Veterans Day's Other Name

Until 1954, the holiday was called Armistice Day. What else has changed?

Tuba players warm-up their instruments before participating in the annual Veterans Day Parade in San Diego, California November 11, 2014. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Today is Veterans Day. You've probably seen this Kurt Vonnegut quote, from Breakfast of Champions, his celebrated 1973 novel, floating around social media.

So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

It is, as Wonkette notes, a lovely passage. And with its brisk, clipped sentences, allusions to time travel, and heavy nostalgia, pure Vonnegut. But more than 40 years after Breakfast of Champions was published, and 60 since Armistice Day's end, the sentiment of the quote has surprising currency. Veterans for Peace, for instance, an anti-war group, has organized Armistice Day rallies across American cities. Rory Fanning, a conscientious objector and veteran of the Iraq War, explained his preference for Armistice Day in a recent Guardian column.

Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars. Veterans Day, instead, celebrates “heroes” and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valor.

The origins of the holiday belies this interpretation. President Woodrow Wilson called for the creation of Armistice Day in 1919, one year after World War I concluded, and the day became a federal holiday in 1938. But after the the Second World War in 1945—part of which Vonnegut famously endured as a Nazi prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany—a veteran named Raymond Weeks petitioned General Dwight D. Eisenhower to change the holiday to honor all veterans. The idea made sense. World War II involved a far greater mobilization of the country's resources than World War I, and in the end nearly four times as many Americans lost their lives in the conflict. Nine years and the Korean War later Eisenhower, then president, signed Veterans Day into law.

(According to Stars and Stripes, a competing explanation—that the stalemate in the Korean War sullied the word "armistice"—is untrue.)

Curiously, the United States was alone in making this switch. Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Day, is still a big deal in the United Kingdom, where citizens pin poppy flowers to their clothing in homage to the John McCrae's iconic "In Flanders Field" poem. Few Americans follow this trend. Indeed, some argue that Veterans Day is often confused in the United States with Memorial Day, and that the holiday, which was only codified as federal law in 1978, has little of the pomp and circumstance evident in the U.K.

But even in the U.K. the remembrance causes mixed feelings. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, a prominent English musician, explained why he doesn't wear a poppy. "I feel Remembrance Day and the whole poppy appeal has been hijacked by politicians for propaganda purposes to support the unjustified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."