Veterans Day had its origin at the end of World War I in 1918, a conflict so horrendous that it was dubbed, “the Great War,” or “the war to end all wars,” with the United States playing the decisive role in the Allied powers final victory. It was first known as Armistice Day, celebrated on November 11 because that was the day agreed upon by the Allied nations and Germany to begin a total cessation of hostilities. It went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, after some 20 million people from both sides had given their lives in the war effort.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed some seven months later on June 28, 1919, marking the official end of World War I. However, the armistice date of November 11, 1918, remained in the public mind as the date that marked the end of the Great War.
Thereafter for many years, Armistice Day was recognized widely with some 27 state legislatures making November 11 a legal holiday. Finally on May 13, 1938, the U.S. Congress passed an act to establish Armistice Day as a legal Federal holiday—“a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Ironically, two months prior, a rearmed Germany under Hitler had already annexed all of Austria and had submitted a war plan to take over Czechoslovakia. The holiday dedicated to honor World War I veterans became official at the very time World War II was unfolding.
As it turned out, World War II was almost four times more costly for the U.S. with 405,400 lives lost, than World War I, in which 116,516 Americans died. Needless to say, the focus on the 1918 Armistice was overshadowed, and eventually, after World War II and the Korean War, President Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day so as to make November 11 “a day to honor American veterans of all wars.”
As the holiday evolved, Veterans Day became one of America’s most patriotic holidays, with profuse display of the red, white and blue and Main Street parades of veterans in towns across the country. “We the people of the United States” owe our veterans so much, for they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice — to fight to their deaths if need be — in the defense of freedom for other countries as well as our homeland.
Not surprisingly, the number of veterans who turn out to vote has been consistently higher than non-veterans by 16-30%. The political importance of veterans has also advanced with the passage of time.
In March of 1989, President Reagan elevated the Veterans Administration (VA) to a cabinet level department, with the creation of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Candidate Donald Trump made VA reform a key policy in his platform, and within months of becoming President, he signed into law a new kind of assistance for veterans, authorizing them to receive care outside the VA medical system when needed.
Of all foreign wars in which Americans were engaged, World War II is by far the largest with over 16 million soldiers serving or deployed overseas. Today only about 2% of those veterans remain alive as the remnants of the “Greatest Generation.” When we think about these veterans this November 11th, who will all die of old age in a matter of five or six years, Christ’s teaching that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” takes on new meaning.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle. His father, a World War II vet, is 95 years old.