The Convoluted History of Veterans Day

Armistice Day at ArlingtonArmistice Day at Arlington, Nov 11, 1923. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Today is Veterans Day, a national holiday that commemorates and honors the service of all military veterans. Expressions of appreciation for military service have become fairly commonplace in over the past twenty-five years or so. The quick 1991 victory in Desert Storm led to an outpouring of pride in the U.S. military and in some ways helped improve the mixed feelings many had held about the armed forces since Vietnam. Suddenly it was acceptable and even expected to vocally “support the troops.” This feeling has increased exponentially in the years since September 11 as U.S. forces have fought two hard and bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the so-called “Global War on Terror.” November 11, however, has not always been about honoring the service of all veterans. The story of how this date came to be called Veterans Day is, like so much of our history, far more complicated than many realize.

Veterans Day has its roots in Decoration Day, the post-Civil War holiday that called on citizens to decorate the graves of those killed in battle. Both northern and southern states held their own Decoration Days to honor the dead of their respective sides. Many historians now consider the holiday to have begun just weeks after the war’s end when African Americans decorated the graves of Union war dead in Charleston, South Carolina. The first national Decoration Day ceremony, organized by the hugely influential Union veterans’ group the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was held in Arlington National Ceremony on May 30, 1868. The GAR and other veterans’ groups continued to organize annual Decoration Days (now known as Memorial Day) well into the twentieth century. While this holiday was about remembering the dead, living veterans of both sides were revered for their service in the Civil War. Many were addressed by their military rank for the rest of their lives. Crowds and writers regularly honored northern veterans for playing their part in saving the Union; their southern counterparts lauded former Confederates of the “Lost Cause” for standing up to a tyrannical federal government despite long odds that all but guaranteed their eventual defeat.

Five decades after the Civil War, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919 as “Armistice Day,” the one-year anniversary of the cessation of World War I hostilities. “To us in America,” he said, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” The original concept called for parades, public speeches, and a brief suspension of daily business beginning at 11 a.m. While Wilson noted honoring the sacrifice of those killed in action, commemorating the service of living veterans was not part of his vision for Armistice Day.

Seven years later, in 1926, Congress passed a concurrent resolution resolving that the President of the United States should issue an annual proclamation calling on public officials to display the American flag “on all government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” Thanking living veterans for their service in the armed forces was still not on the agenda. In May 1938, Congress declared that each November 11 would be a national holiday formally called Armistice Day.

American involvement in World War II created millions of new U.S. military veterans. Raymond Weeks, a recently discharged veteran from Birmingham, Alabama, began to insist in 1945 that Armistice Day should celebrate all veterans, living and dead, instead of just those that perished in World War I. He contacted General Dwight D. Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and secured Eisenhower’s support for a broader Armistice Day celebration. In 1947, Weeks led the first recognized observance of what was informally called National Veterans Day. He continued to lead Alabama’s Veterans Day celebration until his death in 1985. Weeks received the Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1982, when President Ronald Reagan called him “the father of Veterans Day.”

By 1954, General Eisenhower was President of the United States and American involvement in another conflict, the Korean War, had again increased the number of American military veterans. In May of that year, President Eisenhower signed a bill establishing November 11 as the annual observance of Veterans Day. The holiday was moved to the fourth Monday in October in 1971 in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This move created a great deal of confusion about Veterans Day observances over the next several years, and the holiday was moved back to November 11 as of 1978.

Some Veterans Day observances became more subdued in the 1960s and 1970s as Americans wrestled with their feelings about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Many veterans returned from Vietnam with their own doubts about why they had been sent there. Few “welcome home” or “support the troops” banners greeted Americans returning from Southeast Asia, and many became embittered about their military service or wished simply to put it behind them and move on with their lives. The post-Vietnam period saw a complicated, sometimes ambivalent relationship develop between the military (including veterans) and some of those citizens who had opposed the American presence in Vietnam. The 1991 Gulf War victory supposedly ended this so-called “Vietnam syndrome,” and today, nearly a decade-and-a-half after 9/11, there is a seemingly unending supply of organizations, websites, charities, and social media communities dedicated to honoring and helping military veterans.

Honoring veterans often and unfortunately becomes political. Many assume that “supporting the troops” means automatically supporting the wars they are sent to fight. Others assume that anyone speaking out against a conflict involving U.S. personnel must naturally be anti-military. Neither assumption is correct. Perhaps the best course to follow today is that suggested over 60 years ago by President Eisenhower, a man who knew better than anyone the value and necessity of military service, but also later warned us about the military-industrial complex: “…it is well for us to pause, to acknowledge our debt to those who paid so large a share of freedom’s price. As we stand here in grateful remembrance of the veterans’ contributions we renew our conviction of individual responsibility to live in ways that support the eternal truths upon which our Nation is founded, and from which flows all its strength and all its greatness.”

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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