Beyond Soldiers’ Pensions: Pushing the Boundaries of the U.S. Warfare-Welfare State

AHA Session 187
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Stephen R. Ortiz, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
Jennifer Mittelstadt, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Session Abstract

Scholars have long acknowledged the wartime origins of the American welfare state. Whether looking at Civil War pensions for veterans and widows or the GI Bill’s unprecedented expansion of government benefits, they have shown that the state’s sense of obligation to those who have served provides one of the most powerful arguments for mobilizing government resources to create social welfare entitlements.

The four papers on this panel trace the history of the warfare-welfare state through the twentieth century, paying special attention to groups that are often left out of the story: conscientious objectors, Japanese internees, military wives, and women and African-American veterans. The panel begins with two papers that look at how the world wars helped lay the foundations of the modern warfare-welfare state. These papers engage with concerns of contemporaries that the wars created commitments that would require an over-sized government and an overly dependent citizenry. The panel then pivots to look at how, in the latter half of the century, new constituencies organized to make claims on the welfare state that previous wars had fostered. Having been mobilized to create a robust set of benefits for soldiers and veterans, the argument that one’s connection with the military engendered certain state sponsored rights was marshaled by unexpected groups. In the wake of the Vietnam War and in the 1980s, conscientious objectors and ex-wives of servicemen argued that they, too, deserved access to special privileges.

The papers on this panel are attentive not only to how social welfare programs created for soldiers and veterans divided Americans on the basis of service, but also to how such programs reproduced the racial, gender, and ethnic divisions that characterized U.S. society. Although they provided some of the nation’s most comprehensive social welfare benefits, the military- and veteran-based programs were inspired in part by conservative impulses to prevent those who served from adopting radical ideologies. The fact that the entitlements extended to those who served were initially limited and far from egalitarian reveals these conservative origins. Nevertheless, the powerful language of government obligation in exchange for service used to create the programs, later allowed excluded groups to gain access to them. 

These papers demonstrate not only how twentieth century debates over the warfare-welfare state dramatically expanded government sponsored entitlements, but also how the language of those debates became a useful tool for a variety of groups—including those who had “served” in the traditional sense and those who had not—to gain access to state resources. That language and ideology continues to shape the how Americans conceive of the government’s obligations to its citizenry.

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