- Historic Sites
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
Pension applications and payments were now the responsibility of the Pension Office, set up in the War Department on a temporary basis in 1833 and made a permanent part of the Department of Interior in 1849. By the end of the century the bureau employed 6,300 persons to process pension claims. For the time it was an extraordinarily large agency, its growth in part a function of a law in 1890 that granted pensions to Civil War veterans with disabilities not related to military service. In 1920 all Union survivors of the war were made eligible for payments. In 1958 Congress extended coverage to the few remaining Confederate veterans. The total cost of benefits to date is $8.5 billion.
World War I (1917-18) produced a force numbering 4,744,000. About 116,000 men died in service; another 204,000 sustained wounds. At the outset of the war Congress provided the usual pension and medical protections for the dependents of men killed in action and for the disabled.
In addition, Congress went a step further and established a voluntary life-insurance program at preferential rates for all inductees. It also announced that each man would receive a $60 discharge allowance at the war’s end. Both acts represented a new approach to veterans’ benefits— or at least a recognition of what has since remained the prevailing philosophy in Congress’ approach to veterans’ programs: that all veterans, the able-bodied as well as the disabled, are entitled to special consideration as a result of their military service.
The most remarkable display of this attitude among World War I veterans was seen in the seventeen-year-long struggle to secure a bonus. After the Civil War the government abandoned both bounties and bonuses as enlistment lures, but in 1919 certain members of the newly formed American Legion called for their revival on the ground that the nation owed its ex-soldiers the difference between their military pay and what they could have earned had they spent the war years as working civilians. Calling their bonus adjusted compensation, they sought $1 for each day of domestic service and $1.25 for each day overseas.
After Harding vetoed one bonus measure in 1922, Congress overrode Coolidge’s veto of a second in 1924. All veterans whose service exceeded fifty days were given twenty-year paid-up endowment life-insurance certificates, the principal of which was payable in 1945. Some 3.5 million policies were issued, with a face value of $3.5 billion.
The matter might have ended there, but in the depths of the Depression the Legion and other veterans’ groups lobbied successfully for the right to borrow against the certificates for as much as 50 per cent of their value. Hardly had Congress passed that measure over Hoover’s veto in 1931 when veterans now demanded that Congress not wait until 1945 to pay the full bonus. By late May, 1932, some 15,000 veterans were on their way to Washington to lobby in person for a lump-sum payment.
Camping in public buildings and in hastily erected shacks, the Bonus Expeditionary Force—or Bonus Army, as it came to be known—was an embarrassment to the administration. Although the men were unarmed and generally peaceful, talk circulated to the effect that they were radicals bent on violence. After Congress failed to pass the relief measure they sought, many of the 15,000, aided by special government funds, went home; but at least 2,000 remained behind, determined, they said, to wait until justice was done the veterans.
In one of the most grievous political errors ever committed by an American head of state, President Hoover sent infantry, tanks, and cavalry against the squatters. Under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, the troops used bayonets and tear gas—and more violence than Hoover apparently had anticipated—to drive the remnants of the B.E.F. from the city.
Four years later, in 1936, Congress once again overrode a veto—this one from Franklin Roosevelt—and immediately made available the lump-sum bonus the veterans had so long been seeking. In all, $2.5 billion was disbursed, the largest single payment in a benefits program for World War I that now totals approximately $53 billion.
World War II (1941-45) ushered in a new era of benefits, in part because Congress was determined to avoid the mistakes and difficulties that had marked the demobilization of forces in World War I. Influenced as well by the social-welfare policies of the New Deal, Congress by 1945 had created the most comprehensive benefits program in our history. Since then subsequent legislation has expanded the original program for the 16.1 million veterans of World War II and extended those benefits to 6.7 million Korean veterans, 3.1 million veterans of the officially designated Cold War (1955-64), and 6.6 million veterans of Vietnam, at a cost since 1945 of $250 billion.
Under the direction of the Veterans Administration, a broad range of benefits and services is available to veterans from the moment of discharge until death and even beyond, for in certain circumstances benefits continue for survivors. As in World War I, most of these benefits are extended to the able-bodied as well as the disabled.
Compensation and pensions account for about 44 per cent of current veterans’ outlays; they are at present extended to nearly 5 million veterans and surviving dependents. Compensation (for service-connected disabilities and death) ranges from $948 annually for dependents of the Indian Wars to $2,144 for Vietnam widows.