Veterans Day 2013: The Origins and Traditions of the Holiday

November 11th, 2013

On the morning of November 11, 1918, after four years of war, Allied and German powers met in Rethondes, France, to sign an armistice that halted the hostilities of World War I. The agreement was signed shortly after 5:00 a.m. and went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, finally bringing to an end the carnage of the Great War—the war thought by many to be the war that would end all wars.

One year later, on the first anniversary of the armistice, President Woodrow Wilson turned the nation’s thoughts toward those who had sacrificed on America’s behalf. He proclaimed the first Armistice Day, both to honor the services of the troops and to celebrate the opportunity that victory provided for the United States to advance the cause of peace and justice in the world:

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.

This first Armistice Day was conceived as a day to be set aside for public parades, meetings, and a two-minute suspension of all business activity at 11:00 a.m. Other countries also observed the day, with many British Commonwealth nations using the red poppy—taken from John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields” (1915)—to honor their fallen soldiers. At Armistice Day ceremonies the following year, 1920, the United Kingdom and France both established tombs of the unknown soldier, at Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe, respectively. In 1921, the United States Congress approved the creation of the country’s own tomb of the unknown soldier and set aside November 11 of that year as a federal holiday to honor all those who served in the war. At an Armistice Day ceremony officiated by President Warren G. Harding, an unidentified American soldier killed in France—“a soldier known but to God,” as the tomb’s inscription states—was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. 

On May 13, 1938, ironically almost on the eve of World War II, a congressional act officially established November 11 as a legal federal holiday—a day “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’” With a new generation of American veterans following World War II, a national movement was started to expand the holiday’s purpose to honor all veterans, not just those who served in World War I. In 1945, Raymond Weeks, a veteran of World War II from Birmingham, Alabama, met with General Dwight D. Eisenhower to discuss the creation of a National Veterans Day, an idea Eisenhower supported. Two years later, on November 11, 1947, Weeks organized the first Veterans Day celebration in Birmingham. In 1953, citizens of Emporia, Kansas, officially re-named their Armistice Day commemoration “Veterans Day,” leading Kansas Congressman Edward H. Rees to propose legislation to change the name of the federal holiday to Veterans Day as well. On June 1, 1954, Congress amended the Act of 1938, officially renaming “Armistice Day” as “Veterans Day” and thereby expanding the recognition of the holiday to include veterans of all American wars. 

Learn more about the history of the Veterans Day, and reflect on the experience of war and how we should honor veterans with the help of our free ebook, “The Meaning of Veterans Day.”

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