Isolationism: how Armistice Day became Veterans Day

The early history of Armistice Day illustrates the ecstasy and agony of the United States in the aftermath of its first major encounter in a modern, foreign war. On the one hand, the observance of Nov. 11 as the day on which the armistice was signed to end World War I signified much joy, with troops marching on that date in various cities for many years, especially during the 1920s. Veterans would be accorded special status on Armistice Day, as in 1926 when a traffic judge in New York City suspended sentences on all veterans so they might march. And the wearing of the red poppy - the scarlet flower native to the European battlefields - became a proud patriotic gesture that seemed to multiply with each passing year.

At the same time, Armistice Day would have negative overtones - a day set aside to confirm the nation's growing insularity from the problems of the world. That the European Continent was different, and in an unfavorable way, was a widespread notion among political leaders in the 1920s and '30s. ''While we recognize the obligations arising from the war and the common dictates of humanity which ever bind us in a friendly consideration for other people, our main responsibility is for America,'' said President Calvin Coolidge on Nov. 11, 1926. ''In the present state of the world that responsibility is more grave than it was at any other time,'' he went on. ''The margin of safety in human affairs is never very broad, as we have seen from the experience of the last dozen years. If the American spirit fails, what hope has the world?''

After the Great Depression, the notion of insularity deepened. Political leaders did not accept that the price of peace was more than the sum of individual nations doing business as usual. Progress toward peace, said President Herbert Hoover on Armistice Day, 1931, requires ''no treaties, no documents, and no commitments. It requires only that each nation realize the situation that exists; that it contribute in its own policies and within its own best interest to the building of goodwill and the rebuilding of confidence.''

Some viewed the situation differently. One was Edward W. Bok, a retired editor of Ladies' Home Journal, who sponsored a Peace Award in 1924. Bok, a millionaire, believed that the nation's isolationist path was unwise and that the citizenry's best minds, motivated by a $50,000 prize, could bring forth proposals more practical than the views held in Washington.

More than 22,000 entries representing big-name and no-name Americans inundated the administrative offices of the Peace Award. The winner was Charles E. Levermore, secretary of the New York Peace Society and former president of Adelphi College. Levermore's plan was eminently modest and sensible: Immediate American membership in the Permanent Court of International Justice and full cooperation with the controversial League of Nations.

By raising the issue of internationalism, however, Levermore's proposal fueled the fires of isolationists, who declared an all-out war on the World Court and League. As a result, President Coolidge retreated further into the corners of nationalism, and the sincere attempt by Bok even became the object of a Senate investigation into the Peace Award's funding and advertising techniques.

National inaction on reaching out and touching the world after World War I helped ensure that Armistice Day would not be observed in the context of America's only foreign war. Nov. 11, in sum, would become Veterans Day.

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