As every schoolboy knows — well, no, they don’t, but I’ve always wanted to begin a paragraph with that — Armistice Day commemorates the cessation of the Great War, so inaccurately dubbed the War to End All Wars by Woodrow Wilson, on November 11, 1918.
Armistice Day in these United States was established by Congressional resolution in 1926, as a day of ‘thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.’ It was elevated to a national holiday in 1938, when perpetuating peace still seemed like a good idea to many members of Congress. Sixteen years and two wars later, this occasion for somber and pacific reflection was restyled ‘Veterans Day.’
After all, groused the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the two major vets’ organizations, World War One was ancient history, and millions of American men in the prime of their voting lives were veterans of the Second World War and the (undeclared) carnage in Korea. Didn’t they deserve a holiday? Not a single member of Congress objected to the appellative shift.
The 1954 name change was no mere cosmetic touch. Armistice Day, with its emphasis on peace and good will and solemn remembrance, had been replaced by a day to honor those who have worn the uniform of the United States armed forces. It was a celebration not of peace but of the military.
The US Chamber of Commerce and the travel industry, ever eager to pry open American wallets, further shook loose the day from its moorings when they persuaded Congress to pass the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968. This legislative atrocity uprooted Veterans Day, as well as Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Washington’s Birthday, from their traditional dates of observance and moved them to that day of the week which, as the Mamas and Papas wisely warned, cannot be trusted. Over the surprisingly feeble objections of the American Legion and the VFW, Veterans Day was reposted to the fourth Monday in October.
The debate over the 1968 act featured an attempt by Illinois Republican Rep. Edward Derwinski to rename Columbus Day ‘Discoverers of America Day’, so as to include Jan z Kolna, a late 15th-century Polish navigator who had, according to imaginative ethnic cartographers, preceded Columbus in bumping into the New World. Incorporating Kolna, whose existence, not to mention voyage, is a matter of contention, would ‘put an end to the Polish jokes which have swept the country,’ said Derwinski, whose capacity for screwing in a lightbulb I shall forbear mentioning.
The Uniform Holiday Act was crassly commercial, though cosponsor Robert McClory (R-IL) piously predicted that families would use the three-day weekends to visit ‘famed battlegrounds and monuments,’ presumably including the Tomb of the Unknown Shopper.
Reactionary opponents got off all the best lines, as reactionaries always do. Georgia Republican Fletcher Thompson offered an amendment to redub New Year’s Day ‘Uniform Holiday No. 1,’ Washington’s Birthday ‘Uniform Holiday No. 2,’ and so on.
The immortal Iowa curmudgeon H.R. Gross mockingly proposed to move Christmas to a Monday, but the reductio ad absurdum seemed like a good idea to some. Sen. George Smathers (D-FL), best known as JFK’s wingman and lapper-up of Camelot’s sloppy seconds, seriously proposed to move Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July to Mondays too.
In 1975, President Ford signed legislation returning Veterans Day to November 11, though when that falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the observance is on the following Monday. The dogged Rep. McClory, unwilling to abandon his legislative progeny, protested that the original reason for fixing Veterans Day on a Monday was that ‘hospitalized veterans’ would get more visitors. This argument was so loopily disingenuous that not even the American Federation of Government Employees bothered to parrot it.
In our age of ‘Thank you for your service’ and ‘Support the troops,’ Veterans Day is marked by genuine gratitude for the sacrifices made by US servicemen and women. Though I do know a vet, a stateside KP-duty type, who spends the day gorging on free meals at restaurants and drawing rolling eyes and arched eyebrows.
The single best thing we could do for today’s young men and women in uniform — bring them home, unite them with their families, restore them to their communities, and permit them to earn their living in the private sector — is off the table no matter which party is in power. The dream of peace, of an America that is not engaged in perpetual war for reasons inscrutable, is as faded as the memory of Armistice Day.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette (Henry Holt) and Ain’t My America (Metropolitan).