World War I began on July 28, 1914 when the Austrian-Hungarian empire prepared to invade Serbia in retaliation for the June slaying of the emperor’s heir – Archduke Ferdinand. Russia entered the war on Serbia’s side while Germany mobilized to help its ally, Austria. France and Britain, allies of Russia, were also drawn into the conflict and by the fall 1914, the trench warfare that would characterize the Western Front began. The United States, however, stayed out of World War I for almost three years. President Wilson waged a successful reelection campaign using the theme “He kept us out of war.”
However in 1917 Germany resumed their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to to starve out Britain but American losses brought the United States into the war on April 6, 1917. The first ten months of 1918 saw a massive German offensive in the spring which ultimately gained little followed by the Allies Hundred Days Offensive in the fall when significant gains were made and the Hindenberg Line was breached. By this time, the German and Austrian officials realized that the war was lost and various attempts were made to negotiate with the Allies. Finally, on November 11, 1918, an armistice with Germany was signed at 5:00 a.m. in a railway carriage at Compiègne, and the guns of the Western Front, their sullen muttering, fell silent at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of the year.
This armistice, however, merely ended the active fighting. The treaty which ended World War I was signed on June 28, 1919 at the Palace of Versailles in France. President Wilson was one of the architects of the treaty that established the League of Nations, but the U.S. Senate refused to ratifiy the treaty.
Also in 1919, President Wilson issued a proclamation commemorating November 11th as Armistice Day: “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…” In 1926 Congress passed a concurrent resolution declaring that November 11th should be a legal holiday to be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving and “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
In 1938 Congress passed a law, 52 Stat. 351 making Armistice Day a legal holiday, dedicated to world peace. This law was amended in 1954, after World War II and the Korean War to honor veterans from all wars. In 1968 an attempt was made to celebrate Veterans Day on the last Monday in October – thereby establishing four National holidays on Mondays but the importance of the actual date and its link to a specific historic event led in 1975 to the passage of Pub. L. 94-97, currently codified at 5 U.S.C. 6103 which redesignated November 11th as Veterans Day.
Since the 1950s, presidents have regularly issued proclamations reminding us of this holiday and the importance of our veterans’ service in protecting and defending the United States. Although the war to end all wars has faded in public memory, the service of our veterans should not.