Tomorrow, Nov. 11, will be commemorated as a Veterans Day of particular significance. It marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought fighting in World War I to a close.
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day a year later. The website of the Library of Congress notes Wilson’s remarks at the time as follows:
“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 and with 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.”
Armistice Day was observed every year for the next two-and-a-half decades, until the outbreak of World War II. The holiday was then changed to reflect the service of both wars’ veterans, and in 1954, revised further with a designation as Veterans Day, honoring all Veterans.
“On that day,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his proclamation ordering the change, “let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting and enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
A short eight years later, Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was now the President, and offered remarks at the Veterans Day National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
Like Eisenhower, he, too, was a veteran. And, like his successor, he presided over a nation in the midst of a new kind of conflict — the Cold War between the U.S., the Soviet Union, and their respective allies.
His remarks still resonate.
“In a world tormented by tension and the possibilities of conflict, we meet in a quiet commemoration of an historic day of peace,” he said.
“In an age that threatens the survival of freedom, we join together to honor those who made our freedom possible. The resolution of the Congress which first proclaimed Armistice Day, described November 11, 1918, as the end of ‘the most destructive, sanguinary and far-reaching war in the history of human annals.’ That resolution expressed the hope that the First World War would be, in truth, the war to end all wars. It suggested that those men who had died had therefore not given their lives in vain.
“It is a tragic fact that these hopes have not been fulfilled, that wars still more destructive and still more sanguinary followed, that man’s capacity to devise new ways of killing his fellow men have far outstripped his capacity to live in peace with his fellow men.
“Some might say, therefore, that this day has lost its meaning, that the shadow of the new and deadly weapons have robbed this day of its great value, that whatever name we now give this day, whatever flags we fly or prayers we utter, it is too late to honor those who died before, and too soon to promise the living an end to organized death.
“But let us not forget that November 11, 1918, signified a beginning, as well as an end. ‘The purpose of all war,’ said Augustine, ‘is peace.’ The First World War produced man’s first great effort in recent times to solve by international cooperation the problems of war. That experiment continues in our present day — still imperfect, still short of its responsibilities, but it does offer a hope that some day nations can live in harmony.
“For our part, we shall achieve that peace only with patience and perseverance and courage — the patience and perseverance necessary to work with allies of diverse interests but common goals, the courage necessary over a long period of time to overcome an adversary skilled in the arts of harassment and obstruction.
“There is no way to maintain the frontiers of freedom without cost and commitment and risk. There is no swift and easy path to peace in our generation. No man who witnessed the tragedies of the last war, no man who can imagine the unimaginable possibilities of the next war, can advocate war out of irritability or frustration or impatience.
“But let no nation confuse our perseverance and patience with fear of war or unwillingness to meet our responsibilities. We cannot save ourselves by abandoning those who are associated with us, or rejecting our responsibilities.
“In the end, the only way to maintain the peace is to be prepared in the final extreme to fight for our country — and to mean it.”