A Day of Conscience

Happy Veterans Day.

Image courtesy of the London Evening Standard

Many people do not know the history of this holiday.

In fact, it started as Armistice Day.  The Armistice which ended major hostilities in World War I was signed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the eleventh hour of 1918.  People thought it was a day worth celebrating because they saw World War I as “the war to end all wars.”

Well, hindsight is 20/20.

We now know that the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, set in motion the events that would bring us World War II.  It was so harsh on the German aggressors that it left that country in a deep depression, enabling Hitler to rise to power.

But in 1919, what we now know as Veterans’ Day was officially celebrated for the first time by President Woodrow Wilson.   He said,

“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.

Despite the fact that things have changed since, I think his words still ring true.

Armistice Day officially became part of the list of holidays when Congress told then-President Calvin Coolidge to make it so in 1926.  And in 1938, as the troubles in Europe were beginning, it became a legal holiday.

Armistice Day was changed to include all veterans after World War II, not surprisingly.  A guy in Kansas had the idea.  Businesses in his hometown of Emporia supported it.  The Emporia Chamber of Commerce got the attention of the local Congressman, and he authored a bill in Congress.  Appropriately, Armistice Day officially became Veterans Day on May 26, 1954, when it the bill was signed into law by 2-war veteran, President Dwight Eisenhower.  It goes to show you the impact simple shoe repairman can have on the fabric of American memory.

I’m going to go back in time a little, because the boys of For Men Only actually attended Armistice Day celebrations in Paris in 1944.  You can imagine what a big deal this was, since Paris had been liberated only 3 months prior.  There was a huge parade down the Champs Elysee, attended by General De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Anthony Eden.  The FMO guys were so close that they bragged they could light Winston’s cigar.  The dignitaries laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame underneath the Arc de Triomphe.  It must have been a contemplative moment, to be celebrating the dead of the last war with the combatants of the current one.  I’m sure they asked themselves: how can we change the way we do things so that we are not laying wreaths in twenty years, surrounded by the soldiers of the next war?

General Omar Bradley gave a speech about this very thing on November 10, 1948, when we stood near the brink of war once more, this time with the Soviet Union.  He said:

Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace.

Thankfully, we have learned from our mistakes and we have not seen a multi-continent-encompassing war in sixty years.  Our success is partially due to the fact that we remembered what we learned on Armistice Day.  Because our veterans never forgot.

Thank you to the veterans past, present, and future.

American Anthem

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