The Soldier Vote


THE World War created among five million young Americans a bond that few would care to sever. It gave them at once a common tradition and a training in disciplined coöperation.

When the war ended, common need gave them another common cause. The majority were in immediate want of physical or economic assistance — ‘rehabilitation’ is the trade-name used by veterans themselves. Means of organization were not lacking. The Veterans of Foreign Wars had been in existence for a generation. All who had been overseas were entitled to membership. The American Legion was organized within six months after the Armistice. The Disabled American Veterans of the World War and the Military Order of the World War were created to represent special classes of veterans — the disabled and the commissioned personnel. There are other societies less prominent. All avow principles of patriotism and mutual helpfulness.

Two years of battle ‘hue and cry’ converted the leaders of these new organizations into crusaders, anxious to tilt their lances against any and all foes — even windmills. Agitation against the ‘Red Menace to Americanism’ was then at its height. Alarmed patriots sought to create a bulwark between established institutions and revolutionary radicalism. The disabled were in a bad way, lacking anything like a just system for their compensation. Thousands of their comrades were eager to fight their battles.

Some of the leaders who swam to the top of this ferment had downright genius for organization. Young lawyers, having to make a second start in their profession, became noticeably active in the ranks of both new and old veteran organizations. They were needed as spokesmen for their less articulate buddies. The consideration that work among their late comrades would find them many immediate and prospective clients certainly was no deterrent to their activities. Other young professional men found similar opportunities for service and for practice. As each worked for the benefit of his chosen organization, he built up not only the organization but a personal following. This following, in a majority of cases, he still retains, and in many instances he has vastly augmented it.

To remain a leader of men, the leader needs popular issues. Among veterans issues were never lacking. Civil service preferment, rehabilitation, employment campaigns, welfare work in a score of phases — all were ready-made for the leaders, or, if these failed, Bolshevism remained.

All through this yeasty period the demand for a bonus to all honorably discharged veterans had been growing. At first the Legion and other organizations held aloof. But post commanders, representing in late 1920 nearly ten thousand units in the Legion alone, reported that their memberships favored a bonus drive. The veterans began to base their pro-bonus reasoning on the matter of time lost in service, not on the service itself. So the bonus drive crystallized in the Adjusted Compensation Bill which was finally passed by Congress in May over the President’s veto. Seldom has any legislation been fought so hard. Twice vetoed, it carried the House ot Representatives five times and the Senate three times. For whole months of the last four years it has been a conspicuous news-story of the national press. Politicians call it Soldier Legislation and say it was enacted out of deference toward, or fear of, the ‘soldier vote.’

Yet the bonus was not the consummation of veteran legislation; it was only a seeming and temporary climax. Neither was it the beginning of that kind of legislation urged by the soldier vote; in fact it followed nearly two hundred other bills passed at the instigation of veterans. The other bills were less spectacular; to the man in the street they may appear far more constructive. But the soldier vote will see that Congress in the future passes thousands of bills yet to be conceived.


This is no arbitrary prophecy. It is based on historical precedent. Bonuses and other prerequisites have been granted to American veterans ever since the French and Indian Wars of colonial days. They have been granted after every war which has engaged the entire nation. Civil Service preferment, pensions to the veterans and their immediate families, even political preferment in all elective and appointive offices, have become almost the traditional right of American veterans.

Tammany Hall originated as an organization of the veterans of the American Revolution. So did the Order of the Cincinnati. Only one President who was not a war veteran — Cleveland — was elected in the thirty-five years following the Civil War. By the time of Taft, Civil War veterans had become too old to withstand the rigors of political life. Up to that time, however, the history of legislation in the United States had been marked at frequent intervals with laws that illustrated the power of the Grand Army. In practically every Northern State, men out of the Union armies were given Civil Service preferment. When Civil Service was instituted by the national Government, provision was made to advance veterans over employees who had not worn the uniform. Immediately after the Civil War land grants were given to almost any veteran who wanted land. This form of bonus only followed the precedents of the Colonial wars, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, and the several Indian wars. Through the activity of the Grand Army, the nation created eleven soldiers’ homes, in which any ex-service man was entitled to board and room if he were unable to support himself. The Grand Army may early have relinquished any political aspirations it held as an order, but veterans were never laggard in waving the bloody shirt to embarrass candidates who could not point to a war record. The epithet ‘copperhead’ was applied too freely to please men who had been of military age during the war but had not seen military service.

