The History of Veterans Day

The History of Veterans Day

by Dave Hauger, November 9, 2015

Veterans Day, a holiday that originated nearly 100 years ago, is right around the corner. While the name and purpose have changed over time, the holiday was initially meant to commemorate the peaceful conclusion of World War I – known back then as “The Great War.” The conflict-ending armistice was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For this reason, the date November 11 continues to hold historical significance.

The Great War concluded on November 11, 1918. On that date in 1919, Armistice Day was observed as the first anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars.” President Woodrow Wilson gave the following statement to address the occasion:

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…

Ironically, it took until 1926 for the U.S. to officially recognize the end of WWI. Congress resolved to observe Armistice Day annually on the same date, beginning in that year. Twelve years later, the day become an official legal holiday, dedicated to the cause of world peace, as part of the Act of 1938.

As it turned out, “the war to end all wars” was merely a prelude to the horrors of WWII. In 1954, accounting for the heavy deployment of WWII, “Armistice” was dropped from the holiday and replaced with “Veterans.” With the updated name came an amended mission statement:

The important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.

The change was made in June of 1954, and later that year, Veterans Day was celebrated for the first time. Also that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Veterans Day National Committee, announcing that it was to be chaired by the Administrator of Veterans Affairs. Thus, Honorable Harvey V. Higley became the first person to hold this position. In 1989, the Administrator of Veterans Affairs was elevated to a cabinet-level position. Since then, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs has served as the committee’s chairperson.

The holiday was successfully observed until 1971, when the The Uniform Holiday Bill added a dose of confusion to the mix. Signed into law in 1968, The Uniform Holiday Bill moved four major federal holidays to Mondays, with the noble goal of securing four three-day weekends each year for federal employees. The confusion set in when many states rejected the change, choosing to celebrate the holidays on their original dates.

The first Veterans Day under this law was held on October 25, 1971. After three such muddled commemorations, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 94-97 in September of 1975, to officially return Veterans Day to its original date, beginning in 1978.

This move was greatly appreciated by state governments, every major veterans service organization, and the American public in general. Since November 11, 1978, Veterans Day has been celebrated on its original date, regardless of which day of the week it is. This turned out to be the best way to preserve the historical significance of the date, and allow U.S. citizens to focus on the true meaning of the day: honoring our veterans for their service and sacrifice.

For more on Veterans Day, the Veterans Affairs website and History.com are chock-full of historical information and tidbits.