Veterans Day: A Brief History

Across the United States, in the forms of formal parades and celebrations, social media posts, school assemblies, and more, American citizens are celebrating Veterans Day. Kids are told to “Thank a veteran” sometime today. Patriotism is rising and waving proudly like the American flags displayed on flag poles and front porches.

However, despite the unified recognition and celebration of the service of men and women in the defense of the Constitution, the history and meaning of this day can get lost in the hype.

What is Veterans Day? Where did it come from?

On November 11, 1918, the world’s most destructive and impactful war came to an end. Fighting ceased when an armistice between the Allies and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This date signified the end of what some would call “the war to end all wars.” Although the official end to the war would not come for seven more months with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919, November 11, 1918 ended the brutal fighting of the deadliest war to date. In fact, in 1926 Congress delivered a statement in which they declared the Great War to be “the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals.”

The Great War, as it was called, changed not only the political landscape of Europe, but it also brought forth military revolution and innovation. Nothing was the same after the Great War. In fact, much of the groundwork for World War II was already firmly laid by 1919.

Like all wars, the Great War was filled with heroism, sacrifice, and courage. President Woodrow Wilson recognized this truth in 1919. After leading the United States, though stumbling at times, through the war, Wilson spent 1919 drawing up the truly heinous Treaty of Versailles along with other Ally leaders. However, on November 11, 1919, President Wilson made an incredibly appropriate and praiseworthy proclamation:

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…

Our celebration of Veterans Day practically began on November 11, 1919, one year after the cessation of the Great War. Armistice Day was declared a legal holiday in 1938 and in 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day in order to signify and celebrate the service of US men and women of all wars. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the first Veterans Day Proclamation, in which he stated,

Now, therefore, I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby call upon all of our citizens to observe Thursday, November 11, 1954, as Veterans Day. 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 (see History of Veterans Day).

It is in this spirit that we continue to celebrate Veterans Day. November 11 carries enormous historic significance for Americans. And while extreme nationalism and patriotism can be dangerous, a balanced measure of love and zeal for one’s country is incredibly healthy. Though I do not believe the United States of America to be “God’s nation” or “Israel’s replacement,” I know that it is a blessing of God’s providence to live in a free nation. For this I am truly grateful for all military service men and women throughout the history of the US.

<a href=”″>Tweet: While extreme nationalism and patriotism can be dangerous, a balanced measure of love and zeal for one’s country is incredibly healthy.</a>

For Further Study

I am fascinated by history, especially the American wars. I am currently reading a book on the Battle of Gettysburg and a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am about to begin reading two books on World War I (The Great War). While Veterans Day commemorates service men and women from all American wars, its history is primarily rooted in World War I. World War I can easily be forgotten, as many people will either turn their attention to World War II or the Civil War. However, if you would like to take a look at World War I, you can do no better than to check out these books:

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

The First World War by John Keegan

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins

Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War by Jonathan Ebel

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.


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