Veteran’s 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 Nov. 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 Nov. 11, 1918, remained in the public mind as the date that marked the end of the Great War.
On Nov. 11, 1920, unidentified soldiers were laid to rest at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. On November 11 the following year an unknown American soldier killed in the war was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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 re-armed Germany under Hitler had already annexed all of Austria and had submitted a war plan to take over Czechoslovakia. So 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 United States 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 percent to 30 percent. The political importance of veterans has also advanced with the passage of time. In March 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.
The U.S. military never initiated major hostilities, and was often more of a reluctant responder. That was true for both World War I and II and subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has always stood for freedom and against aggression and tyranny. Surely, many Americans who enlisted to serve in wartime knew neither the forsaken places they were going to nor what they would encounter, however, they all had a distinct conviction that they were fighting not only to set overseas captives free but to protect freedom at home.
Of all foreign wars in which Americans were engaged, World War II is by far the largest with more than 16 million soldiers serving or deployed overseas. Today, only about 2 percent of those veterans remain alive as the remnants of the “Greatest Generation.” When we think about these veterans this November 11, who will all likely 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.
The world remains as unsettled with bad actors as in previous times. Let us hope that present and future generations never forget the quote adapted by a modern statesman from Thomas Jefferson’s original that, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and a willingness to act in its defense.”
• Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle. His father, a World War II veteran, is 95 years old.