The observance of Armistice Day was recognized through a Congressional Resolution in 1926, and into law as a national holiday in 1938.
America’s first year of participation in the Great War, often called “the war to end all wars,” was 1917. Later, as we were shocked by the realization that we were all wrong, it simply became World War I. It was a mega-war to be placed alongside World War II, the Cold War, and every other global conflict since. America had never stood on the world stage in a major way before World War I.
The United States had flexed its muscles in the 1840s against Mexico and its tyrannical dictator, and in winning the conflict, the Southwest was scooped up as territories that would eventually enter the Union as states. But that war was on our border, not in Europe or elsewhere. It was, in effect, a local matter.
The Spanish-American War, which lasted all of six months in 1898, was America’s first conflict with a European power, Spain. Spain had become a third-rate power, but it proved to be a formidable enemy. The Spanish army’s weapons and training were superior to those of the United States and proved to many people in America that we were vulnerable and somewhat inferior to the technology of European countries. Fortunately, the Navy was at parity with the naval forces of foreign powers in both skill and weaponry.
The Spanish-American War would result in the postwar creation of the nonprofit servicemen’s organization known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW continues to this day with many posts (clubhouses) around the country. It was in many ways a takeoff on the Grand Army of the Republic organization, composed of Union Army veterans, created after the American Civil War. Even in the southern states veterans had organized into the United Confederate Veterans. Both groups erected statues to commemorate the bravery of their comrades in arms who never returned home. Union veterans also organized themselves as a political machine that advocated for assistance to disabled veterans and their widows. With a political push from the G.A.R., this was also the beginning of government-funded veterans cemeteries, a privileged designation. With another push by the the G.A.R. the recognition of veterans cemeteries was extended to their former Confederate enemies.
The G.A.R. was a large, member-based organization that was fully aware the country often did very little to support veterans. The veterans of the American Revolution were not allowed to apply for pensions until the 1820s and by that time most of them had died. Revolutionary War veterans had, many times, a miserable postwar life, comparable to the privations of Valley Forge. Vermont hero Seth Warner, who commanded the Green Mountain Boys in the invasion of Canada and the battles of Hubbardton, Bennington, and Saratoga, died in poverty after losing the family farm to debtors. His debts had accumulated largely because of his time away from home in the cause of his country. He was buried in Connecticut and his grave remained under guard of Connecticut troops. The governor of that state was worried Warner’s debtors would steal his body and hold it as ransom for money that was owed to them. Such was America’s concern for many of its heroes.
The G.A.R. wanted to make sure that veterans were better treated than those who had come before them and the VFW continues to this day as advocates for the rights and privileges of those who served their country in the armed services. The VFW was instrumental in the creation of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, to be followed by VA hospitals and the GI Bill. The Confederate veterans’ widows and displaced families began our Memorial Day traditions of remembrance and it was quickly adopted and popularized by the G.A.R. It gained such acceptance as to become a national holiday to remember family and friends, but especially for servicemen and -women.
After the Armistice of November 11, 1918, all of the Allied powers in World War I recognized the enormous sacrifice made by their citizen soldiers. While the United States suffered a little over 200,000 casualties in the war, each of the European powers had lost millions. Such losses as most Americans fear to contemplate, much less to sacrifice.
In 1919 a new, and at the time much larger, veterans organization was begun, the American Legion. To be a member you did not have to be a war veteran, but rather you needed only to have been a member of a branch of the armed services. The American Legion also had a hand in the creation of benefits for former military personnel whether they served in war or not.
After World War II the membership numbers of both the VFW and the American Legion soared to millions of members. As the war ended, a veteran by the name of Raymond Weeks gathered some fellow veterans for a visit to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The 1945 delegation was elated that Eisenhower liked their idea of recognizing all veterans on November 11, rather than just World War I veterans or the cessation of hostilities in 1918. The name of the national holiday became Veterans Day by act of Congress on May 26, 1954.
Today the veterans’ organizations are at risk of losing their voice. In the last 20 years the VFW lost a third of its 1.5 million members. Thousands of posts have closed, and its members are aging, with 400,000 members over 80. The American Legion has lost a million of its 3.1 million members.
To complicate matters the military culture has changed, with combat that is dependent upon computers and remote vehicles, openness to gay service members, and women in combat roles. The new veteran culture is so different from the old culture that many posts just can’t bridge the culture gap. There are some success stories where posts have found ways to bridge the gap. Sometimes it is just a matter of one energetic new service member setting a new pace for an old post, but there is a real struggle for all these organizations to keep going with the ideals of their origins.