At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, World War I, known as the "War to End all Wars," came to an end with the signing of the cease-fire agreement at Rethondes, France. One year later, November 11 was set aside as Armistice Day in the United States to remember the sacrifices made by men and women during that war. Veterans' parades and political speeches throughout the country emphasized the peaceful nature of the day, echoing the theme of national unity and the victory of democracy over tyranny.
Memorial Day, originally established after the Civil War to honor the war dead and to heal the sectional divisions remaining from that conflict, was, and remained, the traditional day on which the dead of all conflicts were honored through reverent ceremonies and the decoration of their graves with flags and flowers. Armistice Day, on the other hand, was designated as a national day commemorating America's participation in World War I and those who served: not only the dead, but the living.
Armistice Day observances in the United States were similar to those in France and Great Britain with processions, wreath-laying ceremonies, and a moment of silence to pay homage to those who died in the war. On the third Armistice Day after the war, November 11, 1921, America further followed the example of its allies by burying, with impressive ceremony, an Unknown Soldier in an elaborate tomb at Arlington Cemetery. The event not only bolstered efforts to make Armistice Day a national holiday, but established rituals intended to unify a homogenous nation still ambivalent about the nation's involvement in the war.
Although united in their desire to pay tribute to those who had fought and died, Americans could not agree on the precise nature and intent of Armistice Day commemorative rituals. The American Legion, the largest veterans' organization to emerge after the war, endeavored to ensure that the achievements of American veterans were remembered. Through hymns and prayers, ceremonies sponsored by the Legion emphasized the terrible cost of war and the need to work for a new, more harmonious world order. In accord with the belief that military strength ensures peace, Legion parades often included a military component from the various branches of the armed forces and rifle or artillery salutes to the dead.
Others preferred to strip Armistice Day of its militaristic character, emphasizing instead the tragedy of war and the hope of preserving peace through negotiation. In the 1920s a series of disarmament treaties and pacifist promises, such as those of the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, created a sense of optimism about the possibility that there might never be another war. Members of national peace movements believed war could be stopped only through disarmament and pacifism, whereas the American Legion maintained that military preparedness provided the best assurance against future wars. The lack of consensus within society reflected the ambivalence that still prevailed toward America's intervention in the First World War.
Despite years of political lobbying and campaigning by the Legion, Congress did not make Armistice Day a federal holiday until 1938. By this time, it was obvious that another war was imminent and that once again
Americans might be called to fight. Emotional memories of the previous conflict stirred isolationists and peace groups to urge the government away from another foreign entanglement toward stringent neutrality laws. Ultimately, patriotic fervor and the perceived need to defend the nation against such unprovoked attacks as the one on Pearl Harbor proved the decisive factors that united the nation in fighting another world war. During the war observances of Armistice Day declined.
After World War II ended in 1945, Americans continued to observe Armistice Day on November 11 as the Legion opened its membership to a new generation of veterans. These Second World War veterans joined each year in the rituals and commemorative ceremonies established by previous veterans after the First World War. In 1954, the holiday was designated Veterans Day to honor veterans of all American wars and in 1971, President Nixon declared it a federal holiday on the fourth Monday in October in accordance with the Uniform Holidays Act. However, many Americans objected to this change in its traditional date, so in 1978 Congress restored the observance of Veterans Day to November 11.
"Beginnings and Results of Memorial Day," American Legion Weekly, 26 May 1922, 16–17.
Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
Worthington, R.C. "Homecoming." American Legion Magazine, November, 1938.
"History of Veterans Day." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Available from <http://www.va.gov/vetsday/>.
Lisa M. Budreau