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How Veterans Day went from celebrating world peace to thanking armed forces

T.C Ayers, a Vietnam veteran from Larchmont, N.Y., spends some time alone near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated. 

On Nov. 11, we celebrate Veterans Day with parades and Old Glory T-shirts, with salutes to those who served and prayers for those who fell.

But the version of Veterans Day we know now wasn’t always so. It wasn’t always a holiday, it wasn’t always on Nov. 11 and, at first, it wasn’t even called Veterans Day. The original intent, established in the wake of World War I, was to celebrate world peace. Then the wars never ended, so Veterans Day changed.

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Let’s start from the beginning.

Nov. 11, 1918

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, fighting between the Allied Forces and Germany stopped, putting an end to the bloodshed of World War I per the terms of an armistice agreement signed in France that same day.

But World War I — the “War to end all wars” — did not officially end until seven months later.

Nov. 11, 1919

On the one-year anniversary of the armistice agreement, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation commemorating Nov. 11 as Armistice Day. The celebrations were to include parades, public meetings and a two-minute suspension of business at 11 a.m.

The proclamation read: “… 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 …”

June 4, 1926

Congress passed a resolution urging state governors to observe Armistice Day with “thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through goodwill and mutual understanding between nations.”

At the time, 27 states had already made Nov. 11 a legal holiday.

May 13, 1938

More than a decade later, Congress made Armistice Day an official holiday dedicated to world peace.

June 1, 1954

World War I was not the war to ends all wars, and lawmakers believed that veterans from World War II and the Korean War also deserved their own day of remembrance. So President Eisenhower signed a bill changing the name of Armistice Day to the more inclusive Veterans Day, a holiday to thank all who had served the United States of America.

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Oct. 12, 1954

Eisenhower published a proclamation in the Federal Register, instructing citizens to recognize Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

He wrote: “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.”

June 28, 1968

Fifty years after the armistice agreement, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which moved Veterans Day from its original Nov. 11 date to the fourth Monday in October. The act also declared that Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Washington’s Birthday would be observed on Mondays throughout the year.

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The new dates were meant to take effect in 1971.

Oct. 25, 1971

Veterans Day, federally recognized for the first time on a day other than Nov. 11, is celebrated with much confusion. Many states and most veterans organizations disagreed with the date change and continued to celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11, which held historic and patriotic importance.

Sept. 18, 1975

Congress passed a bill changing the observation of Veterans Day back to Nov. 11, where it has remained for the 42 years since.

Much has changed in the 98 years since Armistice Day was first observed.

Now we honor not just servicemen, but servicewomen. Our wars are not fought with cannons, but with drones. The war to end all wars didn’t end war at all. Soldiers have fought and died all over the globe.

But through the past century, despite its different names and dates, the purpose of Veterans Day has remained the same — to say thanks.

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