This project will outline the experience of veterans coming home from war in modern U.S. history, with a focus on the government’s and the American people’s response to their homecoming. Also highlighted are the racial division in veterans’ experiences. U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts has always been an integral part of telling the story of the United States, but far less is explored concerning the experience of servicemen in readjusting back to civilian life. Historically, the government has not fully delivered on its promises to help veterans in their readjustment, a trend incongruent with rhetoric surrounding the appreciation of veterans. This exhibition will document the various struggles of integrating back into civilian life for veterans from a variety of conflicts.
Beginning with the Spanish-American War and ending with the Vietnam War, this exhibition will remark on the transformation of veterans’ healthcare, government benefits, and perception by the American people throughout the twentieth century. Special attention will be paid to the continuity of mental health services and racism following American wars of the last century. The exhibition begins with the founding of the United Spanish War Veterans in 1899, the first national organization for veterans. Mental health services would not become a priority for veterans’ advocates until World War I, as shell shock affected many homecoming servicemen. Through World War II and into the 1960s, benefits for veterans increased, as did visibility for mental illness as a result of combat. Later, during the Vietnam War, the unpopularity of the war affected benefits and veteran experiences coming home. This discontent, faced by many veterans upon returning home, led some to create the national organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. This organization advocated for the end to the war and for veterans benefits, especially for those afflicted mentally by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and physically by the harmful effects of defoliants like Agent Orange.
While veterans’ groups can be traced to before the Spanish-American War, it was in 1899, after this conflict, when the first truly national veterans’ organization was formed. Prior to 1899, the existing groups were divided by North and South, as the last war fought by Americans was the Civil War. The most influential group from the Civil War was the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veterans’ group. This large organization, following the end of the Spanish-American War, excluded the veterans of this war from their ranks. Consequently, the United Spanish War Veterans (USWV) was created in 1899. They championed themselves as a unifying force, bringing together the sons of Union and Confederate soldiers to keep alive the memory of their service in Cuba. However, despite “serving under One national flag” the organization remained divided. Unlike the GAR, who allowed for integrated local chapters, USWV kept chapters, also known as camps, separate for black and white veterans .
The project then moves to World War I, where returning veterans were first greeted by parades, followed by unemployment and a lack of government compensation for their service. A period of economic decline occurred immediately after the end of World War I, as businesses had to return to their pre-war production activities. This left many veterans, able and disabled, jobless. Government agencies such as the U.S. Employment Service and the Federal Board of Vocational Education attempted to diminish unemployment among veterans but largely failed due to bureaucratic ineptness at state and local levels. Programs were also aimed mostly at able-bodied white men, returning home to be the breadwinners for their families ; even programs for disabled veterans excluded the more severely disabled, also in need of jobs . African American veterans fared even worse, as their medical treatment, and also military units, were segregated. Their efforts to integrate hospitals and provide equal access to treatment paved the way for movements to desegregate the military and veterans’ care . During the interwar period, strides were made by the government and veterans themselves. Even though the many federal veterans’ agencies were united by Hoover in 1930 as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Bonus Army, a group of disgruntled and poor veterans, marched in 1932 to protest the lack of government compensation for their service in World War I.
By World War II, the U.S. government realized some of its mistakes from World War I and the decades following. The passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944 was a landmark piece of legislation that made upward mobility possible for millions of returning servicemen. White veterans in particular took advantage of the college education, housing, car and business loans and monthly stipend at the government’s expense. In the years after the war, around 70% of college students were veterans , creating a dramatic increase in college enrollment in general. However, the local administration of these benefits meant African American veterans were largely excluded from such benefits, as racism and the fallacy of “separate but equal” was still pervasive in United States following World War II. This period also saw the legitimizing of mental health services for veterans in VA hospitals across America. A decade after the passage of the G.I. Bill, Armistice Day, November 11, was officially renamed Veteran’s Day, in honor of all veterans, which at that point included conflicts up to the Korean War.
The Vietnam War saw the upending of decades of progress, as consequences for the unpopularity of the war fell on veterans. VA hospitals were under-funded and public perception of veterans was at a new low. Even though the G.I. Bill was amended in 1966, 1972 and 1974, black veterans had difficulty reaping the same benefits as their white counterparts, despite the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s . These actions by the government and the people, coupled with first-hand experiences of the harsh realities of war, led some to form the organization known as Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1967. Many Americans saw these veterans as traitors to America and the perception of this organization was met even less favorably than veterans themselves . This group of disillusioned veterans rallied foremost for an end to the war and for benefits for disabled veterans, disabled by PTSD and Agent Orange especially. The addition of PTSD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was a culmination of a century’s worth of struggle on the part of suffering veterans and their families, Additionally, a government study found that defoliants like Agent Orange, used to strip the Vietnamese landscape of cover for NVA and Viet Cong troops, had deadly effects, the specifics of which are still being articulated to this day .
- United Spanish War Veterans, History of the Organization of the United Spanish War Veterans. Complied by W.D. Tucker, (Canton, Ohio: United Spanish War Veterans, 1921.) From Library of Congress, Americana. https://archive.org/details/historyoforganiz00tuck/page/n1 (Accessed November 18, 2018).
- Barbara A. Gannon, “‘They Call Themselves Veterans: Civil War and Spanish War Veterans and the Complexities of Veteranhood,” The University of North Carolina Press, no. 4 (2015): 528-550
- Daniel Amsterdam, “Before the Roar: U.S. Unemployment Relief after World War I and the Long History of a Paternalist Welfare Policy.” Journal of American History, Volume 101, Issue 4, (1 March 2015): 1123–1143
- Scott Gelber, “A ‘Hard-Boiled Order’: The Reeducation of Disabled WWI Veterans in New York City.” Journal of Social History39, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 161–80.
- Jessica Adler, “‘The Service I Rendered Was Just as True’: African American Soldiers and Veterans as Activist Patients.” American Journal of Public Health107, no. 5 (May 2017): 675–83.
- John Bound and Sarah Turner, “Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans?,” Journal of Labor Economics 20, no. 4 (October 2002): 784-815.
- Douglas Craddock, Jr., “War, Civil Rights, and Higher Education: African American Vietnam Veterans, the Civil Rights Era, and the G.I. Bill.” PhD diss. University of Alabama, 2002.
- Andrew Hunt, The Turning : A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (New York: New York University Press, 1999.) ProQuest Ebook Central.
- Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides Committee, Board on the Health of Select Populations Staff, and Institute of Medicine. Veterans and Agent Orange : Update 2018. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2018. National Academy of Sciences, https://www.nap.edu/resource/25137/111318_VAO_2018_highlights.pdf (Accessed November 18, 2018).