Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A 'Hard-Boiled Order': The Reeducation of Disabled WWI Veterans in New York City

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A 'Hard-Boiled Order': The Reeducation of Disabled WWI Veterans in New York City

Article excerpt

Upon discharge, most veterans of the American Expeditionary Force received $60, a new suit of clothes, a train ticket home, and the opportunity to purchase a modest life insurance policy. Unless they had been wounded, women serving as nurses and assistants in World War I more often than not received nothing. (1) The United States government, however, intended to repay its debt to soldiers disabled during the war by providing free vocational reeducation.

As a group, veterans have been able to make effective claims on the resources of the federal government. Indeed, the pensions granted to veterans of the Union army and their dependents after the Civil War represent the first major form of federal public assistance in the United States. (2) The claims of disabled veterans have been even more powerful. After the Civil War, for example, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) garnered even more political support than popular pension legislation providing benefits to all veterans. As Jennifer Keene has demonstrated, the process of conscription during the First World War further encouraged soldiers to view their military service as a mutually-binding covenant with the state. During the war and its aftermath, able-bodied and wounded soldiers alike demanded that military officials respect their input in matters of training, discipline, and demobilization. Because of this sense of political entitlement, Keene refers to the Doughboys of World War One as "citizen solders." (3)

The expectations of these self-styled patriots, however, clashed with a countervailing definition of patriotic duty. As Cynthia O'Leary has argued, the meaning of patriotism has been hotly contested during periods of warfare and memorializing in the United States. Employed by a wide range of interest groups, patriotic appeals have alternatively emphasized either the fulfillment of one's duty to the nation or for the respect for the nation's democratic and egalitarian ideals. According to O'Leary, World War I marked the first time that the United States government actively intervened in this debate and articulated a duty-oriented version of patriotism. (4) Many federal policymakers, for example, expected that veterans should continue to put national interests ahead of their own preferences by accepting the first available job in whichever industry was experiencing the greatest shortage of labor.

Thus, as large numbers of wounded soldiers began to return from Europe in 1918, the stage was set for a conflict both within the federal government and between the government and veterans. Making matters more complicated, the federal government made an unprecedented commitment to retraining wounded soldiers for the labor market; rather than simply increasing the amount of pensions for disabled soldiers or providing permanent national veteran accommodations as it had after the Civil War. Throughout the period of postwar reconstruction, the Federal Board of Vocational Education (FBVE) promised to enable wounded veterans to return to their prewar occupations or to qualify for new jobs. By and large, wounded veterans approved of this change in policy. As David Gerber has stated, wounded veterans foreshadowed the direction of the modern disability rights movement by advocating for policies of inclusion and self-sufficiency. (5) Though Gerber focuses on veterans disabled during WWII, he indicates that this support for self-determination dates back to the interwar period. This essay explores that transitional moment. Focusing on the failure of reeducation in New York City, I argue that vocational rehabilitation became a focal point of conflict. The state and wounded veterans worked to define their mutual obligations and confronted the nation's conflicting commitments to democracy and social efficiency. (6)

Though the project of vocational rehabilitation struggled across the country, the FBVE's District 2, the New York Board of Vocational Education (NYBVE), received more formal complaints than all other regional districts combined. …

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