President Eisenhower signing HR7786, changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day. From left: Alvin J. King, Wayne Richards, Arthur J. Connell, John T. Nation, Edward Rees, Richard L. Trombla, Howard W. Watts
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, will hold a White House breakfast this morning, hosting and honoring American veterans, followed by a visit to Arlington National Cemetary for the traditional laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, in a ceremony scheduled to begin precisely at 11:00 AM. But why do we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th and, why is that hour so significant?
It was called the ‘Great War.’ It started in July, 1914, when European powers (mostly monarchies) rallied to one side or another, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shot in Sarajevo by a Yugoslav nationalist. Sarajevo was the largest city in Bosnia-Herzogovenia—an area that later became Yugoslavia—that had been ceded to Austria (in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878), completely annexed in 1908, like pieces on a game board.
More than 9 million combatants were killed on all sides and untold additional millions of civilians, mostly throughout Europe. It sparked the Russian Revolution—brewing for decades—and led to the bloody creation of the U.S.S.R.
Europe was mired in years of deadly, static ‘trench warfare,’ and then-modern technology led to the use of chemical weapons (like choking, blistering ‘mustard gas’), modern weapons like machine guns, tanks, U-boats and airplanes, and it unraveled whole empires and royal dynasties from Great Britain to Russia, before the United States finally entered the conflict in 1917 and helped put an end to it (“Over There” (You Tube Video). Then–in 1918, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, in the 11th month, the guns fell silent.
Originally the date and time were celebrated as ‘Armistice Day’ in many nations, to commemorate the dead—military and civilian—killed in ‘the War to End All Wars,’ which—of course–it wasn’t. The war itself did not officially end until the following year, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, which most historians now cite as the real beginnings of World War II.
The victorious allies – Great Britain, France, Italy and the U.S. – imposed the most onerous reparations on Germany and began dividing up territories and colonies, redrawing the map of Europe, much of the Middle East, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires (Germany’s allies) simply ceased to exist.
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first commemoration of the end of World War I in 1919, 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…”
It was not recognized by Congressional Resolution, however, until 1926, as reflected in a history provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The United States Congress officially recognized the end of World War I when it passed a concurrent resolution, on June 4, 1926, with these words:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed; and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States 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.
It did not become a legal, national holiday until May 13, 1938 and the name change from “Armistice Day” to “Veterans Day” did not take place until after World War II and the Korean War, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on June 1, 1954 and issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation” (PDF) in October of that year.
Even so, in 1968, with the signing of the Uniform Holiday Bill, creating 3-day weekends around federal holidays, the desire to observe Veterans Day on November 11th, rather than October 25th—which happened in 1971—led to Public Law 94-97, returning the national observance of Veterans Day to November 11th in 1978…
Veterans Day continues to be observed on November 11, regardless of what day of the week on which it falls. The restoration of the observance of Veterans Day to November 11 not only preserves the historical significance of the date, but helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.