It’s a “holiday” that many of us won’t get a day off work for, unfortunately – but its meaning and origins are worth contemplating – particularly at times like this when so many are in harm’s way.
Originally called “Armistice Day”, it was designed as a recognition of the end of World War I – “The Great War”, or as it was considered at the time, the War to End All Wars. Ironically, that war didn’t officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice – a temporary cessation of hostilities – between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect – on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – November 11, 1918.
A year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, acknowledging 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…”
The original concept for the celebration was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11 a.m.
In 1926 Congress passed a resolution that calling for the display of the American flag on all government buildings on November 11, and inviting the American people to observe the day. In that resolution, Congress noted that 27 states had already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday.
An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday, a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day."
The first celebration using the term Veterans Day occurred in Birmingham, Alabama , in 1947. Raymond Weeks, a World War II veteran (he received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Reagan in November 1982), organized "National Veterans Day," which included a parade and other festivities, to honor all veterans - an event he held on November 11. Later, Congressman Edward Rees of Kansas proposed a bill that would change Armistice Day to Veterans Day - and in 1954, Congress amended the 1938 law to replace the word "Armistice" with "Veterans."
There it stayed until the Uniforms Holiday Bill (Public Law 90-363 (82 Stat. 250)) was signed on June 28, 1968 - a bill intended to insure three-day weekends for Federal employees (and "…to encourage travel, recreational and cultural activities and stimulate greater industrial and commercial production") by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day. The first Veterans Day under that law was observed - with some confusion - on October 25, 1971.
That led President Gerald R. Ford, on September 20, 1975, to sign Public Law 94-97 returning the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date of November 11 - but not until 1978.
The Census Bureau estimates that there were 23.7 million military veterans in the United States in 2006, and that 9.2 million of these were age 65 or older. Some 8 million are Vietnam-era veterans (33% of all living veterans). In addition, 4.6 million served during the Gulf War, 3.2 million in World War II, 3.1 million in the Korean War - and 6.1 million in peacetime. There are three documented living World War I veterans who served with U.S. forces as of October 2, 2007, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs)
There were an estimated 11.1 million veterans in the labor force in 2006.
Interestingly enough, in view of Veterans Day's origins, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are four known surviving World War I veterans:
- John Babcock, 102, from Puget Sound, Washington (an American who served in the Canadian Army);
- Frank Buckles, 106, Charles Town, West Virginia;
- Russell Coffey, 108, North Baltimore, Ohio; and
- Harry Landis, 107, Sun City Center, Florida