By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command
Communication and Outreach Division
Veterans Day is a special time of year for many Americans who, in some way, have formed a connection with a veteran or who are veterans themselves. It is a day that brings about a great sense of pride in our country, a day when we are especially thankful for the service and sacrifice of those who chose, and those who continue to choose, to wear the cloth of the nation.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, it is important to remember how this holiday originated and why we continue to observe it today. Like the people it honors, the holiday was shaped by war. More on that in a moment, but first this public service announcement…
Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day
First, you may be asking yourself, “But what’s the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?” That’s a great question that many people may be wondering. In short, the difference is this: we celebrate Veterans Day to thank and honor all the men and women who served honorably in the military, in times of war and in times of peace. Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday in May, is a day for remembering the members of our military who died in the service to our country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds received in battle. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served—not only those who died—have sacrificed and done their duty.”
The Origin of Veterans Day
Why do we celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11? Well, during World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, an armistice went into effect and all fighting between the allied nations and Germany ceased. This moment is generally regarded as the end of World War I, though it officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed June 28, 1919. Later in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first commemoration of Armistice Day on Nov. 11, a day on which the nation celebrated the end of “The Great War” with parades and public gatherings. On May 13, 1938, Congress passed legislation (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) and Armistice Day became a legal federal holiday.
Armistice Day Becomes Veterans Day
As time went on and our nation became involved in World War II and the Korean War in the 1940s and 1950s, millions more veterans were honored on Armistice Day in addition to veterans from World War I. So, on June 1, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of Armistice Day, a day whose origins were tied to World War I, to Veterans Day, in order to officially recognize veterans who served our country in all wars.
Click on the above graphic to enlarge it.
Veterans Day Moves to October
On June 28, 1968, the Uniform Holiday Bill [Public Law 90-363 (82 Stat. 250)] was signed, and four national holidays—Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day—were to be observed on Mondays. The intent of this bill was to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees, the idea being that the three-day weekends would encourage Americans to travel and partake in cultural and recreational activities. Many states did not agree with this move as Nov. 11 still held significance as the origin of Veterans Day. Nonetheless, in 1971, when the new law took effect, Veterans Day was celebrated on October 25, the fourth Monday in October. Most states followed suit with the new observance, but because states retained the right to designate their own holidays, Mississippi and South Dakota continued to celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11. As the years went by, other states moved Veterans Day back to Nov. 11 and finally, legislation was passed in 1975 that returned the federal observance of Veterans Day to its original date. The law took effect in 1978 and since then our nation has continued to celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11.
What Can I Do To Celebrate Veterans Day?
There are many ways to get involved in celebrating Veterans Day. For starters, simply thank a veteran for his or her military service. With more than 22 million veterans in our country, it is likely that someone you know served in the military.
You can also wear a red poppy. Did you know that red poppies have become a symbol around the world for remembering veterans? The significance of the red poppy dates back to World War I when Col. John McCrae, a surgeon with Canada’s First Brigade Artillery, wrote a poem called “In Flanders Fields” expressing his grief over the rows and rows of poppies among the graves of soldiers who had died on Flanders’ battlefields. Two women, Anna E. Guerin and Moina Michael were so touched by his poem that they started a fundraiser selling artificial poppies to help orphans and others affected by the war. In 1920, with the help of the American Legion, Guerin brought the sale of artificial poppies to the U.S. Michael joined forces with Guerin and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to further promote this symbol. It became so popular that a poppy shortage in France prompted the construction of a poppy-making factory in Pittsburgh, Pa. which provided a reliable source of poppies and a means of assistance to veterans. Today, veterans at Veterans Affairs facilities continue to help assemble the red poppies, which are distributed by veterans organizations around the country.
Did you know that there are 144 veterans and military service organizations in the United States? If you’re so inclined, you can contact any of these organizations and get involved. You can also invite a veteran to speak at your event, or record a veteran’s story through the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project (VHP). There are already more than 85,000 personal recollections of veterans in the VHP, 11,000 of which are accessible online.
If you are in the D.C. area, you can attend the Veterans Day National Ceremony which is held each year at Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m.
For more ideas on how to observe Veterans Day, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs has some excellent resources.
No matter where you are on Nov. 11, don’t forget to take the time to reflect upon the sacrifices that our nation’s veterans have made for our country.