War actually witnessed this holiday’s evolution firsthand. In 1958, unknown American soldiers from both of these conflicts were also interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The 1921 remembrance of a lone World War I soldier would be forever changed as these other war dead are now honored there as well.

Historian Gabrielle Kalapos theorizes that the selection of November 11th as a day for the cease fire “may simply be a coincidence” but this day had ancient historic meaning in the old Roman Julian calendar. In her book, The Origins of Modern Holidays, she posits that not only is fall the season for remembering and commemorating the deceased, but that holidays for this were already part of the European tradition long before World War I. Celtic Samhain and the Germanic Day of the Dead were both celebrated on November 11th until the switch to the modern Gregorian calendar moved those days to November 1st. In addition, Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day, was celebrated on November 11th once Christianity was established in Northern Europe. Named after St. Martin, a Roman soldier who longed for the life of a Christian monk, died on this date in 397 C.E. While an interesting theory, this notion outlines that honoring the dead was long part of the collective Western psyche long before the hostilities of World War I.

The joyous celebrations of those early Armistice Days should not be forgotten as we celebrate Veterans Day. The Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale said he “regretted that he had but one life to lose for his country.” This year, as in all years, it is a time to give thanks for those that have served, pay respect to those who have come home, and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Armistice Day Telegram: This is an "original duplicate" as it came through in 1918. It came through what is known as a sounder, and was typed up the morning of November 11, 1918.

Veterans of WWI: Veterans Day was originally known as "Armistice Day" and paid respects to those living veterans who served in the First World War.