In his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865 — just 41 days before he would be assassinated — President Abraham Lincoln told the nation about the work that remained as the terrible, bloody Civil War drew to a close.
A primary duty, he told the audience that day, would be to take care of the men who fought in the war, as well as the many families that were left behind.
“Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” he said, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace …”
Ever since, Americans have been trying with more or less success to honor the sacrifices made by veterans of our armed forces who leave their homes and their families to defend the nation. In some eras we have been more successful; in others not so much.
Veterans Day, which we observe today, evolved over the years from Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. The name changed to Veterans Day in 1954, nine years after the end of World War II, and one year after the end of the Korean War.
Veterans Day and Memorial Day both were begun to mark the end of wars, but Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, which was intended to honor soldiers who had died in the Civil War by decorating their graves.
Veterans Day was conceived to honor all veterans, living and dead. But the treatment of veterans has varied through the years.
In the wake of the Civil War, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic and became a powerful political force, helping to elect presidents and other national leaders and advocating for veterans.
After World War I, veterans were welcomed home as heroes with parades and celebrations. But the reintegration into the civilian world was rocky. A bill passed in 1924 promised bonuses to the vets, but no money was appropriated.
Then the Great Depression started after the 1929 stock market crash, and many veterans were impoverished. About 20,000 veterans, many with their wives and children, marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932, demanding their bonus payments but President Herbert Hoover called out troops to remove them from encampments on the National Mall. The veterans did get bonuses, in 1945, too late to be of much help.
After World War II, veterans were once again welcomed home with parades. This time, the government promised to do better, and the GI Bill was passed in 1944, even before the war ended.
It created veterans’ hospitals, offered low-interest home mortgages, and — perhaps most important of all — created stipends for vets who wanted to attend college or trade schools after their service. For many veterans, the GI Bill was their ticket out of poverty and into the middle class.
The veterans of the long, unpopular and unsuccessful Vietnam War received little praise at the end of their service, with no parades or celebrations. Most came home after a one-year tour of duty to apathy or antipathy.
The war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975. With the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, the nation began to pay its respects to the war’s veterans, and in 1984, the GI Bill benefits were extended to the Vietnam vets.
In the long war still being fought in the Mideast, we have generally taken better care of our soldiers and recognized the value of their service. The wars have been especially hard on our soldiers and their families, because many have served multiple tours of duty in the war zone. But the nation has been concerned about the status of active duty military as well as our veterans.
When the Washington Post reported in 2007 that some soldiers were getting substandard care at the Army’s Walter Reed hospital in Washington, it exploded into a national scandal. The commanding officer was fired and eventually a new hospital was built in Bethesda. That was the appropriate response.
On this Veterans Day, and really every day, Americans should thank our veterans for all that they have done to keep our nation safe and free.