War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America

War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America

by Beth Linker

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With US soldiers stationed around the world and engaged in multiple conflicts, Americans will be forced for the foreseeable future to come to terms with those permanently disabled in battle. At the moment, we accept rehabilitation as the proper social and cultural response to the wounded, swiftly returning injured combatants to their civilian lives. But this was not always the case, as Beth Linker reveals in her provocative new book, War’s Waste.   Linker explains how, before entering World War I, the United States sought a way to avoid the enormous cost of providing injured soldiers with pensions, which it had done since the Revolutionary War. Emboldened by their faith in the new social and medical sciences, reformers pushed rehabilitation as a means to “rebuild” disabled soldiers, relieving the nation of a monetary burden and easing the decision to enter the Great War. Linker’s narrative moves from the professional development of orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists to the curative workshops, or hospital spaces where disabled soldiers learned how to repair automobiles as well as their own artificial limbs. The story culminates in the postwar establishment of the Veterans Administration, one of the greatest legacies to come out of the First World War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226482552
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Beth Linker is associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

War's Waste

Rehabilitation in World War I America

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-48253-8

Chapter One

The Problem of the Pensioner

On September 29, 1915, one hundred thousand visitors descended upon Washington, DC, for what was billed as the most exhilarating military parade in decades. Red, white, and blue adorned the parade route; American flags—now embroidered with forty-eight stars after the recent acquisition of Arizona and New Mexico—fluttered from windows and housetops. As throngs of people lined up from the Capitol Building to the White House, submarine torpedo boats navigated north up the Potomac River, docking in the Navy Yard near Georgetown Heights. The weather was "ideal," according to one Los Angeles Times reporter: a crisp autumn morning.

The participants in the parade were autumnal as well. This was not a dispatch of young American troops to the European theatre of war, the "crimson battle" that had been killing men by the hundreds of thousands since June 1914 (the United States would not commit to fighting the Great War until April 1917). Rather, this was a commemoration of Union war veterans. The gray-bearded "boys of '65" planned to retrace the path they took fifty years earlier, recreating the "Grand Review"—a parade that President Andrew Johnson arranged to celebrate victory over the Confederacy. Even by 1915 standards, the Grand Review was considered to be "one of the most spectacular military incidents of the history of the world." Approximately thirty thousand veterans marched in military formation along Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Woodrow Wilson assumed the same position that Andrew Johnson did a half-century earlier on a grandstand in front of the White House. Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was the first southern-born president to preside over an anniversary parade of the Grand Review. At the sound of a 10:00 a.m. cannon shot, Wilson's Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic Colonel David Palmer, joined Wilson on stage. Dressed in a conventional frock coat and silk hat, Wilson stood silently for four hours watching the procession of 30,000 elderly men (only a fifth of the original number of participants), who were, on average, 72 years of age. The men veered left and right toward cheering audiences, shaking hands, and gesturing for more applause. Eager to catch up with old friends, they talked "incessantly" along the parade route, at times drowning out the tried and true tunes of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." When the disorderly platoons finally reached the grandstand, however, they "prettied up" to salute President Wilson and the other dignitaries. Wilson reportedly had tears in his eyes on and off throughout the procession.

There were many reasons for Wilson to shed a tear on this day, for this dedication to the past seemed to portend the future. Only months earlier, the president, known for his commitment to peace, ordered Secretaries Garrison and Daniels to expand the army and navy, transforming the small 100,000-man US military into a world-class fighting power. Wilson's shift from neutrality to military preparedness evolved over the summer months of 1915, following the German submarine attack on May 7 on the Lusitania, a commercial British liner that sank, leading to the death of 128 Americans. Tensions on the diplomatic front, as well as within the Wilson administration, ran high. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a well-known pacifist, resigned from office a month after the Lusitania sinking, convinced that war with Germany was in the offing. The fact that Wilson wanted to expand the army and not just the navy gave Bryan all the proof he needed. Building a navy could be construed as a purely defensive move undertaken to protect American ships in enemy waters; expanding the army, however, indicated that the United States planned to send its own ground troops into trench warfare.

Not all Americans who watched the semicentennial parade of the Grand Review felt the stirrings of patriotism produced by the military display of wars past or imminent. Despite the fact that in early twentieth-century America, the Civil War frequently "offered a mother lode of nostalgia," evoking sentimental memories of battle and glory in which romance often triumphed over reality, certain Americans found these veterans guilty of dragging the nation down a path toward moral and economic decline. Contrary to the hero-worship displayed by the cheering crowds on the parade route, a growing number of early twentieth-century journalists, elected officials, social scientists, and politicians argued that the Civil War veteran who had once been honored for his sacrifice in battle was "now no better than [a] deserter, a straggler ... a coward."

