The Veterans' Bonus and the Evolving Presidency of Warren G. Harding

Article excerpt

Between July 1921 and September 1922, the administration of Warren G. Harding was embroiled in a prolonged dispute with Congress on the issue of cash compensation for veterans of the First World War. The "soldiers" bonus debate was not a straightforward partisan struggle. In arguing its case for fiscal restraint in a time of recession, the Republican White House faced not only a coalition of Democrats and dissident Republicans but also the organized might of the American Legion of Ex-Servicemen, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups. Further, the confrontation worsened tensions in an already-divided and rebellious Congress and raised the specter of class conflict by aggravating the resentment felt by many war veterans at their postwar economic status.

For scholars of the presidency, the most compelling feature of this dispute is its impact upon the leadership style and political convictions of Warren Harding. The countervailing pressures exerted by party leaders, lobbyists, journalists, and members of Congress upon the president, this article will suggest, forced him to abandon, at least temporarily, his settled political convictions. His once unshakable faith in Congress as a responsible legislative body was weakened and his confidence in partisan politics as a governing tool similarly declined. Harding's conduct during the bonus controversy, it will be argued, differs significantly from the stereotypical portrait of this "weak-willed" president--a portrait still more or less embedded in standard surveys of American history. This article adopts the broadly revisionist perspective of early 1920s politics offered within The Available Man (Sinclair 1965), The Harding Era (Murray 1969), and Warren G. Harding (Dean 2004) but suggests that, to date, curiously little emphasis has been placed upon the bonus debate as an important contributing factor toward what has been termed Harding's "metamorphosis" in office (Sinclair 1965).

The Harding Mythology

Unusual for a twentieth-century administration, there are comparatively few detailed, scholarly assessments of Harding's tenure. This is partly an accident of circumstance. His landslide election in November 1920 closed out an epoch of progressive reform and war, whereas his death, in August 1923, came only months before the true beginning of the "Roaring Twenties" and the later descent into depression and world war. Harding's presidency, therefore, tends to be regarded as something of a historical backwater, overshadowed at either end by momentous events and colorful characters. (1)

Conversely, the personality of the twenty-ninth president has drawn attention and criticism entirely disproportionate to his seemingly dismal historical status. Portrayals of Harding published before the 1960s generally depicted him as a lazy, tragicomic figure, hen-pecked by a domineering wife, "controlled" by a corrupt political manager, "befuddled" by the complexities of policy making, and "overawed" by the responsibilities of his office. After his death, writers generally unsympathetic to his conservative social and political views produced accounts of the administration heavily reliant upon secondhand, impressionistic sources and, in some instances, simple gossip. (2) For four decades, as legal wrangles delayed the release of the late president's papers, these accounts were the primary source of reference for students of history. Equally dubious "memoirs" published by Harding's reputed mistress and by a discredited former Secret Service agent inflicted further damage by focusing public attention upon melodramatic stories of illegitimate children and murder plots. (3) Subsequently, it seemed, no criticism of Harding or his administration could be deemed too derogatory or overblown. Thomas A. Bailey, who largely blamed Harding for terminating Woodrow Wilson's hopes for U.S. membership in the League of Nations, dismissed him as "morally sick" (Bailey 1945, 353). …