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What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

The US has two public holidays to honor those who have served their country, but what are the differences between Memorial and Veterans Day?

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What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?
AGUSTIN PAULLIER AFP

Those around the country will celebrate Memorial Day this Monday 31 May. Memorial Day was established as a holiday to honor those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. The holiday began to be celebrated after the American Civil War and was given permanent status on the public calendar in 1971. Veterans Day takes place on 11 November each year, while the date of Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May.

 Memorial Day fast facts

The Veterans Affairs Administration traces the history back to 1869, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Union veterans, established “Decoration Day.” On Decoration Day, those around the country were encouraged to cover the graves of those who died in the Civil War with flowers. The date of 30 May was chosen as it was believed that “flowers would be in bloom all over the country.”

More widespread celebration of Memorial Day began after World War I. Over 116,000 US soldiers died during World War I, and while the US and its allies were victorious the country was in mourning.

Veterans Day fast facts

Similarly, the history of Veterans Day is tied to World War I. In November 1919, President Wilson announced a public holiday to celebrate the armistice that ended the war. During his proclamation, President Wilson highlighted the victories winning the war brought but also reminded the world that “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service.

World War I was considered in its time to the “the war to end all wars.” While the leaders in those years could not see it, an even greater war was coming. In 1938, years before the US joined World War II, the US Congress formally established “Armistice Day” as a day to celebrate veterans of World War I and the hope for world peace. However, after the US got involved in World War II and the Korean War shortly after, “Armistice Day” did not share the same significance.

Calls from the public and the military to establish a day to celebrate all veterans grew louder, and in 1954 Congress altered the “Act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in its place the word "Veterans." That same year in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former military official himself proclaimed that Veterans Day would be celebrated annually on November 11.