Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier

President Warren G. Harding’s funeral speech and the burial of an unidentified U.S. World War I soldier at Arlington National Cemetery highlighted the contributions of the United States to that war and provided Americans with a symbol of the war’s casualties.

Summary of Event

Soon after Arlington National Cemetery Arlington National Cemetery was established, U.S. government officials approved a tomb for unknown Civil War soldiers, and in 1905 leaders created a monument honoring unknown soldiers from the War of 1812. U.S. leaders were aware of the Allies’ efforts after the World War I armistice to honor their troops’ and civilians’ wartime sacrifices: On November 11, 1920, French leaders oversaw the burial of an unknown French soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, and English authorities transferred an unidentified English soldier from a French cemetery for interment in Westminster Abbey. Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Unknown Soldier
[kw]Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier (Nov. 11, 1921)
[kw]Unknown Soldier, Harding Eulogizes the (Nov. 11, 1921)
[kw]Soldier, Harding Eulogizes the Unknown (Nov. 11, 1921)
Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Unknown Soldier
[g]United States;Nov. 11, 1921: Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier[05460]
[c]Monuments;Nov. 11, 1921: Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier[05460]
[c]World War I;Nov. 11, 1921: Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier[05460]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 11, 1921: Harding Eulogizes the Unknown Soldier[05460]
Harding, Warren G.
[p]Harding, Warren G.;Unknown Soldier eulogy
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Unknown Soldier
Fish, Hamilton
Pershing, John J.
Younger, Edward F.

The coffin of the Unknown Soldier is brought down the steps of the U.S. Capitol to be carried by horse-drawn wagon to Arlington National Cemetary.

(Library of Congress)

In December of 1920, Congressman Hamilton Fish introduced legislation calling for the decoration (with highest honors) and burial of an unknown U.S. soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The modern warfare introduced during World War I—including airplanes, machine guns, and gas—had cost the United States thousands of casualties during the year it fought. Politicians felt that the country had been profoundly affected in the process of supporting its allies, and they wanted international recognition of Americans’ contributions to the war.

Fish’s proposal was approved, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill on March 4, 1921, the day before Warren G. Harding’s inauguration. Although many people wanted the ceremony honoring the Unknown Soldier to occur on Memorial Day, leaders delayed the event. U.S. officials wanted the Unknown Soldier to be someone who could be mourned by all surviving relatives and friends of soldiers who had not returned, and so they were careful to ensure the soldier’s anonymity. Ultimately, an unidentified American who had fought and died with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was selected.

Approximately four million American soldiers had served in the AEF during World War I. An estimated 118,516 American soldiers died, and 42,453 bodies were returned to the U.S. for burial. The remaining bodies were buried in cemeteries created near the front at Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Saint-Mihiel, and Somme. Personnel from the U.S. Graves Registration division analyzed corpses and any items related to them in an attempt to identify them, but they were unable to identify 1,647 soldiers.

On October 22, military personnel exhumed bodies from four cemeteries and placed them in similar coffins, all of which were transported to the Hotel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne. Guards shifted the coffins during the night to prevent the identification of any specific coffin, and they burned all records associated with these soldiers. Initially, officials asked General John J. Pershing to decide which of the bodies would become the Unknown Soldier, but he declined, saying that the selection was best made by a peer. Officers selected U.S. Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger from a group of World War I veterans who had served in occupied Germany and asked him to select the Unknown Soldier on October 24. Younger accepted, and after a period of contemplation, he placed white roses on one of the coffins.

The chosen coffin was placed inside a larger casket and transported on the USS Olympia from Le Havre, France, to Washington, D.C. When the Unknown Soldier arrived at Washington Navy Yard on November 9, Pershing met the ship and accompanied the body to the Capitol. A military guard transferred the body to the Capitol’s rotunda, where Harding placed a U.S. shield and a wreath of roses on the coffin. The Washington Post estimated that two hundred thousand people viewed the Unknown Soldier’s casket as it lay in state on November 10, 1921.

A bugler announced the ceremony’s beginning at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. Harding had designated Armistice Day as a national holiday and requested that all flags at U.S. government buildings fly at half-staff to express respect and patriotism for all U.S. war casualties. Eight World War I Congressional Medal of Honor winners flanked the Unknown Soldier’s flag-covered caisson from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery, and both Harding and Pershing walked with the procession. Crowds cheered for Wilson, who had recently had a stroke and rode in a carriage (this proved to be his last public appearance). Veterans, politicians, and military leaders paraded to the cemetery with members of patriotic, service, and philanthropic groups.

