On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the Allied powers signed an armistice with Germany in Rethondes, France. After more than four years of the most savage fighting the world had ever seen, The Great War had come to an end. World War I was one of the most devastating conflicts in human history, leaving 6.6 million civilians and 8.5 million soldiers dead — including more than 116,000 Americans. An average of 6,000 soldiers died every day during the war, and more than 21 million were wounded.
A year after the ceasefire agreement was signed, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919: “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 … ”
Wilson expressed “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.” Wilson’s message was simultaneously a sober meditation on the sacrifices of our armed forces and a celebration of the world they were helping to build.
Of course, the world wasn’t free from violent German imperialism and expansionism for long. Only two decades after the first Armistice Day, the German invasion of Poland started a Second World War that quickly engulfed the planet in even more vicious conflict than the first. Although estimates vary, roughly 50 million people lost their lives in World War II, making it the largest and most destructive war of all time. More than 400,000 American soldiers were killed, while another 670,000 were wounded.
Although Armistice Day was observed to honor those who had served in World War I, American soldiers were called upon to fight in World War II and the Korean War only decades later.
In an effort to recognize all Americans who had served, the 83rd Congress voted to change the holiday by replacing the word “Armistice” with the word “Veterans” on June 1, 1954. This led to the “Veterans Day Proclamation” issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower four months later: “In order to ensure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose.”
The “Salute our Heroes” festival is taking place this Saturday in downtown Topeka, and it’s an opportunity to “join hands in the common purpose” and support local veterans.
In the middle of the 20th century, members of Congress and President Eisenhower understood that every veteran deserves to be recognized for his or her service. The formal establishment of Veterans Day is also a reminder to the rest of us: As we go about our business every day, we’re guarded by hundreds of thousands of Americans who have taken an oath to defend our Constitution and our country.
On Nov. 11, 1918, Wilson declared, “The arbitrary power of the military caste of Germany, which once could secretly and of its own single choice disturb the peace of the world, is discredited and destroyed.” At the time, it was inconceivable that German aggression would cause another bloody global cataclysm only two decades later. But the war came, and American soldiers courageously took up arms once again.
World War I was often referred to as the “war to end all wars,” and World War II proved how naïve that declaration was. We should remember this lesson in 2017.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.