It breaks my heart how Veterans are treated in this country. November 11, 2023
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON
NOV 12, 2023
In 1918, at the end of four years of World War I’s devastation, leaders negotiated for the guns in Europe to fall silent once and for all on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was not technically the end of the war, which came with the Treaty of Versailles. Leaders signed that treaty on June 28, 1919, five years to the day after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off the conflict. But the armistice declared on November 11 held, and Armistice Day became popularly known as the day “The Great War,” which killed at least 40 million people, ended.
In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson commemorated Armistice Day, saying that Americans would reflect on the anniversary of the armistice “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…."
But Wilson was disappointed that the soldiers’ sacrifices had not changed the nation’s approach to international affairs. The Senate, under the leadership of Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts—who had been determined to weaken Wilson as soon as the imperatives of the war had fallen away—refused to permit the United States to join the League of Nations, Wilson’s brainchild: a forum for countries to work out their differences with diplomacy, rather than resorting to bloodshed.
On November 10, 1923, just four years after he had established Armistice Day, former President Wilson spoke to the American people over the new medium of radio, giving the nation’s first live, nationwide broadcast.
“The anniversary of Armistice Day should stir us to a great exaltation of spirit,” he said, as Americans remembered that it was their example that had “by those early days of that never to be forgotten November, lifted the nations of the world to the lofty levels of vision and achievement upon which the great war for democracy and right was fought and won.”
But he lamented “the shameful fact that when victory was won,…chiefly by the indomitable spirit and ungrudging sacrifices of our own incomparable soldiers[,] we turned our backs upon our associates and refused to bear any responsible part in the administration of peace, or the firm and permanent establishment of the results of the war—won at so terrible a cost of life and treasure—and withdrew into a sullen and selfish isolation which is deeply ignoble because manifestly cowardly and dishonorable.”
Wilson said that a return to engagement with international affairs was “inevitable”; the U.S. eventually would have to take up its “true part in the affairs of the world.”
Congress didn’t want to hear it. In 1926 it passed a resolution noting that since November 11, 1918, “marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed,” the anniversary of that date “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
In 1938, Congress made November 11 a legal holiday to be dedicated to world peace.
But neither the “war to end all wars” nor the commemorations of it, ended war.
Just three years after Congress made Armistice Day a holiday for peace, American armed forces were fighting a second world war, even more devastating than the first. The carnage of World War II gave power to the idea of trying to stop wars by establishing a rules-based international order. Rather than trying to push their own boundaries and interests whenever they could gain advantage, countries agreed to abide by a series of rules that promoted peace, economic cooperation, and security.
The new international system provided forums for countries to discuss their differences—like the United Nations, founded in 1945—and mechanisms for them to protect each other, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in 1949, which has a mutual defense pact that says any attack on a NATO country will be considered an attack on all of them.
In the years since, those agreements multiplied and were deepened and broadened to include more countries and more ties. While the U.S. and other countries sometimes fail to honor them, their central theory remains important: no country should be able to attack a neighbor, slaughter its people, and steal its lands at will. This concept preserved decades of relative peace compared to the horrors of the early twentieth century, but it is a concept that is currently under attack as autocrats increasingly reject the idea of a rules-based international order and claim the right to act however they wish.
In 1954, to honor the armed forces of wars after World War I, Congress amended the law creating Armistice Day by striking out the word “armistice” and putting “veterans” in its place. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a veteran who had served as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and who had become a five-star general of the Army before his political career, later issued a proclamation asking Americans to observe Veterans Day:
“[L]et 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.”