written by Todd DePastino

1954 Van Nuys News clipping explaining Veterans Day to readers

The Van Nuys News explains Veterans Day to readers, Nov. 11, 1954

Americans over the age of 75 might remember when November 11 was called “Armistice Day,” commemorating the ceasefire on the Western Front of World War I. The Armistice agreement signed between Britain and France on the one side and Germany on the other took effect at 11:00am on November 11, 1918. The so-called Great War of 1914-1918 was so catastrophic, simply the cessation of hostilities was cause for celebration.

People celebrating Armistice Day (later to be known as Veterans Day) in 1918

Paris. A “gob,” two “Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl went to make up this merry quartette in Paris on Armistice Day. Paris, Seine, France. November 11, 1918. (LOC)

The holiday turned somber in following years, banquets and festivities giving way to moments of silence and memorial services for the fallen. Great Britain and Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia began referring to November 11 as “Remembrance Day.”

Armistice Day also evolved in the United States as menacing new armies marching overseas cast a perilous shadow over World War I commemorations. In 1938, two months after the Anschluss of Austria into the German Reich and in the midst of a Sudeten Crisis that would soon see Hitler annex part of Czechoslovakia, the US Congress voted to make Armistice Day, November 11, a federal holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace.”

There would, of course, be no peace. War consumed the globe on an unprecedented scale. Four times as many Americans served in World War II as in World War I, and they fought longer and in more places around the world than ever before.

Even when World War II ended in 1945, a looming Cold War with the Soviet Union meant that the US military wouldn’t shrink to pre-1941 numbers. Preparing for World War III through Universal Military Training ensured the country’s veteran population would only grow in the foreseeable future.

In 1946, 38-year-old civic leader and WWII Navy veteran Raymond Weeks worked channels to get a message to Army Chief of Staff, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Because the US already had Memorial Day, he told Ike, we didn’t need another “Remembrance Day” on November 11. And given the distance world events had traveled since 1918, a federal holiday commemorating the WWI Armistice seemed beside the point. Why not, he argued, treat November 11 as a “National Veterans Day”?

The wheels of DC officialdom ground slowly toward the idea. In the meantime, Weeks rallied his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to launch a “National Veterans Day Parade” on November 11, 1947.

“Daddy wanted a day to honor everyone who had sacrificed and fought for their country. It was important to him that all veterans were included,” Weeks’ daughter recalls. “It was something he worked night and day on for years.”

The work finally paid off seven years later, when Congressman Edward Rees from Kansas introduced an act as part of H.R. 7786 to amend the 1938 federal holiday law “by striking out the word ‘Armistice’ and inserting in lieu thereof the word ‘Veterans.’”

Dwight Eisenhower, now President, signed the bill into law on June 1, 1954.

It helped, certainly, that the Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War had been reached less than a year earlier. The word “Armistice,” in other words, had lost its celebratory and commemorative connotations, while the word “Veterans” had grown in stature.

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Our Founding Fathers would have, at best, puzzled over Raymond Weeks’ efforts to honor veterans. More likely, they would have condemned the whole notion of “Veterans Day.”

In the first decades of the Republic after the American Revolution, there was no Veterans Day or Memorial Day. No national cemeteries or war memorials. No veteran organizations. No benefits or special recognition for those who’d served. While the federal government felt obligated to support widows of officers (not enlisted, at first) killed in service and those maimed in battle, it didn’t have the funding to do so and usually passed such obligations on to the states, which also fell short.

The most a former soldier could hope for was a handshake.

None of this oversight was lost on war veterans themselves. A biting set of couplets penned in 1799 by Revolutionary War veteran Anthony Haswell expresses well the sense of forgotten-ness:

In Times of War, to God we humbly pray

To bless our arms, and grudge no Soldier pay.

When Dangers over, they are both alike requited,

God is forgot, and the poor soldier slighted.

This traditional neglect of veterans wasn’t a bug in the American system. It was a feature, stemming from old republican fears of large standing armies and professional soldiers.

The Founders believed in the republican form of government with leaders appointed and elected to power, rather than winning it through inherited title or coercion. The Framers studied history and found that military power was the single greatest threat to free republican government.  Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon with his army into Rome and had overthrown the Roman Republic. Oliver Cromwell had transformed republican Britain into a military dictatorship. And, of course, there was Napoleon.

As Jefferson put it:

Bonaparte… transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm. Some will use this as a lesson against the practicability of republican government. I read it as a lesson against the danger of standing armies.

