Millions of Americans will take time out to honor our military on the traditional time of 11:11 a.m. on November 11. But there was a time when Congress tried to move the holiday, only to face several years of strong public resistance.
You may recall from history or civics class that the holiday was first called Armistice Day. It was established after World War I to remember the “war to end all wars,” and it was pegged to the time that a cease-fire, or armistice, that occurred in Europe on November 11, 1918. (World War I officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 in France.)
A year later, President Woodrow Wilson said the armistice anniversary deserved recognition.
“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,” he said.
Armistice Day officially received its name through a congressional resolution that was passed on June 4, 1926. By that time, 27 states had made Armistice Day a legal holiday.
Then, in 1938, Armistice Day officially became a national holiday by law, when an act was passed on May 13, 1938, made November 11 in each year a legal holiday: “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.”
After World War II, the act was amended to honor veterans of World War II and Korea, and the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day in 1954. President Dwight D. Eisenhower marked the occasion with a special proclamation.
However, controversy came to the universally recognized holiday in 1968, when Congress tried to change when Veterans Day was celebrated as a national holiday, by moving the holiday to a Monday at the end of October.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was signed on June 28, 1968, and it changed the traditional days for Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day, to ensure that the holidays fell on a Monday, giving federal employees a three-day weekend.
The bill moved Veterans Day, at least on a federal level, to the last Monday in October, with the first observance of the new date in 1971. Veterans groups moved quickly to oppose the date switch, and two states refused to switch their dates in 1971. By 1974, there was confusion over the two dates and most states took a pass on commemorating the holiday in October.
In a typical editorial of the era, the Weirton, West Virginia Daily Times explained why the holiday switch wasn’t working. “Congress has no choice now but to enact legislation restoring Nov 11 as Veterans Day. The majority of the states have spoken and the Congress should heed their preference. There’s too much confusion over the two dates,” says an editorial from October 28, 1974. “All veterans organizations retain the original date.”
A few months after that editorial ran, 46 of the 50 states decided to ignore the federal celebration in October, by either switching back to November 11 or refusing to change the holiday. By the middle of 1975, Congress had seen enough, and it amended the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to move Veterans Day back to November 11. President Gerald Ford signed the act on September 20, 1975, which called for the move to happen in 1978.
That November, the Carroll Daily Times Herald in Iowa said it was about time Congress did the right thing. “[Veterans] deserve to be honored on their special day, not as an adjunct to a weekend holiday as Washington tried to force on us,” the newspaper commented.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.