After arriving at Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater, Harding and dignitaries assembled onstage heard Reverend John Axton lead a prayer and observed two minutes of silence. Five thousand people had tickets that allowed them to observe the ceremony inside the amphitheater, and at least one hundred thousand mourners stood throughout the cemetery’s grounds, listening to the ceremony through loudspeakers. Communications technology, including amplifiers and repeaters to achieve distance, enabled people around the nation to participate in the service. Telephone lines transmitted Harding’s speech to Chicago, San Francisco, and Madison Square Garden in New York, and the eulogy’s text was sent around the world by wire.

Harding solemnly expressed Americans’ devotion, appreciation, and reverence for the Unknown Soldier as a symbol of the sacrifices Americans had made on the battlefields and the home front. He spoke of the horrors of war and expressed his gratitude to the Unknown Soldier for giving his life in the effort to preserve people’s freedom. Although the soldier’s origins were unknown, Harding remarked, his commitment to the United States and his sacrifices were understood by many.

Harding told those who had lost family members in the war that paying tribute to the Unknown Soldier might give families comfort, and he vowed to secure peace. He expressed hope that the Great War would end all wars and urged listeners to pray for healing and peace before placing the Congressional Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross on the Unknown Soldier’s coffin. Foreign leaders presented their country’s highest military awards to the Unknown Soldier, and military personnel buried the Unknown Soldier on the amphitheater’s terrace in a grave lined with French soil.

The response to Harding’s words was enthusiastic. Americans were receptive to Harding’s hope that the Great War would be the last war; they supported U.S. efforts limiting weaponry and promoting global peace. On the day after Harding spoke at the Unknown Soldier ceremony, an international disarmament and peace conference began, and many of those attending had been in Washington, D.C., during the Armistice Day holiday. Touched by the ceremony for the Unknown Soldier and by Americans’ sincere response to the war, empathetic allies were more willing to cooperate to plan disarmament strategies.


Harding’s eulogy united Americans still reeling from the catastrophic destruction caused by World War I, and the Unknown Soldier’s burial was a welcome symbol whose importance only intensified as time passed and wars continued to affect Americans. Most people identified with the Unknown Soldier and valued principles for which he and other U.S. combatants had fought in Europe. Americans claimed the Unknown Soldier as their own and viewed him as the personification of soldierly traits such as courage, dedication, and loyalty.

Americans embraced the ideas about war casualties that Harding and politicians had expressed, and they recognized that the Unknown Soldier represented all unknown combatants either interred or missing in France. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier provided grieving relatives a place to visit and mourn when they lacked a known gravesite and was a source of solace and closure for those who waited but never knew their soldier’s fate.

During the decades that followed, Congress approved enhancements to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and military guards developed a strict protocol to protect the tomb from vandals. Additional unknown soldiers from other twentieth century wars were entombed nearby until advances in DNA testing made anonymity virtually impossible. The Unknown Soldier’s tomb became a shrine visited by many world leaders and millions of tourists each year. Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Unknown Soldier

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Peter. In Honored Glory: The Story of Arlington. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. The best chronicle of post-World War I efforts to recognize unknown soldiers in Europe and of the U.S. selection and burial of an unknown World War I soldier.
  • Dean, John W. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2004. Discusses Harding’s speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the context of the subsequent disarmament conference in Washington, D.C. Also includes discussion of Harding’s policies regarding veterans.
  • Peters, James Edward. Arlington National Cemetery, Shrine to America’s Heroes. 2d ed. Bethesda, Md.: Woodbine House, 2000. Text and photographs depict the 1921 ceremony and show where Pershing, Younger, and others relevant to the 1921 selection and ceremony are buried in Arlington.
  • Reynolds, Quentin. Known but to God: The Story of the Unknown Soldier. New York: Dell, 1963. Most factual account of events related to choosing the Unknown Soldier in French and U.S. ceremonies. Speculates about the Unknown Soldier’s geographic home and the unit in which he might have served based on statistical and demographic data on American troops in World War I.

Outbreak of World War I

World War I

First Battle of the Marne

Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers

United States Enters World War I

Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I

Formation of the American Legion

Treaty of Versailles

Washington Disarmament Conference

All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of War