Though Memorial Day and Veterans Day are two separate holidays, both days seem vaguely synonymous and appear to celebrate the same thing: the men and women who serve in the United States military. However, in reality, Memorial Day is much older than Veterans Day and each holiday commemorates different people in the U.S. armed services.
Memorial Day stemmed from a desire to honor the dead after the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, commander of the Great Army of the Republic through General Order No. 11, selected May 30 as Decoration Day.
General Logan chose that date at the time to honor his fallen comrades precisely because no battles took place on that day. He made clear that the purpose of the day was to remember those who had died fighting and to decorate "the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."
After WWI, the holiday was adjusted to honor all Americans who had died fighting in any war, not just the Civil War. In 1971 with congressional approval of the National Holiday Act, it became a federal holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. In December 2000, a "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed. This addition marked 3 p.m. local time as a point to "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps.'"
In contrast, the concept of Veterans Day began with the end of WWI. While "the war to end all wars," officially concluded on June 28, 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, the true halt of violent action came months earlier on Nov. 11, 1918 when an armistice between the Americans and the Germans went into effect. This day is generally regarded as the end of "The Great War."
In November 1919, President Wilson proposed the original idea of Veterans Day to remember the armistice as well as the "heroism of those who died in the country's service." Nov. 11 would be a day to promote peace throughout the world and would feature parades, public meetings and a short break in business until 11 a.m.
On May 13, 1938, Act 52 went into effect and officially made Nov. 11 "Armistice Day" and a federal holiday. This day was dedicated to the veterans of WWI. But after WWII, with America's largest mobilization of troops, multiple veterans organizations called for a title change. On June 1, 1954 the word "armistice" was replaced with "veterans" and Nov. 11 officially became what it is today — Veterans Day and a holiday to honor the veterans of all wars.
Despite the fact that Veterans Day and Memorial Day both have the ring of a federal holiday that commemorates those in the armed forces, Veterans Day officially honors those who have served in the military in any way, while Memorial Day formally remembers those who gave their lives in the service and protection of America's freedom.