Politics and Veterans
Veterans of war have always been a selling point for politicians in election years. Throughout history one can see how whether on the campaign trail or sitting in office already, politicians have skillfully used veterans in order to promote a “fair deal” or “benefits” to the troops coming home. They do this as a way to curry favor with the public, to show that they can for the soldiers, to show that it pays to go to work for Uncle Sam, and that when an individual does right by his country, his country does right by him. Thus, there was Truman’s “Fair Deal,” FDR’s “New Deal,” Harrison’s pensions for the Civil War veterans, Nixon and Vietnam Veterans Day, and today’s VA hospitals and VA loans, designed to assist veterans in their transition from military to civilian life. Politicians have used the plight of the veterans yesterday and today (whether it is Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders makes no difference — there is always the cry of protest that we need to take better care of our soldiers). This paper will examine ways in which policies toward veterans benefits have been used by politicians at particular points in American political history.
The Gilded Age that followed the Civil War saw a veritably Republican dominated White House — beginning with Lincoln and ending with the election of FDR. Republicans at this time were skillful in their use of the Civil War: they blamed it on the Democrats and so Union veterans flocked to the Republican Party. President Benjamin Harrison, who had served in the Civil War under Sherman, promoted the idea of pensions for Civil War veterans and “signed a bill providing additional support for disabled Civil War veterans” (The Age of Political Machines, 2013). Harrison’s efforts were linked to his philanthropy and humanitarianism — for he also supported a number of measures designed to assist in educating the South and helping African-Americans. However, his support of veterans was an example of how the Republican Party attempted to appeal to the soldiers who had fought to hold the Union together. The fact that the Party cast blame for the war on the Democrats was disingenuous, for one could easily argue that had Lincoln (a Republican) not been elected, there may have been no war at all but rather a more decided attempt at a peaceful, lawful resolution (as Jefferson Davis had hoped) (Foote, 1958). Nonetheless, Republican leaders in the Gilded Age attempted to appease the Union that had virtually been ripped apart with half a million men dead as a result of the war: they did this by “sticking up” for the veterans and by painting themselves as the do-gooders who had nothing to do with that awful war. For this reason, they were called the “bloody shirts,” because they were always waving around the “bloody shirt” of the soldier and accusing their political opponent (the Democrat) of being the root cause of the blood. It was not true in the least — as the Republican Party was full of violent abolitionists. All the same, the veteran was used as a political ploy to curry favor with a sentimental public.
Of course, war never really ended for America and before the 19th century came to a close, American soldiers were fighting Spain for control of the Philippines in an effort to expand American hegemony around the world. World Wars I and II followed, as did the glowing patronage of Uncle Sam for the veterans whom He pledged to love so much that he did not mind entangling them in one foreign war after another. Woodrow Wilson, one of only two Democrats to enter the White House (between Lincoln and FDR), ran on the platform of keeping America out of the war (World War I) — but he failed to keep that promise when the British began having trouble. Wilson’s election and subsequent breaking of his campaign promise could be viewed as a slap in the face to soldiers and veterans alike as it was a clear instance of one policy being promised only to be kicked aside for a complete opposite policy.
FDR attempted to make amends, however, with his New Deal, which harkened back to Harrison’s philanthropy: except that instead of providing benefits to veterans, Roosevelt slashed them: the Economy Act of 1933 cut veterans pensions by fifteen percent and Roosevelt staunchly opposed the Bonus Bill which proposed giving a cash bonus to veterans of WWI. Congress had to override Roosevelt’s veto of the Bill in order to finally divvy out more than a billion dollars in welfare to 4 million vets. There was of course an election year coming — and Congress had to look good. Roosevelt was primarily concerned with balancing the budget more than he was about riding the wave of popular support through posturing like this — but in the end, he too came around (Leuchtenburg, 1963). As the New Dealers kicked into high gear, conservatism lost ground and fiscal responsibility went out the window. The new thing was to provide welfare for the veterans in the form of dollars: thus, there was the Adjusted Compesantion Payment Act and the Disabled Veterans Rehabilitation Act and the “G.I. Bill” or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which gave 16 million WW2 vets benefits related to education, housing, unemployment. One could argue that if it had not been for the welfare state, the “middle America” that many see vanishing before their eyes today would not have even come into existence (Bennett, 1999).
Truman’s “Fair Deal” was supported by both Left and Right as free money and easy credit would always be welcome in the land of the free and home of the brave: the Veteran’s Emergency Housing Act of 1946, the expansion of G.I. benefits to the tune of nearly $4 billion and the amendment of Social Security to include wage credits for members of the military service — all of this was the politician’s tool to keep the public quiet and to keep the military servicemen happy with the thought that they would at least be substantially rewarded for their role in supporting the rise of the military-industrial complex. Politicians, of course, did not come out and say that this was the real reason for all the benefits — but nonetheless it was.
Nixon learned the hard way that veterans were, in spite of all the politicizing, becoming sick of endless and were beginning to voice a demand for a real benefit — namely, peace. Nixon finally gave them that with a withdrawal from Vietnam and announced that 29 March 1974 would be Vietnam Veterans Day “with suitable observance,” but this was a small caveat to an entire generation that felt it had been thrown under the bus. The easy credit had served the New Dealers in justifying America’s presence in the War — but the body count had been relatively low. Vietnam had been a different animal altogether — and no matter what the benefits for veterans were, nothing could overcome the fact that too many soldiers were dying.
The same holds today as politicians attempt to espouse their concern for veterans yet make no plans to withdraw from the foreign entanglements in which soldiers are situated. Even if the body count is low, the psychological toll is evident, as VA hospitals report being understaffed and unable to treat all the patients with PTSD and MST (military sexual trauma) (Johnson, 2012). Yet politicians use the VA as an example of how national health care should be run — which is perhaps another joke — but if so it is a sad one, because both the VA and health care system in the U.S. are insupportable. But the politicians won’t tell you that — because that would not be politically correct.
The Age of Political Machines. (2013). Politics in the Gilded Age. Retrieved from http://sageamericanhistory.net/gildedage/topics/gildedagepolitics.html
Bennett, M. (1999). When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern
America. NE: Potomac Books.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: Ft. Sumter to Perryville. NY: Random House, 1958.
Johnson, O. (2012). Military sexual trauma: Shamed into silence. Journal of Military
Science and Research, 1(3): 1-5.
Leuchtenburg, W. (1963). Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. NY:
Harper and Row.
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