The Secret History of Veterans Day.

Fighting in the First World War stopped at 11:00 AM on 11 November 1918. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed 11 November of that year to be a national holiday, “Armistice Day.” It was supposed to be a one-off. The next year, Wilson proclaimed the Sunday nearest 11 November to be Armistice Sunday so that churches could devote a day to recalling the lost and pondering the difficulties of peace. In 1921 Congress declared a national holiday on 11 November to coincide with the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Thereafter most states made 11 November a state holiday.

The American Legion campaigned for additional payments to military veterans on the grounds that wartime inflation had eroded the value of their pay. Civilian employees of the federal government had received pay adjustments, so veterans should receive them as well to “restore the faith of men sorely tried by what they feel to be National ingratitude and injustice.” There were a lot of veterans: 3,662,374 of them. All were voters, so Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Act in 1921, which promised immediate payments to veterans. This would amount to about $2.24 billion. That was a lot of money, especially since Congress didn’t propose a means to pay for it. President Warren Harding initially opposed the Act unless it was paired with new revenue, then came to favor a pension system. Harding managed to block the legislation in 1921 and again in 1922. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed a new bill in 1924, saying that “patriotism…bought and paid for is not patriotism.” Congress over-rode the veto.

The World War Adjusted Compensation Act, also known as the Bonus Act, applied to veterans who had served between 5 April 1917 and 1 July 1919. They would receive $1.00 for each day served in the United States and $1.25 for each day served outside the United States. The maximum pay-out was capped at $625. The ultimate payment date was set for the recipient’s birthday in 1945. Thus, it functioned as a deferred savings or insurance plan. However, a provision of the law allowed veterans to borrow against their eventual payment.

In 1926 Congress urged the President to issue a proclamation each year on the commemoration of Armistice Day. It also ordered creation of a new and grander Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In 1929 the Great Depression began. Veterans suffered just like everyone else. Many of them began to borrow against the deferred compensation. By the middle of 1932, 2.5 million veterans had borrowed $1.369 billion.

In April 1932 the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington was completed. In Spring and Summer 1932 about 17,000 veterans gathered in Washington, DC, to demand immediate payment of their compensation. Accompanied by thousands of family members, they camped out in shacks on Anacostia Flats. The papers called them the “Bonus Army.” In mid-June 1932, the House of Representatives passed a bill for immediate repayment, but the Senate rejected it. At the end of July 1932 the Washington police tried to evict the “Bonus Marchers,” but failed. President Herbert Hoover then had the Army toss them out.

In 1936 the Democratic majorities in Congress passed a bill to allow immediate payment of the veterans’ compensation, over-riding President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s veto. A bunch of rich-kid jokers at Princeton soon formed the “Veterans of Future Wars” to demand immediate payment of a bonus to them since they were likely to get killed in the next war, before they had a chance to spend a post-war bonus.

In May 1938 Congress passed a law making 11 November an annual holiday for federal employees. In 1954 Congress changed the name to Veterans Day.

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