How Can Veterans' Organizations Serve Themselves?

What do veterans want for themselves, that they can get by organizing?

Soldiers of earlier wars found no such provision as the GI Bill waiting for them at mustering out. Nor was there a Social Security Act in existence, a safety net to protect citizens as a whole from the disasters of unemployment, sickness, incapacity, and old age. And so veterans tended to organize for their common welfare. Like any fraternal order, they marshaled the resources of themselves and their friends to aid each other in time of need and to provide help for the widows and orphans of fellow members. “Every soldier will help a soldier,” ran a saying of post-Civil War days.

The Confederate veteran found himself with a handicap suffered by no other American soldier, since the government under which he had fought ceased to exist when the last shot was fired. In early days of postwar need, he had to shift for himself. Confederate soldiers’ associations were formed to help poor comrades, along with such groups as veterans’ “shoe exchanges” where a one-legged veteran equipped with a peg leg could swap the unwanted half of a pair of shoes with another war casualty. State governments later took over the responsibility for artificial limbs, soldiers’ homes, and pensions for the badly disabled.

In all other instances, the American soldier has been able to turn to the government he defended, with some expectation of aid. Often, however, these benefits were slow in coming. For several years after the Revolution, the national treasury was bare. Some Continental veterans took to beggary, and in several New England states the distress of farmer-veterans who saw their homes and livestock being sold under mortgage foreclosure caused the outbreak in 1786 known as Shays’ Rebellion, led by a veteran of the Fifth Massachusetts, Captain Daniel Shays. Although this incident shocked the country and indirectly helped the formation of a stable and solvent government under the new Constitution, the veterans who took part in the uprising got nothing for themselves. It was put down by force, with the loss of .a few lives.

Like Shays’ Rebellion, the Bonus March of 1932 roused sympathy for the needy veteran, but also fear; it too ended in a rout, with death for two marchers. Toward the end of World War II, under the acute housing shortage in Britain and Australia, “vigilance groups” sprang up among veterans, to commandeer empty houses for homeless servicemen—an end with which almost everybody could sympathize, while distrusting the illegal means.

When things go wrong for the veteran, his impatience after the endless waits that make up a soldier’s life and the habits of collective action in which he and his friends have been trained often lead to taking the shortest road out. Too often, however, it turns into a blind alley.

Legal redress

There are better ways for winning what the veteran wants, without violence to the rights of others or his own good name. A little patience pays big dividends, and popular support will soon range itself beside him. In presenting his case to Congress and the people, a veterans’ organization is clearly the most effective mouthpiece.

Take the situation after the Revolution. When, in the maze of other problems and a lack of unified government, Congress showed no hurry to redeem its pledge in 1780 of free land to veterans, popular clamor at last caused it to pass he Land Law of 1785. Two years later, under pressure from a group composed mainly of New England veterans called the Ohio Company, Congress granted a big tract for settlement along the Ohio River. Handbills calling meetings of “all Old Soldiers and others who wish to enterprise in the Ohio Country” soon set river boats and covered wagons moving westward in a flood. Once this Congressional log jam had been broken, free land for veterans became a slogan after every war—though never much of a reality. Today, of course, other benefits—chiefly more education and certain financial helps in replanting the soldier in civil life—have replaced the promise of a little gray home in the West as the serviceman’s reward.

After the Civil War, federal delay in setting up adequate pensions for the disabled—while crippled men in ragged blue uniforms ground hurdy-gurdies or hawked pencils on street corners—provided one of the main talking points in the G.A.R.’s demand for liberality. This early cold shoulder toward the ex-soldier made Union veterans more aggressive; some of them rushed to the other extreme and demanded pensions with little or no investigation of need. When, under President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, a former claims agent named Corporal Tanner became commissioner of pensions, the latter is reported to have answered Harrison’s invitation to “be liberal with the boys” by promising to “drive a six-mule team through the Treasury.” Many G.A.R. members, realizing that as taxpayers they would have to foot the bill, looked with misgivings on this policy and felt that the Grand Army was going too far. But, beyond question, that organization of veterans first demonstrated the huge power that could be wielded by legal means on behalf of the ex-serviceman.

Modern times

In 1919, when the American Legion was formed, it announced that relief to wounded and disabled veterans would be its first item of business. From the outset, the Legion was a major critic of the rehabilitation program. This program, our first effort of its kind, admittedly had flaws. The parsimony of Congress, in the shadow of a huge war debt, and a general impatience to return to “normalcy”—which someone defined as “the expectation that things should be again as they never quite were”—combined to make early administration of this program hasty, hurried, inadequate.

The Federal Board of Vocational Education kept disabled veterans waiting for a couple of years, on pay too meager for subsistence, which had to be eked out by a million-dollar loan fund advanced by the Elks and the Red Cross. The Legion, which also played its part in tiding these men over the crisis, brought pressure to bear upon Congress for making the necessary appropriations.

In the years that followed, the Legion, as well as the Disabled American Veterans, set itself to be a watchdog of disabled veterans’ interests. It struggled with the red tape and congestion at regional offices, which hampered the early work of the Board, and the still further inefficiencies that handicapped its successor, the Veterans’ Bureau. At last it stirred public and Congressional demand for reform until reform proved effective.

