Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Reforming the Veteran: Propaganda and Agency in the First World War Reconstruction Hospitals

Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Reforming the Veteran: Propaganda and Agency in the First World War Reconstruction Hospitals

Article excerpt


In December 1918, President Woodrow Wilson traveled to France aboard the USS George Washington to take part in peace conferences to end the Great War. It was a momentous occasion, marking the first overseas trip by a sitting American president. It was also a hopeful occasion, for Wilson had a plan to establish world peace based on progressive logic. His "Fourteen Points" represented continued faith in human progress: that the world, indeed that humanity itself, could be improved through the application of scientific principles supported by strong moral foundations.

To contemporary observers, progressive reforms worked. They reduced corruption, inspired competition, improved workplace safety, boosted productivity, and supported ideals about the family-all with the support of emerging expertise in the sciences. In the war itself, scientific expertise and innovation led to enormous success. Propaganda campaigns successfully sold the war to a skeptical public, economists advised the government in efficient resource management, and medical experts' innovations meant more soldiers survived the traumas of warfare than previous generations-one remarkable success that had the potential to cause different problems.

Fearing the potential costs associated with a generation of wounded veterans who would be dependent on the government, officials set out to apply progressive principles in reforming veterans' entitlements and rehabilitating disabled soldiers. It was a grand experiment that resulted in the formation of the structures that would become the modern veterans' health care system. But for that structure to stand, it needed a strong foundation, which was formed in the communities of veterans of an often-overlooked phase of the First World War.

The United States' entry into the First World War prompted progressives to reform veterans' entitlements in the hopes of creating a system that was insulated from corruption; was capable of turning disabled veterans into productive, independent members of society; and replaced pensions with medical care for wounded and disabled soldiers through the Reconstruction Hospital System. But these reforms would not take hold without support from the community of war veterans to which these reforms applied. By examining the communal values expressed in publications produced by and for soldiers, this paper explores the ways in which the Great War's veteran community expressed agency in the process of reforming the US veteran.


As President Wilson made his way to the Paris Peace Conference, the crew of the George Washington marked what was, for them, an even more momentous occasion than transporting the commander in chief to Europe. After a full year of ferrying more than 50,000 troops and many thousand tons of cargo from the United States to support the war effort in France, on December 16, 1918, the "President's Ship" was, for the first time, taking Americans home again. Chaplain P. F. Bloomhardt commented on the occasion in the ship's newspaper:

At last THE DAY has arrived. Ten times have troops disembarking from this ship heard the familiar farewell, "Some day we will be bringing you back and that will be some joy ride with lights on and smoking permitted on deck-a regular time, homeward bound." To this DAY, the men on this ship have been looking forward for almost exactly one year and now it has come. With it, is our welcome. [1]

The George Washington already had a long history by that point. Originally a German luxury liner equipped with the latest amenities, the ship dropped anchor in the then-neutral harbor of New York at the start of the war in 1914. After the United States' declaration of war on Germany in 1917, the Americans seized her and converted her into a troop carrier capable of carrying over 6,000 passengers and crew. The Navy even converted a portion of the ship's hold into a hospital capable of caring for as many as a thousand wounded soldiers at a time [2]. …

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