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Veterans Day: The Forgotten Meaning

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The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

That was the moment at which World War I largely came to end in 1918. One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice -- or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations -- that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The complete end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

The date of Nov. 11 became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations -- a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November eleventh as a day of remembrance:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed; and



Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and



Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.

Of course, the hopes that "the war to end all wars" would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called "the Great War" would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America's conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional Nov. 11 date).

Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America's nearly 25 million veterans of all wars. We should remember and celebrate those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history -- the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926: "to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations ... inviting the people of the United States to observe the day ... with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples."

The Veterans Administration website offers more resources on teaching about Veterans Day.