The Legion’s aims were not confined to censure and political pressure for veterans alone, as it proved early in the 1920’s by launching its child-welfare program, supporting the Child Labor Amendment, helping the law to round up kidnapers and criminal gangs, and contributing liberally to community service—on behalf of parks, playgrounds, municipal swimming pools, summer camps, hospitals, safe-driving campaigns, and a notable program of flood-relief work. The growing stress upon child welfare probably reflected the fact that the average veteran was himself a father, and, under the prosperity of that era, a generous spender in civic causes.

The Legion and the bonus

The greatest revelation of the Legion’s political power came in regard to the Bonus Bill. At the St. Louis caucus of May 1919, when the Legion first met on home soil, it turned thumbs down on the idea of a six-month bonus for all servicemen. The Legion, said Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., its official founder, “did not want to take anything out of the government, but to put something into it.” As returning soldiers clashed with civilians seeking jobs, or mulled over having “missed the boom” of wartime wages, and heard of even riper melons cut in Wall Street, their psychology changed. At the first National Convention of the Legion, at Minneapolis the next November, a strong demand arose for “adjusted compensation,” to reimburse the soldier for his dollar-a-day while the rest of the nation had been coasting on high wages.

In 1924, over President Coolidge’s veto, Congress passed the Bonus Bill, providing federal payment of adjusted compensation certificates in 1945. During the depression, a demand for immediate payment swept the ranks of the Legion and was transmitted by it to Congress. Eventually, in January 1936, over another presidential veto, Congress ordered that the bonus be paid in full. A minority of ex-servicemen opposed the Legion’s stand on the bonus and also its insistence on benefits for peace-disabled as well as war-disabled veterans. Groups like the American Veterans’ Association and the National Economy League (also started by veterans), and nonconformist groups within the Legion, like New York City’s Willard Straight Post, challenged these measures but were overborne:

As a result of Legion-sponsored policies, American pensioners of World War I increased 866 percent between 1919 and 1929, whereas among the nations of Europe the number of such pensioners was steadily dwindling. Only in the United States has war service of itself become a recognized claim for compensation. Why this difference? In part, our attitude sprang from the open-handedness of American ways and our great, if sometimes tardy, gratitude toward the man who has fought in the nation’s defense. In part, it was the price of our long neglect in providing social security for all citizens, such as flourished in many European countries but did not appear here until the Social Security Act of 1935. And finally, the skilled technique of pressure groups in presenting their case to Congress cannot be denied.

In their demand for veterans’ benefits, the larger servicemen’s organizations usually see eye to eye. Not only do they share the view that every ex-soldier not dishonorably discharged should get liberal treatment, but they also know that the whole federal structure of veterans’ benefits in some respects is an interlocking one. If, for instance, free hospitalization for peacetime injuries is won by veterans of one war, it will in justice be given to the surviving veterans of all American wars. This happened in 1924. Of course this does not prevent competition for membership—as between the Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars for eligibles who may not want to belong to both. But when the needs and wishes of veterans as a class come uppermost, they close ranks and move in unison.

Where are the majority?

A veterans’ organization likes to think of itself as the spokesman for all its generation of servicemen. Like all close-knit and articulate groups, it may even make unanimity seem more perfect than it really is. Isolated posts or camps may disagree with national policies; in the secrecy of committees, differences of opinion may arise, as in all other groups of individualistic Americans. But usually a united front is presented to the world. At conventions and reunions, the average veteran is probably more interested in seeing old friends and having a good time than in debating questions of policy, which are often decided in effect by the top leadership.

Furthermore, no veterans’ organization in the history of the United States has ever represented a majority of the servicemen who fought a given war. Out of some two million who served under President Lincoln, the G.A.R. never attained more than approximately 400,000 members; while the American Legion has never included more than one-fourth of those who wore the uniform in 1917–18. And these have been incomparably our biggest veterans’ organizations.

The cost of paying dues and traveling to reunions, other interests and clubs and diversions, a certain human inertia, distrust of political activity and “bossism,” and a revolt against regimentation after Army service—these are some of the reasons why many veterans don’t organize, or join up only to let their membership lapse. There are two times in a man’s life when he is most apt to join such an organization: when he is fresh from the service and still full of the interests and camaraderie of the war, and again after the lapse of years when he begins to think sentimentally of his vanished youth. That at least is the conclusion suggested by the cycle of the G.A.R., which cut only a minor figure during its first fifteen years, but rapidly picked up strength in the 1880’s to reach its maximum in 1890—after which death began slowly to thin the ranks. The Legion’s roster in 1923 dropped to less than one-sixth of the eligibles, but registered marked gains in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Factors like big membership drives, interest in bonuses and pensions, and the outbreak of war with renewal of patriotic memories, also stimulated enrollment.

While a great many veterans never join these groups, their indifference is balanced by the enthusiasm of some eager beavers who turn into professional veterans. They haunt convention halls as some college men haunt class reunions, jockeying for place on committees or governing boards, and sometimes becoming paid workers of the organization.