Do you know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day? Do you know why we commemorate our veterans on November 11? According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, most Americans do not know the answer to either of these questions.
Although the “Great War” (World War I) officially ended on June 28, 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, fighting actually ceased on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when an armistice went into effect. In order to honor the end of this war, Armistice Day was set as a legal U.S. holiday. In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, saying “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 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…”. Originally, the celebration was observed with parades and public meetings, as well as suspension of business, beginning at 11:00am.
On November 11, 1921, an unidentified American soldier killed in the war was buried at ArlingtonNationalCemetery in WashingtonD.C., and unidentified soldiers were also laid to rest at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Currently there is an official wreath-laying ceremony each Veterans Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns in ArlingtonNationalCemetery.
On June 4, 1926, Congress passed a resolution that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, 1918 should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations”. In 1938 legislation was passed, making November 11 a legal annual Federal holiday dedicated to the “cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’”.
In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, due to the urging of the veterans service organization, the 83rd U.S. Congress amended the Act of 1938 by trading the word “Armistice” for “Veterans, making November 11th a day to honor American veterans of all wars. Later that year, President Eisenhower wrote Harvey V. Higley, Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs, a letter regarding this holiday which read:
The White House Office
October 8, 1954
Dear Mr. Higley:
I have today signed a proclamation calling upon all of our citizens to observe Thursday, November 11, 1954 as Veterans Day. It is my earnest hope that all veterans, their organizations, and the entire citizenry will join hands to insure the proper and widespread observance of this day. With the thought that it will be most helpful to coordinate the planning, I am suggesting the formation of a Veterans Day National Committee. In view of your great personal interest as well as your official responsibilities, I have designated you to serve as Chairman. You may include in the Committee membership such other persons as you desire to select and I am requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch to assist the Committee in its work in every way possible.
I have every confidence that our Nation will respond wholeheartedly in the appropriate observance of Veterans Day, 1954.
Dwight D Eisenhower”
A few years later, in 1968, the Uniforms Holiday Bill ensured three-day weekends for federal employees by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: George Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. This decision moved Veterans Day to the last Monday of October, but many states disagreed with the decision and continued to celebrate the holiday on November 11 resulting in much confusion on the first Veterans Day under the new law which was celebrated on October 25, 1971. Finally President Gerald R. Ford signed a law on September 20, 1975 returning the annual commemoration of Veterans Day to its original date, starting in 1978.
On August 4, 2001 the United States Senate Resolution 143 was passed, designating the week of November 11-17 as “National Veterans Awareness Week” which is aimed at educating students about the contributions and sacrifices of veterans.
Several other countries also commemorate the veterans of World Wars I and II on or near November 11th. Canada has Remembrance Day on November 11th. Great Britain celebrates Remembrance Sunday on the second Sunday of each November. In Europe, Britain, and the Commonwealth countries it is common to observe two minutes of silence at 11:00am every November 11.