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Veterans Day: Struggling to Build a New Life after War

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This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

Every country has found itself face to face with this situation at the close of a great war. From Rome under Caesar to France under Napoleon down even to our own Civil War, the problems arose as to what could be done with the soldiers to be mustered out of military service.

—Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane to President Woodrow Wilson, 1918

U.S. Employment Service poster promoting employment of veterans. Poster artist Gordon Grant.

What to do with returning soldiers—how to reintegrate them into peacetime society—was a central challenge for the U.S. government after World War I.

Of course, it was not the first time the U.S. had waded into the waters of international conflict: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War were all precedents. Yet the Great War represented the first time the nation fully harnessed its industrial might and political capital while also drafting a military to fight overseas. During the Civil War, roughly 8 percent of the military was conscripted, compared with 72 percent during World War I.

Ultimately, the First World War helped spur activism on behalf of and by veterans while also laying the groundwork for a 20th-century disability-rights movement. It is possible to trace the formation of a vibrant veterans’ movement by exploring the Library’s exhibit “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I,” holdings in the Prints and Photographs Division and the papers of Woodrow Wilson in the Manuscript Division.

Civilian gratitude for the sacrifices of the American Expeditionary Force shared space with fear regarding the kind of values and infirmities veterans might carry home from abroad. They returned to an economy lumbering toward recession, a militant labor force willing to strike for better pay and benefits and a public anxious about political radicalism, race and immigration.

In some cases, government actions helped to darken the national mood. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ginned up antipathy toward immigrants and unions, for example, by painting each with the brush of political radicalism, jailing thousands and deporting hundreds, including the anarchist political activist Emma Goldman. Organized labor saw the brief gains it made during the war evaporate; immigrants witnessed Congress pass restrictions on immigration that would remain for decades.

Upon discharge, veterans received $60, just enough to purchase new clothes. Even with the freshest of threads, returning WWI veterans encountered great obstacles in such an environment. By April 1919, an estimated 40 percent or so of veterans remained unemployed.

None of this is to say the government ignored veterans entirely. As the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act to promote vocational training in agriculture, industrial trades and home economics. The following year, the government created the United States Employment Service to place workers in jobs created by mobilization and aid returning veterans in finding work.

U.S. Employment Service/Red Cross poster promoting employment of veterans. Poster artist Dan Smith.

Ultimately, the service referred 6 million workers for roughly 10 million job openings, but proved less helpful to veterans once funding diminished after the war. The Smith-Hughes Act also struggled to live up to its promises: Veterans complained of distant and unhelpful vocational counselors, among other problems.

For black veterans especially, the transition proved harrowing. Emboldened by military service and seeking to lay claim to the rights of citizenship, many black veterans endured harassment by white racists and even death; lynching doubled in the years between 1917 and 1919. During summer 1919, cities across the country, including Washington D.C., experienced horrible race riots that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage and over 100 deaths. Governments, state and federal, did little to assuage the inequality and indignities suffered by returning black soldiers.

Realizing that veterans needed a political voice, a cadre of military officers established the American Legion in 1919. It was one of nearly 175 organizations established in the wake of the war to represent veterans, but it quickly became the most politically powerful veterans lobby in the nation. Within its first year it drew 843,000 members; by 1931, it claimed over a million.

The organization’s advocacy for veterans, particularly its efforts to draw attention to their sacrifices, raised public awareness regarding military service and its effects. “The first duty of the American Legion,” national commander Hanford MacNider argued, “is to see that those men who came back from their service, blinded, maimed, broken in health and spirit, who must live the war forever in their homes through the country, get a square deal from the Government they fought for.”

Critics took the organization to task for its hypernationalism and militant anticommunism, which sometimes targeted immigrants and union activists and contributed to civil liberties violations. The legion also reasserted racial hierarchies—local branches were allowed to exclude African-American veterans—and failed to truly advocate for black soldiers.