Americans clung to the hope that the United States alone would avert the doom of previous republics by shunning a standing army. (The navy, whose power stopped at the shoreline, was regarded more benignly.)

Instead of Big Army, Americans embraced local militias where every citizen was, in effect, a soldier in waiting. In times of crisis, the theory went, men would put down their hammers and plows and pick up their rifles and swords. George Washington wrote:

Every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it, and consequently, that the Citizens of America from 18 to 50 years of age should be borne on the Militia Rolls.

In other words, military service was simply an obligation of citizenship. Every citizen a soldier.

This belief lingered well into the 20th century. As late as 1932, the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, could say publicly, “The nation owes no more to the able bodied veteran than to the able bodied citizen.”

But, by then, the year of the infamous Bonus March of WWI veterans on Washington, DC, public sentiment had shifted. People believed that special recognition and attention were due to military veterans. Local militias alone would no longer do. What Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex” was starting to grow.

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By the time President Eisenhower issued his famous warning on national television in his Farewell Address of January 17, 1961, the United States was producing over 100,000 new military veterans per year, as draftees like Elvis Presley cycled out of their two-year commitments in the Armed Forces.

In 1960, almost half of US men had served in the Armed Forces, and the rising generation of male teenagers expected to do so. Local draft boards wielded enormous power over young men’s lives and set the nation’s timetables for school, work, marriage, and children.

That world in which many of us grew up—where our neighbors, aunts, uncles, parents, teachers were veterans—is long gone. Today, only 6% of adult Americans have military experience, the lowest percentage since before Pearl Harbor.

This decline is a direct result of the overall shrinkage of the US military over the past 50 years. Before the All-Volunteer Force arrived in 1973, 3.5 million Americans served on active duty. Today, it’s almost one-third that number, while the nation’s overall population has increased by 130 million. Only .4% (four-tenths of one percent) of the US population serves on active duty.

Line chart showing low active duty numbers after WWII

Source: Pew Research Center

To put it in perspective: almost twice the number of Americans today are serving time in prison or jail as in the active-duty Armed Forces.

This trend will continue. In twenty-five years, as the Vietnam generation passes, the number of living veterans will shrink even further.

That means by 2050, Veterans Day will exist to honor and celebrate about 2.5% of our population. We’ll be searching high and low for veterans to thank and to remind us about the bonds, benefits, and burdens of military service. And it will be easier than ever to forget what November 11 signifies.

The decline in the veteran population has already had a negative impact on military recruitment. All the service branches, except the Marine Corps and Space Force, are suffering serious recruiting lags.

Part of the problem is that young people aren’t interested in the military because they’re unfamiliar with it. And they’re unfamiliar because they don’t know anyone who served.

“The grandpas, uncles, aunts who served just have an extraordinary influence,” reports LTG Thomas Spoehr, Army, retired, who now directs the Center for National Defense. “You may not think it’s a big deal, but it plants a seed in young people. It helps with recruiting.”

Having a veteran in the family is the single most important factor determining whether someone will choose to join the Armed Forces. No wonder veterans increasingly feel as if they’re part of a caste, separate and distinct from the general population, and often lost in a civilian world that doesn’t appreciate or understand their language, values, and ethic.

As military service becomes less common, Veterans Day will be harder to sustain, though, I would argue, also more important than ever.

Having Veterans Day on our federal calendar provides us with a great potential focal point for a larger effort to educate and inspire Americans with candid stories of service and accounts of what veterans have gained–and lost–in service to their country.

This doesn’t mean pro-military propaganda or an advertising campaign for the Armed Forces. The All-Volunteer Force is not for everyone. But it can be for many more than it is today.

And those, like me, who’ve never served can still benefit from the perspectives and hard-won wisdom of those who have. A huge swath of history resides in the memories and experiences of our veterans. So, too, does a broader understanding of the responsibilities and benefits of citizenship. I would even argue that veterans have a deeper understanding of the human condition—the good and the bad, the darkness and the light—than the rest of us.

Veterans have a lot to give. But the wealth of spirit and insight they bring can only be activated by a citizenry willing and able to receive the gift.

If Veterans Day remains just for veterans, the holiday will wither on the vine. There simply won’t be enough veterans to sustain a meaningful federal holiday.

But if Veterans Day can become something larger, something geared for all citizens, for all of us to enjoy, learn from, and connect with, then it can serve as an annual source of renewal and inspiration.

Our veterans’ community is small. But it’s densely constellated around key civic virtues as much needed today as in George Washington’s time–service, sacrifice, honor, respect.

Veterans Day is a great occasion to promote these virtues so they can be part of all citizens’ lives.