For the most part, the sections I read of Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America managed to keep me interested. Things taught in general school history courses, like the first Red Scare, Great Depression, etc., were narrowed to the specific case of veterans. As well, there were mentions of things not always covered in general courses, such as American activity in Russia and the Influenza outbreak. When I was learning these things the first time, I never considered the experiences and reactions of WWI veterans to these important historical moments, as well as the roles they played in some of them. But I suppose that is the point of this course, after all.
With the Armistice signed, fighting in Europe was officially over. However, citizen-soldiers of the Great War had a long wait ahead of them before they could go home. Demobilization in Europe was a slow process, and added with the continuing deaths caused by the Great Influenza Epidemic, many soldiers became aggravated. They raged against officer privileges and censorship. AEF officials worked to appease soldiers in hopes that they would provide support for a larger peacetime army. As censorship let up, soldiers sent angry letters home and as well as to their state representatives, hoping to speed up their return home. Soldiers in Russia, however, we still fighting against Bolsheviks for seemingly no purpose and were stuck when winter cold left ports iced in. Back in France, soldiers started up the American Legion to represent the affairs of returning veterans.
When soldiers finally got home they found little employment opportunities and the economy in recession, as well as social chaos in the form of the Red Scare and increasing racial violence. Veterans soon formed close relationships with the working class of America, leading to many veteran and labor organizations uniting. Some veterans, more likely those returning from Russia, had Bolshevik sympathies and joined socialist organizations. For the most part, veterans weren’t looking for compensation, not wanting to be compared to greedy Civil War veterans who cleaned out the treasury. The first call for compensation came from more radical veteran organizations. Eventually, vets felt that the government that conscripted them had a duty to make up for the time they had lost while in the army.
In 1924 legislation was passed making compensation law. The veterans were given bonds that could be cashed in for full price in 1945. However, when the Great Depression struck, bonds proved not to be enough, leaving the vets wanting cash. Unlike most Americans suffering from the Depression, this was the second time veterans had to start their lives over. Many vets had never recovered from the time lost during the war, so many were hit extra hard, making up quite a large amount of the unemployed. In 1932, not backed by the Legion, thousands of veterans (and theirs wives, who were sometimes more furious than their husbands) converged on Washington and camped out for months. They organized camps much like those they experienced during the army. Officials worried that things might become violent and were also cautious of turning public opinion against the government, so the vets were not mistreated. The Bonus Army managed to maintain itself with donations from civilians, proving that public support tended to favor the suffering vets. Eventually, the military forcefully ended the Bonus March, running the vets out of Washington. The American public was angered, seeing this as another sign of Hoover’s resistance to helping individuals who needed it rather than big companies and banks.
When FDR took office, he put into action his New Deal programs. He also removed much of the compensation going to veterans, including cutting down aid to the disabled. With the Legion, veterans, and the public in favor of returning compensation, FDR reinstated aid. Veterans continued to make marches every year, with many being given jobs with the CCC or other New Deal organizations. By the late 1930s the world was on the verge of another conflict and a new generation of Americans would be called upon to fight for democracy. Over twenty years after the end of their fighting, Great War veterans would influence government policy one last time in the form of the G.I. Bill, preventing history from repeating itself.