Still, the American Legion’s full-throated advocacy and political influence helped to persuade the government in 1921 to establish the United States Veterans Bureau, a precursor to today’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Though the bureau struggled with accusations of waste, graft and corruption, this imperfect beginning did establish veterans as a legitimate political voice in American politics and set the tone for future efforts to reintegrate returning soldiers into the body politic.

World War I Centennial, 2017–18. With the most comprehensive collection of multiformat World War I holdings in the nation, the Library is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about the Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

Comments (34)

  1. I have no problem with programs to help those that fight for our freedom and liberty.

    Great article – I did not know that was how the VA was created.

    Cary Michael Cox

  2. Great, I wrote this in a presentation! Right now i got 100/100! My Parents are gonna be happy

  3. I feel that veterans were essentially discarded, not cared about and basically left to rot. All they got was clothes, as if that was what they were worrying about, perhaps not the insane levels of trauma they endured. 40% of veterans being unemployed after the war is crazy high and not okay, there was not a single resource available for veterans after the war as if they didn’t just fight for us and basically got thrown into war since they were lied to about the true conditions. It took a whole year just to bring out things like financial aid and better employment but realistically no one just loves work, the government threw traumatized, distressed, and mentally ill people back into the cycle of society to do nothing but work. What these people really should have had was readily available resources directly after the war including things like financial aid benefits, therapy options ect. The system didn’t even seem remotely ready to take care of their soldiers, its like they weren’t even thought of as real people just pawns in a chess game, a game in which the government pigs were way too eager to play.

  4. The article is very interesting since it tells us what happened to the veterans after the war It seems to me that the veterans were not very well supported since after the war especially the black veterans were the ones who suffered the most they tried to claim their citizenship rights and it was not only that they were also harassed by other white veterans it seems somewhat unfair to me that they were racists with them

  5. I think veterans were somewhat supported seeing as how they came back to people willing to go on strike for better pay along with other things. For the most part, they did not get what they deserved. Some examples of them not getting enough is the fact that when they came back, they only received $60. Barely enough for clothing. On top of that, around 40% of veterans were unemployed. Not only that, many veterans were harassed by white racists. This goes to show that although they weren’t ignored, they still weren’t treated the best.

  6. It’s amazing to me that these guys fight in wars and live. War isn’t a joke and many people lose their lives, their families are broken due to loss of a loved one. To be able to fight in a war and come out alive in my opinion is very noble. They have all my respect for fighting for the US.

  7. The veterans were not supported well enough because they only received $60, for a pair of new clothes. And 40% percent or so of veterans remained unemployed. None of this is to say the government ignored veterans. Veterans complained of distant and unhelpful vocational counselors, among other problems. Many black veterans endured harassment by white racists and even death. Local branches were allowed to exclude African-American veterans and failed truly advocate for black soldiers. Veterans needed a political voice.

  8. It’s intriguing to me that only after WW1 was when activists for retired soldiers had really started to pop off. I also think how interesting it was that 72% of the military was conscripted in world war one. I find it odd though when a soldier was discharged and sent home they were only given $60 to buy clothes. I feel as though they should have been given assisted living and help from the government to find them steady jobs or to put them through school so they could get jobs. It also seems incredibly unfair how even though black veterans fought for the country they were still exposed to racism. It’s also interesting that after WW1 175 organizations were made to help represent veterans.

  9. The struggle of building a new life after war was hard most people were injured due to battle like losing body parts or having ptsd from the events of the war.Furthermore the first world war helped spur activism on behalf of and by veterans while also laying the groundwork for a 20th century disability rights movement which would help those people.Plus in some case government actions helped to darken the national mood after the war.But in the following year the government created the united states employment service to help the veterans who needed jobs to work.

  10. After ww1 veterans were assisted through programs such as employment training, education, and healthcare. Organizations such as the American Legion offered help as well. Despite this, many veterans encountered persistent difficulties like financial struggles and emotional struggles. I feel like even though they did receive some help they didn’t fully gain the support they needed.