Only fifteen years after the Civil War had ended, a small pension had been granted to practically all Civil War veterans. The sum was increased gradually until it became a small competence for all who had worn the blue. This year it took a presidential veto to prevent enactment of a bill that would have augmented the pensions of all war veterans except those of the World War by an aggregate of almost $500,000,000. Yet, to bring into being a Bursum bill, only 100,000 Civil War veterans of the Union armies remain alive. Their political significance must therefore be out of all proportion to their numbers.

Veterans of the Spanish-American War, although numbering only about 250,000 all told, acquired almost immediately after that war a liberal pension law for disabilities such as malaria and rheumatism, besides the customary pensions of the time for wounds. The diseases from which Spanish War veterans suffered are generally attributable to the miasmic camp-sites and battle-grounds of the war, with their concomitants of chronic malaria and rheumatism. It is difficult to trace these diseases directly to war origin. The veterans’ pension system, therefore, has been liberalized from time to time ever since the war and was to become practically a blanket system with the Bursum bill.

Spanish War veterans have been especially enthusiastic in pressing claims for Civil Service preferment and have secured advantageous preferment bills in almost every State. The privileges they hold are not regional by States, as are the Civil Service privileges of Grand Army veterans. Spanish War veterans have benefited in other ways. Electoral and appointive political preferment came quickly. Theodore Roosevelt himself was nominated for Vice-President in 1900 partly on account of his splendid war record. These veterans have never been so active in National politics, however, as have those of the Grand Army, owing partly to the fact that their one all-inclusive organization, the United Spanish War Veterans, did not reach a strength commensurate with its name until comparatively recent years. Another reason for their seeming lack of interest in national affairs was their method of enlistment; almost all of them served in the National Guard — over 200,000 of the 250,000. The National Guard’s organization naturally exercises more power in the State than in the Nation.


So it was that the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans advocated a law ‘to adjust the compensation’ of men who fought in the World War. The Legion itself has about 700,000 active members; supporting veteran societies and their auxiliaries for women, all told, probably have not more than 500,000 members. Yet here is a political entity, already recognized by Congress, whose influence is far stronger than the numbers signify.

Although the Legion professes sincere opposition to any political activity that may be personal in its application, it was beyond question the foremost factor in convincing Congress that the bonus bill should be passed over the veto of President Coolidge. In the popular press, the Legion had approximately an even share of support. Among newspapers of ‘class circulation,’ the Legion was supported only by the Boston Transcript. In opposition to the bonus were financiers, the dispensers of economic and social patronage, and the influential classes generally.

If the Legion is opposed to personal politics, it may be asked. How did the Legion and the other veterans’ organizations persuade Congress to vote contrary to the President’s wishes? The answer lies in the fact that the Legion, while it may present an issue to the country, must leave the methods of pursuit largely to its individual membership. The soldier vote is not positive, but negative. It is a vote for nobody; it is a vote against anybody who opposes soldier legislation. The veterans’ organizations as a rule are composed of men who hold their military service dear. They are energetic patriots. But they are not above a certain political vindictiveness. Having been trained during nearly two years of war to hate well, they carry their training to the polls. As a result, they may find themselves facing the alternatives of voting for a man of opposite political faith or of not voting at all. The inevitable consequence is to assist in the election of a man, not because of his superior character or principles, but because of something, perhaps trivial to the rest of the electorate, which his opponent has done. It should be said in behalf of the veterans, that they will permit no pussyfooting or slurring over of any of their favorite issues; they demand outspokenness. They seem to believe that silence means opposition to their wishes.

Whatever the reader may think of the bonus, it is a fact that the average World War veteran approved. He wanted it. While the Veterans of Foreign War, the Legion, or any other organization would not have sponsored the candidacy of any man merely because he favored the bonus, they would have voted for no man who opposed the bonus. The result would have been the same. They would have seen to it that their friends and relatives who favored the bonus voted against candidates who opposed the bonus. Their ardor furnished ready-made machinery to get their vote to the polls.

