Today in 1953: The first Veterans Day is celebrated

November 11, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryToday in 1953, the first Veterans Day was celebrated in Emporia, Kansas.

As many people already know, however, Veterans Day coincides with the end of World War I, which occurred over 30 years earlier.

Accordingly, the holiday started not as Veterans Day, but as Armistice Day, a name by which it is still known in European countries such as France (British Commonwealth nations celebrate it as Remembrance Day).

“Armistice Day” refers to the armistice – or temporary cessation of hostilities – that eventually ended World War I.

The armistice was signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (11 a.m. on November 11), in 1918.

One year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day holiday, calling for a two-minute suspension of business at 11:00 a.m. in remembrance.

The holiday has increasingly picked up support ever since.

In 1926, Congress passed a concurrent resolution requesting that President Calvin Coolidge issue another proclamation to observe November 11 as Armistice Day.

Coolidge, of course, obliged, beginning the trend of an annual proclamation by the president commemorating the day.

In 1938, these Presidential Proclamations stopped, since on May 13 of that year, Congress passed an act making the 11th day of November a legal holiday and recognizing the day, again, as Armistice Day.

By this time, many states had already established November 11 as a holiday, although it was still known as Armistice Day.

That all changed in 1953, thanks to two more wars (World War II and the Korean War) that had an even greater impact on the nation and, naturally, created more veterans.

This inspired a shoe store owner in Emporia, Kansas named Al King, who had the idea to celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War I.

He thus began the campaign to change Armistice Day into Veterans Day.

King himself was not a veteran, since he was too young to enlist in World War I and too old to enlist in World War II, but he was highly involved with veteran organizations.

Support had built so much through the city that the Emporia Chamber of Commerce found that 90% of merchants and the Board of Education of Emporia were willing to close their doors to commemorate Veterans Day on November 11, 1953.

And the first Veterans Day was celebrated in 1953 in Emporia, Kansas.

With the help of Kansas U.S. Representative Edward Rees, who was also from Emporia, a bill was passed in Congress the next year and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower on May 26, 1954.

By amending the earlier 1938 law that established Armistice Day by replacing the word “Armistice” with “Veterans,” the bill officially established Veterans Day as a national holiday.

The popular support for Veterans Day was so strong that it is distinctive among several other federal holidays.

Specifically, when Congress changed the dates of several federal holidays to always fall on Mondays with 1968’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, public backlash against Veterans Day’s move (to the fourth Monday of October) was severe.

So severe, in fact, that in 1975, a law was passed that changed the date of Veterans Day back to its original of November 11 (for the politics behind the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, see this post on Presidents’ Day).

With two new wars in the last decade, the holiday remains relevant today.

Hopefully, with all American troops in Iraq withdrawing by the end of the year, many veterans will find new reasons to celebrate the day in the 11th year of the new millennium.