DIBACCO: The long struggle for a proper Veterans Day observance

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The singular, unfortunate lesson emanating from Armistice Day, which signaled the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, was the naivete of American leaders about the future of diplomatic policy toward the world. That policy, in short, was premised on the same irrational moral barometer that punctuated the 1920s in the United States, perhaps best illustrated by Prohibition. Treat diplomacy like booze, in other words. Abstain from participation with the outside world, except, of course, for fatuous goals.

Note, for example, the speech of President Warren Harding on Armistice Day 1921, the burial date for the nation’s Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It was an address so praised for its sentiments — not reality — that Associated Press writer Kirke L. Simpson won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of the ceremonies: “The loftiest tribute we can bestow today,” said Harding, “is the commitment of this republic to an advancement never made before. … [L]et us give of our influence and strength, yea of our aspiration and convictions, to put mankind on a little higher plane, exulting and exalting, with war’s distressing and depressing tragedies barred from the stage of righteous civilization .”

So American policy was geared to — get this — urging nations to agree to a pact outlawing war. A boutique group of nations — the United States, France, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia — signed on Aug. 27, 1928, what came to be known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named after Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. It renounced war as an instrument of national policy — just words, no deeds. Quite inappropriately, Kellogg was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929 for his efforts to bring about the agreement. Incidentally, all nine signatories became belligerents in World War II.

Even on June 4, 1926, when Congress ordered the president to proclaim each November 11 as Armistice Day, it did so through the same rose-colored glasses, calling it a “day of thanksgiving and prayer and exercises to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” And as all hell was breaking loose in Europe in 1938 when Armistice Day was declared a federal holiday, Congress again buried its head in the sand, deeming it a day “not to be devoted to the exaltation of glories achieved in war but, rather, to an emphasis upon those blessings which are associated with peacetime .”

Not until 1954 was Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day, thanks to the recognition of military personnel, including President (and former general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, who recognized that an armistice in fighting scarcely meant peace. War always meant sacrifices, casualties and deaths of American troops.

The fight, though, to recognize all Americans who had and would fight in wars was not over. In 1968, Congress, in its unwisdom, passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the idea being that tampering with history seemed a good way for Americans to have long, three-day weekends in place of the come-what-may scenario of the traditional holiday calendar. According to that legislation, beginning in 1971, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday in October.

Veterans rightly fought the move and accepted no peace bid or armistice when, as a compromise measure, President Nixon in 1971 signed a bill making the second Monday in November the official Veterans Day. Not until 1978 was the veterans’ siege successful, with November 11 made an exception to the Monday holiday rule.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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