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.
Just in time for Veterans Day, a recently published book by historian Douglas Keeney hopes to encourage readers to visit the many museums and historic locations that tell the long and complicated story of America at war. The Top 100 Military Sites in America, as the book is titled, lists destinations in more than 40 states, from cemeteries, to secret bunkers, to desolate nuclear test sites.
These locations cover the breadth of United States history, starting with the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and extending to exhibitions on the war on terror at institutions like the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. Some of Keeney’s selections are well-known, among them the Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, but much of the book is focused on more obscure locations that reveal hidden wartime histories.
Keeney recommends, for instance, the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, Illinois, which is devoted to the “Big Red One”—the first unit of the American Army to deploy during WWI. Another intriguing location is the Historic Wendover Airfield in Utah, a WWII air base that is still surrounded by original buildings from the period. It was here that the crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was trained to carry the deadly weapon. In the beach town of Nahant, Massachusetts, you can spot two fire control towers that were built by the military during WWII to keep watch for encroaching German invaders.
Also on Keeney’s list are many destinations connected to the Cold War, like the Nike Missile Site Summit in Alaska, which was once part of an anti-aircraft defense system established to shoot down Soviet bombers. There are Nike sites sprinkled throughout the country—the book also lists locations in New Jersey, Florida and California—but the ones in Alaska are particularly important because the state was the first stop for Russian bombers on their way to the Lower 48. At Site Summit, which sits on a mountaintop in the Arctic Valley, visitors can still see missile boosters and above-ground bunkers.
Per Keeney’s suggestion, you can tour the declassified Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia, once a top-secret fallout shelter for U.S. officials, who would “govern a radiation-soaked, post-WWIII nation,” Keeney writes in the book. “Lucky them.” He also recommends the U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where you can spot “Atomic Annie,” the first and only cannon to ever fire a nuclear shell.
For more recent history, Keeney suggests stopping by the Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum in Cape May, New Jersey, which includes a special exhibition on the Coast Guard’s efforts to evacuate 300,000 people from Manhattan on 9/11.
When putting together his list of 100 military destinations, Keeney relied on his own travel experiences, along with recommendations from historians, researchers, soldiers on active duty and friends, he writes in the introduction to his book. He wanted his list to reflect not only the glory and heroism of war, but also its devastating realities. “[S]oldiers sacrificed,” Keeney notes, “war is dirty.”
It was also important to Keeney to include military destinations in as many states as possible, so people across the country could use his book as a guide. “In truth, it was easy,” he writes. “There are an amazing number of places where you can reflect on the accomplishments of our soldiers.”
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/veterans-day-visit-americas-top-military-sites-180970748/#QrHuHl0VsuRYGysF.99
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