Opposition to the bonus from within the Legion undoubtedly was stronger than opposition among ex-service men who did not belong. Inside were thousands who had joined because through the organization they found the most efficacious weapon in the fight for the disabled. Outside were millions who wanted the bonus, would lend voting strength to get it, even if they were not enough interested to pay dues. Within the Legion, perhaps sixty posts, with a total membership of perhaps 6000, opposed the bonus, and nearly every one of the 11,000 posts had at least a handful of members who were opposed to the measure. The Legion’s membership decreased from 850,000 in 1920 — before the bonus became a national issue — to about 725,000 at the close of 1923. This decrease, however, must not be considered too significant, because the Grand Army, during the same relative period of its existence, lost all but about 25,000 of its 400,000 original members. Moreover, the only veterans’ organization which made bonus opposition an issue, the ExService Men’s Anti-Bonus League, never claimed more than30,000 paid-up members. It was obvious to leaders within the Legion that the organization would lose more members by opposing the bonus than it would lose by supporting it. This opinion was strengthened by the election results of 1922.

Thirty-five candidates sought election or reëlection to the United States Senate that year. Seventeen were reëlected. Thirteen of the seventeen had voted to pass the bonus bill over the veto of President Harding. Four who had voted to sustain the veto were defeated by pro-bonus candidates of the opposition party. Six who had voted for the bill over the veto were defeated only by men as pro-bonus as themselves. Fourteen of the eighteen new Senators and thirteen of the reëlected old Senators were avowedly in favor of the bill.

The result in Indiana, proverbially typical in its reaction to political trends, reveals clearly the negative character of the soldier vote. Senator New, opposed to the bonus, was defeated in the Republican primary by Albert J. Beveridge. Beveridge in turn was defeated in the election by Samuel Ralston. Beveridge had been noncommittal about the bonus; Ralston had proclaimed himself in favor of it. In New Jersey, Senator Frelinghuysen, a close friend of President Harding and an opponent of the bonus, was beaten by Edward I. Edwards, who favored the bill at the time although he has since recanted. In New York, Royal S. Copeland easily defeated Senator Calder. In both Newr Jersey and New York newspaper opposition to the bonus had been bitter.

In the make-up of the lower House of Congress, the same influence had been at work. As yet the country does not seem to realize that nearly eighty Representatives are themselves veterans, — fifty of them veterans of the World War, — that the veteran representation grows in every Congress, and that, regardless of party, these ex-soldiers and sailors pull together on issues affecting their former comrades.


The bonus is an old story now, but not for years will Congress forget it. The American Genro — or Old Guard — has never taken kindly to the political aspirations of outsiders, and to have outsiders elevated above themselves by the power of a group of upstart youngsters was appalling. In the political upheaval of 1922, a swing toward progressivism eliminated New, Calder, and Frelinghuysen, but Henry Cabot Lodge survived. He was a strong supporter of the bonus. Conservatism was shocked. The prophecy became general that the bonus was but the opening wedge in the campaign for soldier legislation. Pensions and what-not were coming. Where would be the end?

There may be no end. Even as Tammany Hall to-day carries on largely as it carried on in the days of Aaron Burr, the soldier vote will be enabled to carry on until the last World War veteran is dead and the auxiliary societies which have sprung up around him have perished. Some of the soldier issues of four years ago are still alive. New ones are in process of being born. The disabled will be subjects of legislation for many years. To-day, the U. S. Veterans Bureau — itself the result of soldier legislation — offers a measure of care or compensation for illness only to the man who can trace his disability to war origin. The veterans as a rule want Government treatment for any disability, regardless of origin. Eventually they will make the demand.

Friends of the Civil Service and many of those protected by its rulings are already disturbed because the veterans want preferential treatment in Civil Service appointments. Many States have granted such preferment, and the Federal Government has granted it to a slight extent. More consideration for veterans will be asked and will be fought in Congress if necessary.

There are to-day 5000 orphans and half-orphans of World War veterans in the United States. The veterans’ organizations want pensions for these children. The Legion, anticipating the problems of the orphans with much the same foresight that enabled it to anticipate the problems of the disabled, already has instituted a series of ‘billets’ for orphans of World War veterans; but, unassisted, the Legion cannot maintain these and its other welfare activities. Other organizations doing child-welfare work are likely to oppose the Legion on this point, when, as it inevitably must do, the Legion goes to Congress for help.