The Civil War veteran's fall from grace arose not from antiwar sentiments, but rather from perceived injustices occurring in the Treasury Department, the branch of government responsible for paying out pensions to veterans after the war. By 1915, the aggregate cost of the 50-year-old pension system exceeded $3 billion dollars, with the US government paying out over $200,000,000 annually. Most Americans assumed that the cost of Civil War pensions would take a drastic plunge by the early twentieth century, since, fifty years after the war, very few veterans would still be living and able to make benefit claims. But the opposite happened. With the passing of each year of the twentieth century, more and more money went into the pension system. By 1915, the cost of the pension system had exceeded the actual cost of the Civil War itself.

The men who benefited most from the pension system were precisely the men marching in the anniversary Grand Review parade—the men of the Union, the former soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The pension system was originally established in 1862, a year after the War of the Rebellion commenced, as a way to recruit soldiers. Thereafter, the pension remained a prize granted exclusively to the victors of war. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Confederate veterans were repeatedly denied Civil War pensions. Black veterans, whether Union or Confederate, faced a similar yet more dismal fate. The Pension Bureau engaged in explicit racism when it came to African-American claimants. Not only did fewer African Americans actually apply for pensions, but many who did were denied. The majority of the pension money therefore went to white, GAR veterans who came from the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern region of the country. The home states of these beneficiaries—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Missouri—collectively became known as "the pension belt."

In the years leading up to World War I, certain Progressive reformers began to see the veteran as a problem to the social order. This chapter tells the story of why Progressive Era reformers wanted to overhaul the pension system and how the call for reform set into motion the eventual institutionalization of rehabilitation. The primary criticism of the Civil War veteran welfare system was that it allowed pensioners to live off the government without the government expecting anything in return. The promise of rehabilitation was that it would get veterans, whether injured or not, back into the workforce, making them productive, tax-paying citizens. The reformers who criticized and effectively brought about the end of the Civil War pension system by 1917 were the same reformers who established institutions of physical and vocational rehabilitation as a substitute for pensions.

The World War I veteran returning home in November 1918 would, in many ways, walk a path different from that of the gray-bearded boys of '65 marching down Pennsylvania Avenue that September day. The notion of what the country owed its citizen-soldiers injured from war was radically redefined during the Wilson administration. The veterans of America's First World War were expected to become citizen-workers once their military service was over; they were to make useful lives, not to languish at the expense of the US Treasury. In a real sense, they were expected to be the opposite of the Civil War veteran. Thus, to understand why a program in rehabilitation was created in the first place, one must have an appreciation for how the Civil War pensioner became a problem that Progressive reformers aimed to solve.

Creating a Veteran Welfare State

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had one of the world's largest singularly targeted welfare plans, providing generous sums of money for its veterans of war. A century later, it is hard to believe that the United States ever outpaced Europe in welfare spending, but contemporary critics of the Civil War pension system were well aware of the fact. With the "Old World" serving as a benchmark for imperialism, socialism, and overtaxation, one early twentieth-century critic of the system noted, with disdain, that the United States spent twice as much on its veterans as did Germany, France, and Great Britain combined. Such evidence led another critic to conclude—well before the Bolshevik Revolution—that America was "approaching not socialism, but communism in [its] pension measures."

Yet the Civil War pension system was not intended to serve as a welfare-state program. Congress passed the General Law of 1862 because the Union needed more soldiers. The North paid a heavy toll during the first several months of war, and the pension plan was seen as a way to persuade men to volunteer for service instead of conscripting soldiers as the Confederacy was doing. Although this measure of political persuasion proved to be ineffective in raising a large enough army (the Union Conscription Act was instituted in March 1863), the General Law served as the baseline for the Civil War pension system well into the twentieth century.

The fact that Congress instituted a pension program covering a war that was still being waged was unprecedented. The United States adopted its first veteran pension after the Revolutionary War. By the 1810s, stories abounded of old war heroes being forced to "totter from door to door" with "desponding heart and palsied limb," begging for alms. In the absence of a federal system of poor relief, as Great Britain had, President James Monroe in 1818 proposed a two-tier pension benefit based on military rank and financial need: officers received $240 annually while noncommissioned officers and privates collected $96 a year. To get the money, however, claimants had to provide testimony of service and an "oath of indigency" certified by a court of record.