  11. Veterans returning after ww1 were thrown away and ignored. Some 40% of veterans were homeless and were only giving $60 enough to buy clothes. The government attempted to help them halfheartedly with the Smith-Hughes Act They had minimal help and then they cut funding for it. It was even worse for African american veterans with racism still rampant and lynchings happening the government refused to do anything about it. The situation got so bad that they were essentially forced to establish the American legion in 1919 to represent veterans

  12. Veterans received very little support, especially in the first year. It would seem that these are the people who fought for their country, they should be supported in returning to the country, but no. Even such trivial things as help with finding jobs and small financial assistance were not provided. The money given out later was only enough to buy clothes, and by the end of 1919 40%of the veterans remained unemployed. Of course, later various organizations to help veterans were created, but they were not always really helpful, especially at the beginning. The people we were supposed to protect were left to their fate.

  13. Upon the discharge of all of the soldiers they were only given $60 just enough money to get some new clothes and freshen up a little.The government never stood up to their promises that they originally told the soldiers. They never really cared about the veterans. They just kinda left them to find their way back kinda like a lost puppy.They left them behind right after the war so it was hard for people and families to get back on their feet and start finding a job.

  14. In my opinion, the American Legion deserves recognition for its role in highlighting the sacrifices of veterans and advocating for fair treatment. Although his criticisms related to hypernationalism and racial discrimination are worrying, it is crucial to remember that the defense of the rights of veterans is fundamental. However, any discrimination must be addressed and rectified to ensure that equity and civil rights are respected for everyone, regardless of their origin or race.

  15. They traumatized them and then dumped them with nothing, given $60 to buy new clothes and most veterans were still unemployed for months afterwards. The government did absolutely nothing nothing for them, their best efforts included lynching black veterans and anti immigrant propaganda. They needed mental health services, employment, someone to literally just care and we couldn’t even provide that.

  16. Veterans returning from war have always struggled to reintegrate into society. After world war 1, 40 percent of veterans were unemployed after the war ended. Through time efforts have been made to make returning veterans comfortably re enter society. Today we have services to help veterans but veterans still return homeless and jobless.

  17. The struggles for the soldiers are usually not treated well. Returning the veterens strugled to get to be employed a estamined 40% were unemployed. The Smith-Hughes Act also struggled to live up to its promises. Many black veterans were harassed by white racists and even died. In conclusion, returning veterens still have problems with employement and going back to society today.

  18. Boredom, lack of information, rumours, and growing frustration with the shortage of shipping contributed to confusion and anger among those left behind. Finding a job was their top priority so the government encouraged businesses to hire them. Disabled veterans, who had been coming home before the war’s end, were offered physical and occupational rehabilitation through the Vocational Education Bureau.

  19. Veterans should be treated with respect not popularity and fame. they need support, not to be disrespected. The support needs free and available food to all veterans and free homing for there traumas. Not to be racially profiled or harassed.

  20. This article made me feel disappointed that our veterans were not taken care of after the war. Most veternars came back unemployed and handed very little money. Some african americans that have served couldn’t claim their citizenship rights, they were acknowledged but ignored. Even though there were programs to help out veterans there were president struggles, veterans were not getting enough financial support nor emotional support. The government really didn’t do anything to help veterans, it was like a pat on the back.

  21. Veterans Day is a time to honor America’s veterans for their courage, honor, patriotism, and sacrifice, as well as encouraging Americans to commit themselves to the cause of peace. The veterans returning from WW1 were given little money to buy clothes, with many veterans remaining unemployed. The government created the United States Employment Service to help veterans find work, but it stopped working once funding diminished after the war. Many black veterans endured racial terrorism with lynching doubled in the years between 1917 and 1919. A group of military officers realized they needed help, and so they established the American Legion in 1919, drawing attention to their sacrifices and raising public awareness regarding military service, their advocacy and political influence eventually helped to persuade the government to establish the United States Veterans Bureau in 1921, finally giving them proper military and healthcare services.

  22. On Veterans day, we pay tribute to tho11se who served in the armed forces and ackowledge the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their nation. Many veterans encounter difficulties adapting to civilian life after serving in combat, such as managing physical wounds,mental health conditions, and obtaining work. rebuilding their life will require community support, access to healthcare, and job training programs. we honor the courage of our vetrans on this day and pledge to provide them the tools they need to successfully adjust.

