Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.
Today’s question: What is Veterans Day?
By the summer of 1918, after four long years in the trenches of Europe, the beaches of Gallipoli, the sands of Palestine, the frigid seas at Jutland and the jagged mountaintops of Italy, the end was in sight.
With the Russians knocked out of the war and convulsing in the throes of revolution, Germany and the Central Powers still could not muster the strength to continue the fight and were on their back heel.
With the late entry of the formerly – and staunchly – neutral United States into the war following the sinking of the Lusitania, the Allies were able to finally force Germany to the bargaining table to achieve an end to the Great War. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on Nov. 10; the Germans, their country spent, agreed to an armistice the next morning.
French Marshal Ferdinand Foch sent word out that, “Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front beginning at 11 o’clock, November 11th.”
A year later, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the terms written by the Allied powers and thrust upon the vanquished Germans caused Marshal Foch to exclaim, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
But it was peace enough for now, and like many other countries around the world, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 to be Armistice Day in the United States. It would take several decades for Armistice Day to become a day of remembrance for all veterans.
“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”
Wilson’s 1919 proclamation was followed by patriotic parades filled with patriotic bands and patriotic speeches on subsequent eleventh days of eleventh months.
In 1926 Congress passed a concurrent resolution officially recognizing the end of the war to end all wars. Armistice Day wouldn’t actually become a federal holiday until May 1938, when Congress passed an act recognizing the service and sacrifice of all those that had served in the last war.
Foch’s prediction came to pass a year and a half later on Sept. 1, 1939, when the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which had survived the Battle of Jutland in the last war, fired the first shots at the Polish garrison in Danzig, signaling the start of the next war.
Six years would pass before this second world war officially came to an end with the formal surrender of the Japanese on Sept. 2, 1945 aboard another battleship – Missouri – in Tokyo Bay.
In the United States, Armistice Day had been created to honor those who had served in what was now being called World War I, but what about all of those personnel who were mobilized to serve in the Second World War? How would the country honor all of those new veterans?
That question wouldn’t be answered until after yet another war, this one on the Korean peninsula, between South and North Korea and their respective allies, with the United States helping to defend the South.
In 1954, a year after the Korean conflict ended with an armistice, the 83rd Congress struck the word Armistice and added the word Veterans from the Nov. 11 day of remembrance, to honor all who served in wartime.
On Oct. 12, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed proclamation 3071 which read in part, “Now, therefore, I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby call upon all of our citizens to observe Thursday, November 11, 1954, as Veterans Day. On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain. I also direct the appropriate officials of the Government to arrange for the display of the flag of the United States on all public buildings on Veterans Day.”
Veterans Day takes on a different meaning depending on who you are. For federal employees, it’s a day off work. For politicians, it might be a day for a stump speech about service and sacrifice at a local Veterans Day ceremony.
For Marines, as you have heard from your friends and family who served in the Corps, it’s the day after the Marine Corps Birthday. And by the way, happy early birthday to all of my brothers and sisters.
For veterans it’s a day to laugh at the good times and to choke up at the not-so-good times, to remember and be remembered. Everyone who has served down range knows there’s a thin margin between celebrating on Veterans Day and being remembered on Memorial Day.
While Armistice Day originally called for patriotic parades and speeches a century ago, veterans in our country haven’t always been met with ticker tape parades returning home from far off lands. Troops returning from Vietnam generally weren’t greeted with the same pomp and circumstance as those who returned from World War II or Desert Storm. There weren’t many ruffles and flourishes when the last troops pulled out of Kabul recently either.
For veterans today, the 11th day of the 11th month is a day when, for a little while, the guns might fall silent for a moment, the old pains may ebb a little, hopefully the good memories outweigh the painful ones and veterans find their own peace enough for now.
Rob Kauder, The Spokesman-Review’s online producer, is a veteran of the Marines and Army National Guard and served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War.