When Veterans Day wasn't in November

Veterans Day has its roots in Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of World War I. Many US citizens know that – or at least learned it at one point in school. But here’s what many don’t know, or have forgotten: Veterans Day had a walkabout period.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
A military honor guards from different branches of the U.S. Armed Forces march along the Vietnam Veterans Wall Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, during the commemoration of Veterans Day.

November 11 is a fitting date for Veterans Day. After all, it is a holiday that has its roots in Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of fighting in World War I. And the guns of the Great War fell silent at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918.

Many US citizens know that – or at least learned it at one point in school. But here’s what many don’t know, or have forgotten: Veterans Day had a walkabout period. From 1971 to 1978, the federal government officially celebrated the holiday on the fourth Monday in October. It wasn’t linked to the end of any war at all, chronologically speaking.

The cause of this date-shuffling was the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. Signed into law by then-President Johnson, this bill’s purpose was to create more three-day weekends for federal employees.

Its backers envisioned a spillover effect in which more and more of the country would get this bunched leisure time, perhaps boosting holiday-related businesses. It’s unclear whether they foresaw holiday mattress and new car blowout sales spreading across the nation as well.

The Holiday Act took effect in 1971. Under the new law, George Washington’s Birthday was moved from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Memorial Day, formerly May 30, was moved to the last Monday in May. Labor Day was enshrined on the first Monday in September, while Columbus Day was shifted from October 12 to the second Monday in October.

And Veterans Day got the boot from Nov. 11 to the last October Monday.

Lots of veterans groups did not like this switch from the beginning. They thought it disrespected the holiday’s origin. While most states went along and switched their own observance of Veterans Day to match that of the federal government, two did not: Mississippi and South Dakota.

These holdouts quickly began to attract defectors. According to a US Army history of the holiday, Louisiana and Wisconsin went back to Nov. 11 in 1972. In 1974, seven more states followed suit, including Kentucky and Connecticut. Sixteen flipped back in 1975.

Washington waved the white flag. In September 1975, Congress passed an amendment to the holiday act restoring Veterans Day to Nov. 11, effective as of 1978. President Ford quickly signed it into law.

“This action supports the expressed will of the overwhelming majority of our State Legislatures, all major veterans service organizations and many individuals,” said Ford at the time. “I believe restoration of the observance of Veterans Day to November 11 will help preserve in the hearts and lives of all Americans the spirit of patriotism, the love of country and the willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good symbolized by this very special day.”

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