Why Veterans Day is on Nov. 11

World War II and Korean War veteran Pete Bolinger of  Missouri sits at the World War II Memorial.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images) World War II and Korean War veteran Pete Bolinger of  Missouri sits at the World War II Memorial.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

That’s when the armistice ending World War I began in 1918, and that is the origin of Veterans Day (note that it is spelled without an apostrophe), a U.S. holiday often confused with Memorial Day.

Memorial Day honors America’s war dead, while Veterans Day honors all American veterans, living and dead, and has a special emphasis on thanking living veterans for their service to the country.

In November 1919, one year after the armistice ending World War I went into effect, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words:

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 1938, Congress made Nov. 11 an annual, legal holiday known as “Armistice Day” to honor the cause of world peace, but it was primarily used to honor World War I veterans. After World War II, in 1954, the law was changed, and “Armistice” was changed to “Veterans.” Nov. 11 became a day to honor veterans of all American wars.

Veterans Day was moved to the fourth Monday in October in 1968 by Congress, but that was reversed in 1978 when it became obvious that Americans wanted the holiday celebrated Nov. 11.

Other facts about the holiday:

*There is no apostrophe in Veterans Day.

* The Tomb of the Unknowns: In 1921, the United States laid to rest the remains of a World War I American soldier — his name “known but to God” – in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on a hillside overlooking Washington, D.C. It became known as the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” and was meant to symbolize reverence for the American veteran. Today it is known as the “Tomb of the Unknowns.”

* At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 at the Tomb, a color guard with members of every military branch at the Tomb of the Unknown renders honors to America’s war dead. The U.S. president or a representative — Monday it was Vice President Biden — places a wreath at the tomb and a bugler sounds taps.

And some facts  from the Census Bureau:

21.2 million
Number of military veterans in the United States in 2012.

1.6 million
Number of female veterans in the United States in 2012.

11.3 percent
Percent of black veterans in 2012. Additionally, 5.7 percent were Hispanic; 1.3 percent were Asian; 0.8 percent were Native Americans or Alaska Native; 0.2 percent were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and 79.6 percent were non-Hispanic white. (The numbers for blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders, and non-Hispanic whites cover only those reporting a single race.)

9.6 million
Number of veterans 65 and older in 2012. At the other end of the age spectrum, 1.8 million were younger than 35.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 11, 2013

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