At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, 101 years ago, with great ceremony, what had so vainly promised to be “The War to End All Wars,” now known as World War I, came to an end with the elaborate signing of an Armistice, an official laying down of arms, at the lavish Palace of Versailles outside of Paris, France.
The merciful ending of that protracted four-year conflict, the first industrialized war, which produced horrors never before imagined, was enabled by the entry by the United States, which tipped the balance in favor of allies Britain, France, and Italy against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, greatly reshaping the political world map, especially in the Middle East, and establishing the United States as a true world power.
Because of this, Armistice Day would be observed for decades afterwards in the U.S. and became a national holiday in 1938.
However, that “Great War,” and the one-sided treaty which ended it, not only did not “end all wars,” but laid the foundation that gave rise to the even more widespread and devastating Second World War, most notable for killing far more civilians (in the tens of millions) than actual military personnel in battle.
After Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the victorious Allied Forces in that war who had knew this devastation well, became president of the U.S., he authorized the change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all American veterans, living as well as fallen, of all conflicts (including Korea) for their bravery, service, and sacrifice, for which the nation can be truly grateful.
Indeed, today more than ever, the day is also an occasion to recognize the present challenges that face veterans year-round, as well as their remarkable triumphs in overcoming these trials, often in spite of daunting odds and public indifference, including an alarmingly high rate of suicides and unprecedented physical and psychic difficulties produced by modernday weapons and technology.
Our veterans are special family members of all of us.
Another Remembrance in the Fight for Freedom While Veteran’s Day traces has its origins to a conflict that took place 5,000 miles away from American soil, this date has another compelling historical reason to be remembered: for a singular, profoundly emblematic moment in an even deeper and longer conflict that still persists today right here in America.
November 11 is the date in 1831, when Nat Turner, at age 31, was hanged, and his body subsequently skinned, beheaded and otherwise mutilated in Jerusalem, Virginia, as punishment for leading a two-day revolt against slavery in which approximately sixty European-descendant men, women, and children were killed.
The barbaric destruction of his corpse was meant both to frighten the enslaved population and to obliterate any memory of him, which attests to the charismatic and mystical power that he held, as an educated, literate reader and interpreter of the Bible and of natural signs and omens, who was born in the same year (1800) as future radical Abolitionist John Brown and in the same month as the hanging of Gabriel (known as Gabriel Prosser)
for the rebellion he conspired to lead near Richmond, Virginia.
In all some 45 persons would be excuted for their alleged roles in Turner’s uprising, but, far more ominously White mobs and militias would randomly murder approximately 120 African Americans in the region in retaliation for an incident in which most of them played no part.
The hysteria generated by Turner’s revolt also led to a great number of radical new laws and restrictions governing the lives of enslaved persons.
The Judgment of History We might view the rightness or wrongness of Nat Turner’s actions today, especially on the day we contemplate the many sacrifices made by veterans in the defense of American freedom, the revolt he led can only be fully understood within in its full historical context, by comparison, for example, to the number of lives destroyed by centuries of legalized slavery, giving rise to the memorable truth uttered by Frederick Douglass:
“Slaveholders have no rights more than any other thief or pirate. They have forfeited even the right to live, and if the slave should put every one of them to the sword tomorrow, who dare pronounce the penalty disproportionate to the crime?”
Even so, we know that the violence that violence produces is never a solution, but always has a cause, which, if understood, addressed and eliminated, can bring needless violence to an end. If not, we may learn from the words of Dwight Eisenhower, a career military man and hero of World War II: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
November 11 is a time to honor all who have died and all who live for the cause of true freedom, from ignorance, fear, hate, greed, and divisiveness.