Monday, November 11, 2019

Still Life with Robin: Eleven Eleven Nineteen

DC's World War I Memorial
Photo by Tim Evanson via Creative Commons
by Peggy Robin

This Monday, November 11, is Veterans Day. Having the holiday on a Monday this year is just a one-in-seven chance; it’s not one of those federally-mandated three-day holiday weekends.

Once upon a time – that time being the 8-year period from 1971 to 1978 -- Veterans Day was indeed one of those holidays that would bounce to the nearest Monday. But after some sustained and effective lobbying by the very moving and very, very elderly veterans of World War I, Congress resolved to put the holiday back on its original historic date, November 11, Armistice Day, marking the end of The Great War, as it was called by those who lived through it. They also called it “The War to End All Wars.” Now it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that and thinking it could be true. It certainly didn’t take all that long for another war to come along that would make The Great War seem more like a prequel to The Big One. 

This November 11th is the 100 year centenary of the celebration of Armistice Day. Yes, it was in 1918 – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – that the war came to an end. But the holiday of Armistice Day was declared by President Wilson one year later, on 11/11/1919….and we’re one hundred years on from that first proclamation.

So how did Armistice Day turn into Veterans Day?

A few years after the end of World War II there were various proposals floating around to create a holiday to honor those who served in that war. But what should be the date? There was V-E Day, and V-J Day; still, they couldn’t both be made holidays. The idea of turning Armistice Day into a catchall day to honor all who served in all wars had a certain efficiency to it – although most World War I veterans very much resented having their historic victory turned into something far more generic. But they were outnumbered. Even so, it took quite a while for the movement to build steam. It wasn’t until 1954 that Congress voted to rename and refocus the holiday, creating Veterans Day on November 11.

So, from 1954 to 1971, Veterans Day was on a fixed date, 11/11. Then we had eight years of the second Monday in November serving that function. And from 1979 to present, we’ve had another 40 years of Veterans Day stuck on November 11.

It’s been eight years since the last American veteran of World War I passed away: Frank Buckles, who died at age 110 on February 27, 2011, was the last one. (If you would like to know who was the last surviving veteran of World War I anywhere in the world, then it’s Florence Green, a British girl who enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the age of 17 and worked in the officer’s mess. She died on February 4, 2012, a few days short of her 111th birthday.)

Now that there are no more World War I vets left to object, I think it’s time to consider the nearest-Monday thing again. Almost everyone can do more with a three-day weekend than a day off in the middle of the work week. I would bet if you took a poll of veterans and their families, you’d find it wins by a large margin.

Here's another proposal that might be even better: Move the Veterans Day federal holiday to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November – that is, Election Day. That way, millions would get an official federal holiday, which would make voting much easier for those who don’t have time to stand in line to vote on a work day. This has especially been a problem in states that have reduced the number of polling places and cut back on or disallowed early voting. A federal holiday, combining Veterans Day and Election Day, would do a lot to expand access to the polls. What better way to honor the sacrifices made by those who fought for our freedoms?

Of course, the chance of getting Congress to agree on a simple thing like moving a holiday, is, in the present climate, close to nil. But on this Veterans Day 2019, 100 years after the first one, it’s a good time to fight for a change!

Still Life with Robin is usually published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays, but I saved this one for the Veterans Day holiday on Monday.  

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