Remember: Memorial Day and Veterans Day are different holidays

By Matt Rooney

This is a public service announcement, Save Jerseyans, because notwithstanding the increasing politicization of our American culture, there hasn’t appeared to be a correlating increase in civic wisdom and historical knowledge (thanks, public schools):

You’re commemorating Memorial Day this weekend. Not Veterans Day.

Some quick history…

Memorial Day (celebrated annually on the final Monday of May) is nevertheless a different, distinct holiday from Veterans Day which is fixed on November 11th. Veterans Day is broader; we honor each and every U.S. military veteran from all wars and foreign engagements. What would eventually be referred to as ‘Armistace Day’ under Calvin Coolidge actualy began with a November 11, 1919 proclamation from New Jersey’s Woodrow Wilson honoring “[t]he soldiers and people of the European Allies” who “had fought and endured for more than four years to uphold the barrier of civilization against the aggressions of armed force” in World War I.

Eisenhower signed a bill formally making it a national holiday on May 26, 1954. Less than a month later, Congress amended the law to replace “Armistice” with “Veterans.” [Fun and useful fact: you may often see it spelled with an apostrophe before the “s” at the end of the word veteran, but the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has officially explained that’s not appropriate “because it is not a day that ‘belongs’ to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans.

The idea of a Memorial Day, remembering specifically those who died in service to the United States, is considerably older. It began with less formal but widespread remembrances of Civil War dead by local communities (both in the North and the South) who would gather at or in cemeteries, give speeches, and decorate the graves of the fallen. The war-time practice accelerated following the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865.

In the 1990s, the practice became more formalized and was expanded to encompass the dead of all U.S. military conflicts. The first presidential proclamation formalizing the holiday was signed by LBJ on May 26, 1966; Congress subsequently passed a concurrent resolution. [An aside: contemporaries believed the holiday’s origins could be traced to Waterloo, New York, and LBJ and Congress both said so (LBJ’ proclamation named Waterloo as the birthplace of the holiday), but that popular theory has since been discredited by researchers.]

There isn’t a bad day to thank a veteran. If you run into one this weekend at the beach, your local parade or a friend’s barbecue? And you feel a desire to thank him or her for their service to this greatest country in the history of man? Go for it. By all means.

All of those remembered on Memorial Day are veterans. Not all veterans are remembered on Memorial Day because, thankfully, most of them came home when the wars were over.

For those who did not? And hundreds of thousands haven’t, going back the Revolution? We will (and should) always be haunted and inspired by President Lincoln’s immortal words from the Gettysburg Address which perfectly capture the spirit of the then-future holiday:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.