As we pause to observe the federal Veterans Day commemoration, it’s worthy to note that the United States is not the only nation that remembers its fallen each November. This owes to the fact that Veterans Day is a rechristening of Armistice Day.
Armistice Day came out of the “War to End All Wars,” “The Great War” or as we now call it, World War I. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War. The following year, the observance was commemorated as Armistice Day.
Though the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, November 11 remained in the public imagination as the date that marked the end of the Great War. In November 1918, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. November 11th became a federal holiday in the United States in 1938.
In 1954, after lobbying efforts by veterans’ service organizations, the 83rd U.S. Congress amended the 1938 act that had made Armistice Day a federal holiday, striking the word “Armistice” in favor of “Veterans.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation on June 1, 1954. From then on, November 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.
As horrible as the First World War was for the people of the United States, it was far worse for the nations of Europe. Out of respect for the terrible toll, Britain, France, Australia and Canada also commemorate the veterans of World Wars I and II on or near November 11th. Canada calls it Remembrance Day. Whereas, Britain has Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday of November). In Europe, Britain and the Commonwealth countries it is common to observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. every November 11.
Here in the United States, ceremonies are held across the nation, but the cornerstone of these celebrations is the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. The origins of this tradition date back to 1921, when an unidentified American soldier killed in the war was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. On the same day, unidentified soldiers were laid to rest at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
In a move only possible with a labyrinthine bureaucracy at the helm, the Uniform Holidays Act of 1968, set the observation of Veterans Day as the fourth Monday in October. The first observation under the new rule was October 25, 1971. This created wide confusion as many states and veterans groups disapproved of the change.
In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford rectified the situation. Ford signed a new law returning the observation of Veterans Day to November 11th beginning in 1978. If November 11 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the federal government observes the holiday on the previous Friday or following Monday, respectively.
Of course, the calendar is not the only confusion surrounding Veterans Day. Many often conflate Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Memorial Day (observed on the fourth Monday in May) honors American military personnel who died in service to their country or as a result of injuries incurred during battle, while Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans — living or dead — but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.