History of Veterans Day
By Steve Paul Johnson, November 9, 2000
It was known as "the War to end all Wars". The first
world war is considered today as the event which has had the greatest
social and political impact in the annals of human history. It
has been estimated that more than 61.5 million soldiers from all
nations took part in the war, of which 8.5 million were killed,
12.5 million received recoverable injuries, and 7 million were
The United States, which entered the war late, suffered among
the fewest losses, at approximately 116,000. Nevertheless, the
impact the war had upon Americans was great. President Wilson,
who boasted that he would keep the United States out of the war,
shocked the country with his request for war.
November 11, 1918 marked the official end of the war. One year
later, President Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919, as "Armistice
Day". It was the first nationwide commemoration of the war.
On November 11, 1920, England laid to rest an unknown soldier
in Westminster Abbey, a way to commemorate their losses in the
war. France had carried a similar act the same year at the Arc
On November 11, 1921, the United States followed-up with their
own version. An unknown soldier, who had already been laid to
rest at a cemetery in Europe, was selected and placed aboard a
ship to Washington D.C. It was to fill the new "Tomb of the
Unknown Soldier". It was a much hyped and heralded event
that received press coverage from coast-to-coast. Thousands of
people flocked to see the body laying in state in the Capitol
rotunda. There was a funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Each state sent in floral arrangements to adorn the tomb. President
Harding laid a wreath of flowers on the casket. Taps was played.
The casket was placed into the tomb at 11:00am. The President
requested that all flags be flown at half-mast.
Though this event had been performed a year earlier in England
and France, it had a more powerful effect among Americans. That
single unknown soldier not only symbolized America's losses, but
each American's losses and sacrifices in the war.
In the years following, 27 states had responded to that emotional
event by adopting laws declaring November 11 as a legal holiday.
The United States Congress reacted by enacting a resolution on
June 4, 1926, asking the President to issue a proclaimation to
display the nation's colors on all buildings on November 11. The
resolution officially named the day, "Armistice Day".
On May 13, 1938, Congress enacted a new law that made Armistice
Day a national holiday.
In 1947, just 2 years after the end of World War II, Raymond
Weeks, organized a "Veterans Day" parade in Birmingham,
AL, to celebrate all of America's veterans. In 1954, Kansas Representative
Edwin K. Rees introduced a bill that would change the purpose
of Armistice Day to honor veterans of all wars. On June 1, 1954,
President Eisenhower signed the bill into law, officially renaming
Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
Later that same year, on October 8, Eisenhower issued a proclaimation
creating a new "Veterans Day National Committee" and
naming the Administrator of the Department of Veterans Affairs
as its coordinator. The Committee would be responsible for planning
all national ceremonies and to set an example for state and local
governments, as well as providing suggestions for Americans on
how to celebrate Veterans Day.
On Memorial Day of 1958, two more unknown soldiers were reinterred
along side the unknown soldier of World War I. One was a casualty
of World War II and the other one of the Korean War. In 1973,
a law was passed to add another unknown soldier from the Vietnam
war, but none could be found until 1984.
In 1968, a law was passed to change the date of Veterans Day
to the fourth Monday in October. This was done to give Americans
a three-day weekend, thus affording them time to visit cemeteries,
engage in ceremonies, and visit veterans memorials. But other
Americans felt that November 11 was too much of an important day
to forget. Many states continued to observe November 11. In 1978,
President Ford signed into law a bill that would restore November
11 as Veterans Day.
Today, the Veterans Day National Committee coordinates all federal
ceremonies relating to Veterans Day. Every November 11, a ceremony
is held in Arlington National Cemetery, at the "Tomb of the
Unknown Soldier". The President recreates the original event
by placing a wreath at the tomb, and Taps is played. The Committee
coordinates similar ceremonies at "regional sites" across
The Committee also prepares a school kit describing how schools
should celebrate Veterans Day. Since 1978, the Committee has been
hosting a poster contest, whereby highschool students are encouraged
to create a poster commemorating Veterans Day. One winning poster
from each state is selected, and from that group, one is selected
as the national winner. The graphic at the top of this page is
the 2000 national winner.
- Steve Paul Johnson
Sources for this article came from various documents published
by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and from texts of
actual laws and resolutions.
For Further Reading