Forging a Veteran-State Social Contract: The American Legion, 1919-1956

Berggren, Kathleen, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hitchcock, William, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation demonstrates that Legionnaires redefined the parameters of the political debate about the veteran’s place in U.S. society over the course of the twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s, the American Legion led a successful fight to expand benefits programs for the First World War generation. Arguing that the federal government had an obligation, forged through conscription, to restore former service members to their prewar positions, Legionnaires secured new rehabilitative care for the disabled and financial benefits for all veterans during the interwar era. Most importantly, the Legion created new institutions in Congress and the executive branch to support the emerging restorative veteran-state social contract. During the 1940s, the chairmen of the congressional committees on veterans’ affairs and the Veterans’ Administration Director were key players in the Legion-led effort to pass the 1944 GI Bill, which extended unprecedented rights to veterans of the Second World War, privileges that helped to mark ex-service members as super-citizens.

Even as the Legion’s influence in Washington began to erode during the 1950s—leading to the reduction of benefits for successive generations of American ex-service members over the second half of the twentieth century, the organization’s imprint on the policymaking landscape persisted. Although elected officials rolled back benefits for veterans from World War II era highs, they have never seriously questioned the superlative veteran-state social contract that the Legion helped to create more than seventy years ago. The Legion made American veterans super-citizens, a status they retain today, even as the real value of ex-service members’ reintegration benefits declines.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Legion, U.S. Veteran Policy, Doughboys, GIs, World War One Veteran, World War Two Veteran, Korean War Veteran
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