To certain congressmen, the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818 undermined the republic, creating a privileged class—here, white veterans—subsidized by taxes on the poor. Others argued that it flew in the face of "the republican ideal of the citizen soldier who serves his country out of a sense of duty rather than for material gain." Republican senator Nathaniel Macon from North Carolina warned that, in addition, it would set a dangerous—and costly—precedent. "To undertake to provide for those who will not provide for themselves," Macon argued, "will, on experiment be found an endless task ... it will drain the treasury, no matter how full." Supporters of the pension countered with assurances that it would be a short-lived program that would apply to fewer than 2,000 men. When the bill was eventually passed on March 18, 1818, the Senate estimated that it would cost approximately $115,000.

Such forecasts proved naïve. Within the first six months of the bill's passage, the War Department received over 20,000 applications. A year later, the cost of the program amounted to nearly $2 million, seventeen times more than predicted. Despite repeated objections, the pension law persisted, altered only by courts applying stricter forms of means-testing in order to weed out the thousands of wealthy applicants who submitted fraudulent claims. With more stringent means-testing in place during the 1820s, the Revolutionary War pension system became, according to historian John Resch, a "quasi-poor law," making the federal government the almoner for the country's indigent veterans and their dependents.

In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the past, the framers of the 1862 General Law adopted a different system of means-testing, one based on degree of disability, rather than on poverty. Thus, those who created the General Law instituted a system heavily reliant on expert testimony to establish a claimant's honesty. Whereas supporters of the Revolutionary War pension believed that veterans should not have to be subjected to the "humiliating [process] of ... producing surgeons' certificates" attesting to a claimant's physical state of being, the General Law insisted that medical evaluations were necessary to keep the system free from fraudulent claims. The end result was a complex filing process that relied on physician affidavits, personal testimonies, notaries, and lawyers. The Pension Bureau—a federal department that grew to be one of the largest employers in Washington, second only to the US Postal Service—would then review and process the claim.

At the outset, the General Law was more comprehensive and broader in scope than the 1818 system, providing compensation to war widows, dependents, and veterans disabled by injury and disease. Indeed, for the first time in the nation's history, men disabled from chronic disease, such as tuberculosis, were eligible for pensions. Benefits were further expanded in March 1865, just two weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union, when Congress established the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (later renamed the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers). Before national homes had been established, local philanthropic organizations took responsibility for helping injured Civil War soldiers recuperate. In the North, middle- and upper-class women established privately run soldier's homes in almost every major urban center. Yet by war's end, the numbers of the returning injured put too much demand on the private sector, forcing the creation of a nationalized institution for disabled soldiers.

Put together, the General Law and the National Home for Disabled Soldiers moved a country that was historically suspicious of consolidated federal power into a full-fledged—albeit highly selective—welfare provider. According to historian Patrick J. Kelly, during the first two decades of its existence, the National Home provided shelter and care to one out of every twenty men who served in the Union forces. And it did so, according to Kelly, with little public resistance. "At this institution," he writes, "Americans witnessed with great equanimity and barely a word of protest, a significant example of the state's capacity to assume a social welfare responsibility previously accepted on the local level."

Support for soldiers' homes and the General Law was primarily found in the North—the region that benefited most from such measures—and within the Republican Party. Throughout the Gilded Age, the Republican Party was notorious for the campaign tactic of "waving the bloody shirt" in order to activate wartime memories of the North's victory over the South, heightening sympathy for Union soldiers who struggled to save the nation. In short, the bloody shirt was a way for Republicans to demonize Democrats as the party of traitors. At the same time, the GAR evolved into a powerful political machine, an organization that lobbied Congress on behalf of Union veterans. The GAR could make or break an election, as long as Union veterans voted en bloc.

The revenue for the Civil War pension program came from tariffs on imported goods. The Republican Party favored high tariffs as a way to stem marketplace competition coming from foreign countries, keeping domestic industrial employment steady and wages high. While such tariffs worked to the benefit of northern manufacturers, they hurt southern cotton producers and western agriculturists. Because of Republican commitment to tariff protectionism, Democrats accused the GOP of being nothing more than the tool of northern capitalists. Indeed, certain Democrats believed that the Republican Party, contrary to its espousal of honoring Union veterans who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country, used the Civil War pension system to further the tariff agenda, siphoning off unseemly surpluses that accumulated in the US Treasury from high tariffs.


Excerpted from War's Waste by BETH LINKER Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Roots of Rehabilitation

1 The Problem of the Pensioner

2 Reconstructing Disabled Soldiers

3 A New Female Force

4 Maximalist Medicine at Walter Reed

5 The Limb Lab and the Engineering of Manly Bodies

6 Propaganda and Patient Protest

7 Rehabilitating the Industrial Army

Epilogue: Walter Reed, Then and Now





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