Veterans Day is upon us this year, with commemorations, wreath laying, the decorating of gravesites, speeches, parades… But for many people, there is little understanding of what Veterans Day is, what it really means, and its genesis. Many people equate Memorial Day and Veterans Day as having essentially the same meaning. While I am thankful for the esteem that many people hold for veterans today—especially for those who served in Vietnam and came home to a vile public opinion that kept them from being properly welcomed home—the two holidays are different in their focus.
Memorial Day finds its roots dating back, formally, to Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865—the first public observance (Blight, 2001). The first observance of this day in the North did not occur until 1868, when General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization, called upon all former soldiers and their communities to conduct ceremonies and decorate the gravesites of their dead brethren. This first observation in the North occurred on May 30, 1868. Today, Memorial Day is commemorated each year on the final Monday of May in remembrance of all America’s military veterans who gave their lives in the service of their country. (For more in-depth information, refer to http://www.davidwblight.com/memorial.htm).
Decoration Day was formally designated as Memorial Day in 1882. It did not become a commonly commemorated event until after World War II, and it was not passed into federal law until 1967. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (passed in 1968) moved Memorial Day observance to the last Monday in May (Public Law 90-363). The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) have advocated returning Memorial Day to the May 3oth date, regardless of the day on which it falls, to restore significance of the commemoration. I must agree with the VFW position on the matter, expressed in a 2002 Memorial Day address:
Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day. (Mechant, 2007)
On the other hand, Veterans Day was established November 11, 1919, as Armistice Day. In 1926, President Coolidge proclaimed that November 11thshall be observed with appropriate ceremonies (US Army Center of Military History, 2009) and, in 1938, Congress made November 11 a national holiday, as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’” (Veterans Affairs, 2013). In 1945, Birmingham Alabama veteran Raymond Weeks had the idea to expand Armistice Day to include all veterans. He later led a delegation to meet with President Eisenhower, who supported the idea. Congress passed a bill expanding the significance of Armistice Day, which was signed by President Eisenhower on May 26, 1954 (Carter, 2003). Congress later amended the act on June 1, 1954, redesignating the holiday officially as Veterans Day (US Army Center of Military History, 2003; US Dept of Veterans Affairs, 2007). This holiday honors all who have served in the United States Armed Forces and is always observed on November 11th because of the historical significance of that date–this date coincides with Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other parts of the world. For his work to establish Veterans Day, Weeks was awarded the Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1982—in the briefing for President Reagan, Elizabeth Dole called Weeks “The father of Veterans Day.”
Veterans Day is not to be confused with Memorial Day; Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is a day of remembering men and women who died while serving.
So on this Veterans Day, let us take time from our busy lives and remember the service of those who served our nation, from the American Revolution, through many armed conflicts and wars over the last 240 years, to those who serve today. May God bless the brave men and women who have served throughout the history of our young nation.
Blight, D. (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History.
Carter, J. (2003). Where Veterans Day Began.
Kelber, S. (2012). Today is not Veterans Day.
Mechant, D. (2007). Memorial Day History.
United States Army Center of Military History (2003). The History of Veterans Day.
United States Army Center of Military History. (2009). The History of Veterans Day.
United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2007). History of Veterans Day.
Veterans Affairs (2013). Veterans Day History.