What exactly do we celebrate on Veterans Day? To be sure, we mean to honor the brave men and women, living and dead, who have fought America’s battles, past and present. But honor them how, and for what? About these matters, we lack a clear national answer.
Part of the confusion is built into the history of the holiday. It was first celebrated as Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany in World War I—at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. When, a year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first Armistice Day, he spoke of the “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service” and the “gratitude for victory.” But because World War I had been regarded as the “war to end all wars,” Wilson’s reasons for esteeming the victory had everything to do with lasting peace: “the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” Armistice Day was a day that celebrated the pacifist and internationalist dreams of a nation—and a world—sickened by maiming and slaughter on a hitherto unimaginable scale. The dreams were not to be realized.
A brief four years later, Wilson, no longer president, gave a national radio address on the significance of Armistice Day, in which he deplored America’s failure to seize the opportunity that victory had provided: “The stimulating memories of that happy time of triumph are forever marred and embittered for us by the shameful fact that when victory was won—won be it remembered chiefly by the indomitable spirit and ungrudging sacrifices of our incomparable soldiers—we turned our backs upon our associates and refused to bear any responsible part in the administration of peace or the firm and permanent establishment of the results of war—won at so terrible a cost of life and treasure—and withdrew into a sullen and selfish isolation which is deeply ignoble because manifestly cowardly and dishonorable.” Wilson was mortified by America’s failure to pursue his programs for keeping the peace. Yet his argument implies something more general: that we gravely dishonor our soldiers if we reject or abandon the cause for which they fought and died—an issue that shadows our holiday today.
The pacifist reason for the holiday was still uppermost when—as it turned out, almost on the eve of World War II—Congress in May 1938 by statute made November 11 a legal federal holiday, a day to be dedicated to world peace and thereafter to be celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.” But after the hard-won victory over the Axis Powers in World War II and the successful battle to repel Communist aggression in Korea—the “good wars”—Congress in 1954, prodded by veterans organizations, changed the name of the holiday to “Veterans Day,” a day to honor American warriors of all wars, for their patriotism and the willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
Yet our attitude toward our veterans and their service has not remained stable. Fifty years ago, in his proclamation of Veterans Day 1961, President Kennedy invited all citizens to observe Veterans Day in ceremonies “expressive of our people’s desire for peace and their gratitude to our veterans who have served and sacrificed to attain it.” Twenty-five years ago, proclaiming Veterans Day 1986, President Reagan spoke less of peace than of freedom and preserving our way of life: “Veterans Day gives all Americans a special opportunity to pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country. Their willingness to give freely and unselfishly of themselves, even their lives, in defense of our democratic principles has given our great country the security we enjoy today. From Valley Forge to Vietnam, through war and peace, valiant patriotic Americans have answered the call, serving with honor and fidelity.”