Happy Veterans Day, everyone! From the looks of it, Veterans Day is about the glory of war, the bravery of our soldiers, the awesomeness of our discounts! But it turns out that the way we celebrate this holiday has nothing to do with the way the holiday was intended.
1. It wasn’t even called Veterans Day. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day and was a commemoration of when, on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the allies and Germans negotiated a cessation of hostilities to what would later be called World War I. On November 11th, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson observed the one year anniversary of Armistice Day in a speech.
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.
2. It was the commemoration of the end of the War to End All Wars. Today, there is no trace of pacifism or anti-militarism in the way we Veterans Day. But, at the time, the war which killed 10 million military members and 7 million civilians and injured 20 million people was called the Great War or the World War or, most significantly, “the war to end all wars.” H.G. Wells called it “The War that Will End War” in a Daily News article published on August 14th, 1914:
This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!
3. It became an official holiday commemorating peace. Armistice Day continued to commemorate peace and cooperation. In 1926, Congress passed a resolution urging President Calvin Coolidge to observe Armistice Day:
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…
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.
In 1938, November 11 became an official holiday described by Congress as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”
4. It was rebranded to fit the whole Cold War Military Industrial Complex thing. Spoiler alert for people who don’t know a lot about history or current events: it turns out World War I didn’t end all other wars. It was, instead, followed by its sequel World War II. The nice thing about World War II is that it was a war which was, in theory, and, in large part, reality, about stopping the rise of Fascism and Nazism. The rest of the wars in which the U.S. fought were not quite as just. It was clear, by 1954, that the Cold War was in full swing and the hot war between the U.S. and North Korea had just ended, killing over 1,250,000 people. The whole armistice name wasn’t really working. So, in June of 1954, Congress tweaked the act of 1938, getting rid of the word “Armistice” and replacing it with the word “Veterans.” The holiday was no longer about ending any wars, but rather about any and all wars, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower made clear in his “Veterans Day Proclamation” in October of that year:
WHEREAS it has long been our custom to commemorate November 11, the anniversary of the ending of World War I, by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace; and WHEREAS in the intervening years the United States has been involved in two other great military conflicts, which have added millions of veterans living and dead to the honor rolls of this Nation;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, President of the United States of America, do hereby call upon all of our citizens to observe Thursday, November 11, 1954, as Veterans Day…
In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose. Toward this end, I am designating the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee, which shall include such other persons as the Chairman may select, and which will coordinate at the national level necessary planning for the observance. I am also requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch of the Government to assist the National Committee in every way possible.
5. It stopped having anything to do with its original purpose. I could make the argument. Or I could let a genius writer and actual veteran (Of World War II) make it. I’ll go with option two. Here is what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions:
November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
6. It is rejected by certain veterans who want to reclaim Armistice Day. Vonnegut wasn’t the only vet to opt for Armistice Day over Veterans Day. The organization Veterans for Peace passed its own resolution observing Armistice Day:
Veterans For Peace calls on its members and allies to observe Veterans Day by rejecting militarism and the glorification of war. We call on the nation to honor veterans and all those who have died in war by working for peace and the prevention of war. There is no better way to honor the dead than to protect the living from the fear, terror and moral deprivation of war…
…Whereas the substitution of the word “Armistice” to “Veterans” changes the focus from peace to war by celebrating and honoring warriors and war, and
Whereas that November date symbolized the nation’s desire to hold to a peaceful future and away from war, and
Whereas, too often rhetoric and patriotic symbols are used instead of genuine compensation for the extraordinary sacrifices and services of military personnel, and
Whereas 90% of victims of wars are now civilians and by honoring only veterans, the public is distracted from the awful price paid by those other than military members…
… Therefore Be It Resolved that Veterans For Peace, Inc. urges its membership to adopt the procedure of honoring peace by focusing on bell ringing on Armistice Day, November 11 and other solemn occasions.
So, Happy Armistice Day!