  23. This article made me mad because these men went to fight for our country and freedom, putting their lives on the line for their families and strangers. When the war ends they should not have to worry about coming home to nothing after putting their lives on the line for us. And as for the black veterans they should not have to worry about being killed because of the color of their skin. They just fought a whole war for us so we can live in peace. There should be way more resources for veterans back then and now.

  24. I feel like this article shows that a lot of U.S veterans were faced with challenges after WW1 and the government’s effort to try to support them . It is discussing the economic difficulties, social tensions, and racial inequalities veterans encountered upon returning home The Government took such steps as the Smith- Hughes Act and the united states employment Service to provide vocational training and job placement for the veterans.

  25. I feel like the veterans were robbed of the things that they should’ve had entitlement to and been provided with after they fought for our freedom. Although they still had some forms of support (…eventually), there were problems with the small amounts of what they were given. For example, the $60 they received was hardly enough for simplicities, like clothes.

  26. I feel like the veterans were robbed of the things that they should’ve had entitlement to and been provided with after they fought for our freedom. Although they still had some forms of support (…eventually), there were problems with the small amounts of what they were “rewarded” with. For example, the $60 they received was hardly enough for simplicities, like clothes.

  27. The lack of aid provided to veterans after WWI just shows the complete incompetence of the government. Veterans had to face a total war zone because our government couldn’t do what they preached, then to struggle reintegrating back into society just with the littlest amount of help. Whilst I can already imagine that our government doesn’t always have the best interest for us (which is obvious), any person could understand that 60 dollars for some clothes is just plain belittling and disrespectful. But maybe it’s just me, being able to provide health care, therapy or housing those who risked their lives for this country would be a bit more deserving, but I totally understand that gaining money off of propaganda is much more important that your own civilians.

  28. “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” “Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul.”

  29. Veterans Day is an important holiday to be celebrated each year because it allows us to reflect on the many freedoms that we have in our country due to the hard work and dedication of those individuals. Celebrating Veterans Day each year shows our appreciation towards the people who were in the military.

  30. Veterans Day is a time to honor those who have served in the military, recognizing the sacrifices they
    have made for their country. After returning from war, many veterans faced challenges in adjusting to civilian life, including dealing with physical injuries, mental health issues like PTSD, and finding employment. Support from the community, access to healthcare, and job training programs are crucial in helping them rebuild their lives. On this day, we reflect on the bravery of our veterans and commit to providing the necessary
    resources to assist them in their transition.

  31. When the veterans came back from the war, they were only given $60. This just barely bought them some new clothes. They just got back from fighting in WWI to protect our country. They should have been given at least 1000 dollars to get them started off. A lot of the men also could not find work. Our government should have done something to help them get jobs. Or they should have given them some assistance each month until they could find a job.

  32. I feel disappointed and angry about how the military was 72 percent conscripted soldiers for WWI. These people served the country by going to war. After leaving the military, about 40 percent of soldiers were not employed in 1919. I think that the soldiers deserve more respect because the war is dependent on their lives. The veterans should get help with finding jobs, medical help for injuries including shell shock, and have a political voice.

  33. The vets were treated poorly And suffered the most from PTSD, Unemployment, mental illness, or being seen differently Not to mention The support from the government. Not enough to get them back on their feet. At Least The following year, the government created an Employment Service to help veterans get some sort of employment. But ultimately failed to live up to its promises: Veterans complained of distant and unhelpful vocational counselors, among other problems.

  34. I feel like how they treat veterans is kinda sad and disappointing because we do give them some stuff but in my opinion is not enough. Especially for what they did for our country and freedom I feel like we should provide them with more stuff. I feel like they should receive things such as shelter and food and other things like that. I also feel like since they risked their lives for fighting for out country and some didn’t even come back the same they shouldn’t have to worry about much, such as money. I feel like after the wars and if they survive they should be taken care of by our own government.

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