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Human Interest

How Armistice Day Became Veterans Day, and Who Helped Make That Happen

Updated

Jin Lee/911 Memorial

November 11 is Veterans Day, but it hasn’t always been. Our current conception of the day was the work of a few dedicated individuals, many of whom are not known by the general public. So let’s dive into how the holiday came about.

Though the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I, was signed on June 28, 1919, the Allied nations and Germany actually reached an armistice — or a temporary stop to fighting — on Nov. 11, 1918. (The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, by the way.)

It was President Woodrow Wilson who proclaimed the date Armistice Day in 1919. Congress passed a resolution on June 4, 1926 declaring it a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” An Act approved in 1938 made Armistice Day a legal holiday.

Barry Thumma/AP
Barry Thumma/AP

By 1945, a Birmingham, Alabama, WWII veteran Raymond Weeks was dedicated to the idea that all veterans of the U.S. armed services should have a day to honor them, not just those who had fought in WWII. Weeks held the first celebration called “Veterans Day” on Nov. 11 in Birmingham with the goal of making the day more inclusive to members of the armed services.

Eight or so years after Weeks held his first Veterans Day, Kansas Representative Edward Rees proposed a bill to change the holiday, which was approved on June 1, 1954. Weeks, who was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Ronald Reagan in 1982, continued to organize local Veterans Day celebrations in Birmingham until his death in 1985. Rees was honored with the first National Veterans Award in Birmingham in 1954 for his support of the legislation.

In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Bill was passed. The goal of the bill was to encourage three-day weekends on four national holidays that would fall on Mondays (Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day) to encourage travel and recreation. The first “moved” Veterans Day occurred in 1971, though many states ignored the decision and continued to hold the holidays on their original date.

Resistance to the change continued for four years, before President Gerald R. Ford returned Veterans Day to its original date, a change that took place in 1978.

Veterans Day as pertaining to the two World Wars is not strictly an American observance: Britain, France, Australia and Canada also celebrate their country’s veterans of those wars on or near Nov. 11. In Canada, it’s referred to as Remembrance Day, while Britain’s holiday is the second Sunday of November, called Remembrance Sunday. Much of Europe also observes two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

There are roughly 22 million veterans in the U.S. general population. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that roughly 13 percent of the U.S. homeless population consists of veterans, with younger vets from recent wars making up 10 percent of that population and 31 percent of all veteran suicides.

Many services exist to help returning veterans and their families: Fisher House Foundation serves 10,000 families per year and is integrated with many credit card reward programs; Hire Heroes is an organization dedicated exclusively to helping returning veterans find jobs; and Operation Homefront offers vets and their families everything from food assistance to housing. They’ve all received high marks from charity-review organizations and are worth your time.