“Soldier -citizens”: The Veterans of Foreign Wars and veteran political activism from the Bonus March to the GI Bill
This dissertation examines the fundamental watershed in twentieth-century American political life: the transformation in the relationship between the federal government and ordinary citizens associated with the New Deal. By exploring the political and cultural mobilization of a major veteran organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), this work traces the significant role played by veterans in this process. Veterans' sophisticated organizational structure, their trenchant critique of the American political and economic system, and their gendered definition of citizenship made them a potent political force during the formative era of the New Deal.
This study contends that the VFW emerged as the leader of veteran political activism in the 1930s. More significantly, however, the issues that provoked veteran political mobilization situated the VFW at the epicenter of important Depression-era movements. The work argues that the VFW played a foundational role not only in the Bonus March, but also the New Deal dissident movement led by Huey P. Long and Father Charles E. Coughlin, and the isolationist movement of the 1930s. The VFW's critique of the increasingly corporate economy, and the national and international political systems that sustained it, relied on veterans' interpretations of the causes of World War I. This critique provided the ideological thread linking the organization to these disparate, seemingly unrelated, Depression-era groups.
By examining the cultural dimension of the VFW's political mobilization, this study also explores the confluence of gender, citizenship, and personal identity in the making of the GI Bill. I argue that overseas military service defined veteran conceptions of masculinity and citizenship, and served as the ideological basis for veteran political activism during the Depression era. Veterans constructed a sense of collective identity out of personal experience and common ideological and historical references. Yet, veterans grounded their identity in a shared masculine ideal based on service for the common good and personal sacrifice. By promoting this version of masculinity, veterans challenged the hegemony of economic individualism. In so doing, veterans both challenged the gendered basis of the liberal state and helped found the martial welfare state epitomized by the GI Bill.
0323: American studies
0615: Political science