"To Save Those Men from the Doctrines of the Radical Agitator": Interest Group Advocacy and Veterans’ Medical Care in World War I America

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Jessica L. Adler, Florida International University
This paper examines the Great War era roots of the largest integrated health system in the United States – the veterans’ health system. It explains why the tireless advocacy efforts of organizations such as the American Legion (AL) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) eventually prevailed over opposition from legislators who felt such a system was at best, inappropriately generous and at worst, socialistic. The advocacy groups of the Great War distinguished themselves from their Civil War era forebears by fighting not only for monetary payments, but also for other lasting and extensive rights: among them, special access to institutions such as hospitals. In so doing, they helped shape veterans’ policies and benefits through the following century. The AL and DAV pursued special rights for injured and ill veterans because there was evidence that the piecemeal services they were receiving failed to adequately address their needs. But the groups were at least partially driven by a desire to stave off radicalism among seemingly vulnerable ex-soldiers. In order to maintain a pure sense of love of country, Legion leaders argued in closed-door meetings, veterans needed certain things from their government, including good medical care; they needed to be ensured that the state was grateful and generous. The conservative, anti-egalitarian leanings of the AL and DAV allowed them to win the ears of members of Congress when other, comparatively left-leaning groups could not. On a more general level, they indicated that men of color and all women were often shunned from the groups; when it came to putting forth a public image of national veterans’ organizations, and justifying a distinct system of medical care in an era of growing racial and social tensions, the priority of gaining benefits for “100 percent American” white, male veterans took precedence over gaining benefits for all veterans.
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