How Can Veterans' Organizations Serve the Nation?

From their very nature, veterans’ groups are powerful instruments in the field of forces called public opinion. Despite some civilian fickleness, as mentioned above, the mass attitude of any nation toward its veterans is one of gratitude and respect. “The Only National Debt We Can Never Pay Is the Debt We Owe to the Victorious Union Soldiers,” read a great banner that floated over the Grand Review of May 1865, when for two days Grant’s and Sherman’s men marched in cadenced step down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Although a very old proverb says that republics are ungrateful, yet the fact remains that America has always taken pride in its war veterans, even in the days when it did little or no planning for their practical welfare and wouldn’t, it seems, give them anything but love. The prestige of our military heroes is shown by the election of several presidents almost solely on their war records. Since our government began, uncounted thousands of “old soldiers” have been elected to federal, state, and municipal office, at least partly on the score of their war records. The Fourth of July, Decoration Day, Armistice Day, and other anniversaries are times of remembrance when ex-soldiers don the faded uniform—usually as members of veterans’ societies—and receive the oratory and applause of their fellow citizens. Veterans are the living symbols of American patriotism. And they are the spokesmen for those who did not come back.

Guardians of the faith

Great power means great responsibility. It is natural that veterans like to think of themselves as sentinels of the nation they fought for.

A soldier’s training teaches the citizen that his nation has a claim upon him, even to life itself. About the national destiny he may come to have an almost religious feeling, a sense of deep personal trust. And, since his Army training also fostered pugnacity and aggressiveness, he is sometimes prone to carry this patriotism as a chip on the shoulder. Veterans’ groups, from Washington’s Society of the Cincinnati to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, have had much to say about “one hundred percent Americanism.” They tend to foster preparedness, knowing from experience the value of physical fitness and military training in war, the cost in time and lives of being found unready. Many a veteran, as a man whose loyalties were forged in the white heat of conflict, inclines to “fight the war” for the rest of his life, in reunions, clubs, and caucuses.

Take the Grand Army of the Republic, which for half a century after the Civil War won a reputation for “waving the Bloody Shirt” and keeping alive the issues of that struggle. “Vote as you shot” was a popular slogan in the North, while the United Confederate Veterans consistently glorified “the Lost Cause” of the South. Following World War I, the American Legion looked with suspicion upon the coddling of Germany and also upon pacifist and “radical” groups at home.

A drift toward conservatism—after the tensions, fears, and uncertainties of the war years—can be seen in most of the organizations which veterans form. Like the “old-timers” which they think themselves to be, they often prefer the safe to the experimental. The rare group of veterans which advocates the closed shop, fuller recognition of the right to strike, and conscription of wealth in national crises—as did an organization from World War I called the World War Veterans—seldom attracts a large following in the United States:

The average member of an American veterans’ organization has a middling income, a little business or farm, and a stake in the status quo. And in past times, the most active leaders in American veterans’ groups have been men of even more conservative tendency. Someone may suggest that the dues-paying and reunion-attending veteran is necessarily a citizen of some means. But even when the ex-soldier is down and out, as in the ranks of the Bonus Army of 1932 which marched on Washington, he remains suspicious of “foreign isms” and the proffered hand of professional radicals. That group of tattered citizens gave any stray communist found in its camp the bum’s rush, and even when the Senate turned down its plea, sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the Capitol steps.

Veterans and politicians

In recent times, veterans’ organizations have refused to hitch on to the bandwagon of any one political party. Other countries have had their soldiers’ and sailors’ parties, which developed complete political platforms. Veterans’ groups in Italy and Germany adopted black and brown shirts and promoted an all-fascist program. But a thoroughgoing veterans’ political party has never taken root in the United States. In fact, the average American veteran inclines to be wary of “politicians.” In organized strength he veers away from party alignments and declares for independent interests—whether for veterans as a group, or the welfare of the country as a whole. Even the Grand Army of the Republic, though linked with sectional ties, asserted itself “above and independent of partisan feeling and action.” Wherever it was tempted to break this rule, it weakened its ultimate prestige. Much more carefully, the Legion has refused to lean either toward the Democratic or the Republican side, but remains at all times pro-Legion.

While organized veterans are wary about a tie-up with politicians, politicians will always be found trying to attach themselves to the veterans, treating such organizations with great respect and angling for their support. Men in public life know, to begin with, how effective an organized bloc can become. And in the second place, they know how powerful is the sentiment wielded by and for a class deserving so well of the nation. Lincoln once told a group of Wisconsin farmers that he couldn’t imagine why politicians were always flattering the farmers—unless it was because the farmers cast so many votes. Today he might say the same thing of the veteran.