Veterans Day properly and appropriately honors our veterans, but it also honors an ideal that now seems naive but still survives as a matter of international law. Veterans Day originally honored the truce that ended the fighting in World War I and was called Armistice Day after that agreement.
In the stunned aftermath of that conflict, the combatant nations believed that they had fought the war to end all wars. Indeed, the United States and France collaborated on a treaty that its signers hoped would effectively outlaw war among civilized nations.
Called the Kellogg-Briand pact after the U.S. secretary of state and the French foreign minister who negotiated it, the treaty called “for the renunciation of war as an instrument of international policy.”
Signed in 1928 at the White House, the treaty began to unravel almost immediately with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1933. A nation that thought itself done with war would soon be calling on a new generation of young men to fight another one.
In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day to honor all of our veterans, whose numbers now stand at over 23 million. In 1968, the holiday was moved to the fourth Monday in October. But in a rare instance of Americans giving up a three-day weekend, 10 years later it was moved back to Nov. 11, in honor of the special significance of the guns falling silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
The Kellogg-Briand pact proved woefully ineffective, but it survives in international law and as part of the United Nations’ charter. On this day we honor both our veterans and the possibility, no matter how remote, that their service might one day lead to a world without war.