Eventually pensions will be demanded. National conventions of the American Legion have declared against any form of horizontal pension; but it is safe to prophesy that efforts will be made in Legion conventions of the future to withdraw from a position that is contrary to the precedents of preceding veteran societies. The leaders who fathered the bonus may believe that the endowment insurance premiums that were given as the bonus, coming due as they will in twenty years, will forestall pension agitation; but what of the rank and file twenty years hence? No organization can remain seated on a political safetyvalve indefinitely and live. If the majority of veterans want pensions — whether the nation believes that they need pensions or not — the chances are that there will be organized pursuit of pensions.

It takes an issue like the bonus, or pensions, or Civil Service preferment, to arouse a fighting spirit among those who lead and guide the soldier vote. But while these issues are more or less under cover, the universal draft of men, money, and materials in the event of another war will furnish something to keep the crowd together. So will mothers’ pensions, immigration restriction, Japanese exclusion, antiradicalism —any of a dozen causes. And they will suffice.

The leaders will see that they suffice. The leaders want careers. Some want only political careers within the veteran organizations. These generally are unselfish, visionary men of ample means. Others want political careers outside the veteran ranks. They seek election and appointment to State and Federal offices. They can count upon finding ardent campaign workers in their posts and among men the veterans’ organizations have served. In America any activity that brings citizens together can be used to produce votes, directly or indirectly. Our rising young statesmen can be depended upon to exploit soldier friendships and veteran groups, just as their predecessors did, even though the organizations, as such, may eschew political objects.


There are fifty Congressmen who served in the World War. Most of them owe their election or appointment to their war records, and their affiliations with other veterans since the war. Some of them — young men like Hamilton Fish of Garrison, New York — ran on their war records as much as on any issues. Others, like Royal Johnson of South Dakota, were in Congress before the war. Five World War veterans have been elevated to the Senate. One of them — David Reed of Pennsylvania — voted to sustain the bonus veto. But he favors most of the remaining soldier legislation. Approximately twenty more Congressmen are veterans of other wars.

These seventy-odd men form a bloc. They are bound together by the ardent comradeship of war. Like soldier and sailor voters at the polls, they are ex-service men first on many issues, Republicans or Democrats next. They recognize no party lines in soldier legislation. In the House they have caused the creation of a Committee on Veteran Legislation. They caucus informally but effectively on proposals for veteran legislation and, because of the narrow Republican majority, they have held the balance of power in many parliamentary contests.

Soldier legislation after all is a small part of all the legislation that goes through the Congressional mill. But the veterans were almost unanimous in favoring immigration exclusion, — a favorite policy of the Legion, — and were practically unanimous in the compromise Johnson Immigration bill which became law. The veterans were a unit in urging the enactment of the bill creating the Veterans Bureau from an accumulation of small welfarebureaus within three Federal departments and placing it outside the influence of any cabinet officer. They unanimously supported a series of eighty-one bills this year to remedy apparent defects of the Veterans Bureau. They lent every possible assistance to the Senate investigation of the Veterans Bureau in 1923. They are practically unanimous in favor of the universal draft. There was some defection within their ranks when the Congressional minority attempted to amend the bonus bill this year to provide cash payments, but none of the veterans took the amendment, to the floor, as did Senator Copeland, who is not a veteran.

On the outside, but of real assistance to those inside, have been the legislative lobbies maintained by the veteran societies. John Thomas Taylor, the Legion’s principal representative at Washington, won recognition for his handling of the bonus campaign; yet he has handled other veteran drives on Congress with even more ready success. He knows how to capitalize the balance of power held by the veterans who arc Congressmen. Taylor learned politics as secretary to Boies Penrose.

In time the demands of the veterans upon Congress will become more and more emphatic and the veterans’ organizations will be larger and more influential. If the Legion follows the cycle of the Grand Army of the Republic, it should grow from the present 700,000 members to 2,000,000. Having acquired a political following by serving their late comrades, those veterans who lean toward politics will never lack influence. The highest offices in the land await them.

When the bonus fight was at its height, t he American Legion caused approximately a million letters and telegrams to descend upon Congress in a period of about two weeks, asking that the bill be passed. Imagine the effect of the correspondence that would come from an organization of two millions!

And imagine the effect of the political wrath of such an organization! Today, the veteran wrath is feared. Say what you will, that is why the bonus was passed over the President’s veto. The veteran vote is negative, not positive. Because the veto was unsuccessful and the bonus passed, the soldier vote may never be directed against President Coolidge. Victors hold few grudges. But if the bonus had failed there is no doubt that the soldier vote would leave its mark on the November results, as assuredly it will do in many Novembers to come.