Veterans Day marks the anniversary of the end of World War I on Novermber 11th, 1918.
Mitchell Yockelson, a historian at the National Archives in Washington, DC, talks with anchor Marco Weman about why the first world war has been largely forgotten in the United States.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Today we observe Veterans Day. It’s a reminder of our nation’s debt to those who have served in the military and those who are serving even as we speak. We also want to remember how the holiday came to be observed at this time of year. The day itself, which was yesterday, November 11, marks the anniversary of the end of World War I. Mitchell Yockelson is a historian at the National Archives in Washington. Let’s just recall, Mitchell, the First World War’s enormous toll: 9 million soldiers dead, 21 million wounded. What did US President Woodrow Wilson have in mind when he first proclaimed Armistice Day, the precursor to Veterans Day, in 1919?
Mitchell Yockelson: I think a lot of it had to do with commemorating the fact that the United States did fight in this war, and as you mentioned, the high casualty rates. There were about 53,000 American soldiers who died in combat on the battlefields of the western front, which was in France and Belgium, and another 50,000 died from disease such as the influenza. It was very important to President Wilson to make sure that the American participation in this conflict, which he would call “the war to end all wars,” that the Americans were recognized for this effort.
Werman: You know, I was in London last week and was struck by the degree to which even the young current generation seems connected to that history that happened a hundred years ago. You know, they’re buying poppies, TV documentaries remind the Brits of the Great War. By contrast here, Veterans Day for many, though surely not any veterans, just seems like another banking holiday. Is the Great War forgotten here in the US?
Yockelson: It is, and it’s interesting you point out about being in Europe. I’ve been to London many times, and you go into a chain bookstore there you’ll see a huge collection of World War I books in their history section. If you go to the United States and go into what few chain bookstores exist here, you might find a dozen or so books. I think the problem, if it is a problem, is that when the troops came back in 1919 from overseas, a lot of them didn’t talk about it and they kind of wanted to move forward. But when they were really ready to start discussing the First World War, all of a sudden we got into the late 1930s and then all of a sudden 1941, and we’re mired in another greater war. And I think in that sense, World War I kind of became eclipsed. And then as we’ve gone through history, we look at our great conflicts, certainly World War II is considered enormous and we study that a lot more. And then also, bookending that is the Civil War, so the First World War kind of gets caught in the middle and forgotten, as you say.
Werman: When did Armistice Day become Veterans Day, and do you think that was good branding as far as historical memory goes?
Yockelson: It became Veterans Day in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped pass that through Congress, and I think it was a good idea because, again, Armistice Day had kind of been forgotten at this point, and the idea to encompass all veterans on this day is important in my mind.
Werman: So when Veterans Day rolls around, what do you find yourself kind of reflecting on? Is it the horrific battles of World War I or are you thinking about today’s US war vets who are struggling in many ways to re-adjust?
Yockelson: Well, I’ve never served in the military but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many veterans through my work at the National Archives, and I also teach part-time at the US Naval Academy so I get to meet the future veterans of America. And for me it’s a time to reflect on those individuals who are now serving and served in the past, my dad was a World War II veteran, just to look back and say, you know, these are people that came forward, whether they were drafted or whether they enlisted. And they were willing to put on a uniform and serve for our country. That’s something I really appreciate and I hope will never take for granted.
Werman: Mitchell Yockelson is a historian at the National Archives in Washington. Mitchell, thanks a lot.
Yockelson: Alright, good. Thank you.
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