It Came from the Archives: Armistice Day, Veterans Day and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Celebrations on Armistice Day on. Nov. 11, 1918, indicating the cessation of hostilities in the First World War. (National Archives)

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns that had roar ed in the most destructive war to that point in history fell silent.  Although the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles officially closed World War 1 (the US never signed it), the Armistice ended combat.  

Given the extraordinary nature of World War 1, Americans had to make conscious choices about how to commemorate their efforts.  Commemorations took place in an era when the federal government was less important than states and localities in memorializing AEF soldiers.  After all, towns and counties provided the National Guardsmen and draftees that mustered into the United States Army in 1917 and 1918.  But World War 1 was also a time of transition from localism and state-based federalism to a more prominent central government.  States and towns erected monuments to their troops; the federal government created two memorials – Armistice Day for the living and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the dead.

This brings up some questions.  What, then, is the history of Armistice Day and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?  How did they come about and change over time?  And what is the relationship of Armistice Day to Veterans Day that we now celebrate on November 11?

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Armistice Day on November 11, 1919.  From then until 1926, Congress annually asked the president to declare November 11 as a day of commemoration, and afterwards passed an ongoing request.  But it took until 1938 for Congress to add Armistice Day to the list of official holidays.

President Woodrow Wilson.
President Woodrow Wilson.

Soon thereafter, the United States entered another world war, which changed almost everything about America.  So it was with Armistice Day.  Where we had fought the First World War for only 19 months and had been forced to invent procedures for waging it on the fly, we fought the Second World War for almost 4 years, using the precedents of the Progressive Era, World War 1, and the New Deal to organize both our war effort and our society.  That experience changed how Americans thought about how we remember those who fought.  The crucible of war and economic calamity led us to consider the nation to be a cohesive unit and to recognize the federal government as representative of us all.

Americans acting through their localities, states, and federal government celebrated Armistice Day throughout the years of World War 2 and into the Cold War that followed almost immediately.  But just as World War 2 changed how we thought of the nation and the federal government, it changed what Armistice Day came to mean.  

America in the years between the wars was unsure of its place in the community of nations and of how it should feel about World War 1.  Histories talk about the “Lost Generation” of disillusioned émigré writers who were stunned by World War 1’s ferocity.  Here in the United States, former soldiers felt differently.  They prided themselves on their efforts and on their survival.  In that time, both points of view clung to Armistice Day beginning with President Wilson’s first proclamation in 1919 that read:

The reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died . . . , and with gratitude for the victory, . . . because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.[1]

Americans after World War 2 were less ambivalent.  After such a war and with the dual beginning of the Cold War and America’s new role as a leader of world affairs, we believed we had to stay on guard.  We also changed the way we thought about our military.  Before World War 2, Americans rarely encouraged or rewarded military service. After World War 2, Americans saw military service as a good thing.  Indeed, selective service registration was required of all draft-age men from 1940 until 1975 (and resumed after 1980).  Additionally, military service is something Americans now put on their resumes and take great pride in as part of their self-identification.

This change in attitude changed Armistice Day.  Alabamian Raymond Weeks played a role in changing not only how we thought of Armistice Day, but also what we call it.

Alabama native Raymond Weeks, known as the "Father of Veterans Day," presents a petition to then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. (National Archives)
Alabama native Raymond Weeks, known as the “Father of Veterans Day,” presents a petition to then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. (National Archives)

Weeks was a US Navy veteran who represented Birmingham for three terms in the Alabama legislature.  After his 1945 discharge, Weeks campaigned to add recognition of those who served in World War 2 to the November 11 holiday.  He petitioned Army Chief of Staff Dwight Eisenhower to rename November 11 as “Veterans Day” but only Congress and the president could do so.

Weeks went on to build the National Veterans Day association to keep this re-christening in front of the public.  He led the organization and its Veterans Day Parade in Birmingham from 1947 until his death in 1985.

Although Weeks is considered the “Father of Veterans Day,” Alvin King of Emporia, Kansas, secured the new name.  Not a veteran himself, King had a nephew killed in action, and in 1952 worked through his congressman to introduce legislation to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day.  In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower signed King’s bill into law.

In the 1970s, Congress changed the celebration of Veterans Day to the second Monday in November, but even though that provided another 3-day weekend, Americans so disliked it that Congress soon re-established commemoration on November 11.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier followed a similar trajectory.  In 1921, Congress approved interment of an unidentified soldier from World War 1, and in 1932 the marble sarcophagus was built.  

An honor guard patrols the tomb.  A civilian guard was posted beginning in 1925 to keep tourists from picnicking on the uncovered grave.  The 3rd Cavalry replaced that guard in 1926, and the 3rd Infantry Regiment, called the “Old Guard,” replaced the cavalry in 1948.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the law that added unidentified remains of a World War 2 and a Korean War soldier to the tomb site.  Ceremonies similar to those that chose the original Unknown took place in 1958, with interment on Memorial Day of that year.

A 1984 ceremony at Pearl Harbor chose an Unknown from the Vietnam War, with President Reagan presiding over interment.  Later, DNA tests identified this soldier as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie.  He was exhumed in 1998 and reburied at Jefferson Barracks.  His former crypt has been left empty in honor of future unknowns and future veterans.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1938 at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1938 at Arlington National Cemetery.

[1] Woodrow Wilson, “Address to Fellow Countrymen (On the Anniversary of the Armistice with Germany in World War 1),” New York Times, November 11, 1919.