Final Public Oral Exam: Olivier Burtin

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
September 5, 2017 - 1:00pm
Audience: 
Public

A Nation of Veterans: The American Legion and the Politics of Veterans' Citizenship

Committee:

Julian Zelizer, adviser
Margot Canaday
Kevin Kruse
James Sparrow, University of Chicago

Abstract:

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the United States built the world’s most generous system of welfare benefits for war veterans. The array of services available to this group—from hospitals to life insurance to cash bonuses—grew so disproportionately vast that contemporary observers considered the American welfare state to be essentially a “veterans’ state.” At its core was the idea that military service turned former soldiers into a distinct class of citizens entitled to privileged treatment. Between roughly 1940 and 1960, this notion of “martial citizenship” was firmly embedded in public policy, resulting in the division between civilians’ and veterans’ welfare states that persists today. And yet despite the continuing importance of this dual framework, its origins are still misunderstood. While academic historians have overlooked the massive growth of veterans’ benefits during this period beyond just the “G.I. Bill of Rights” of 1944, the popular myth persists that these advantages were bestowed merely out of widespread gratitude for the victory of World War II veterans (the “Greatest Generation”) in the “Good War” against the Axis powers.

This dissertation shows instead that veterans had to wage a fierce political fight to obtain and then defend their benefits against the determined opposition of both liberals and conservatives. Like any other group making claims on the state, former soldiers had to organize around their interest groups—the largest and most influential of which being the American Legion, the focus of this project. In so doing, veterans formed the most powerful social movement in wartime and postwar America. Their success stemmed from the ability of “parastate” organizations such as the Legion not simply to bring together seasoned political executives in the nation’s capital and passionate grassroots activists across the country, but to claim to be speaking on behalf of all veterans even though their movement was in fact deeply divided along racial, gender, and generational lines. In reminding us of the highly contested nature of the growth of veterans’ welfare state, this dissertation ultimately dispels the traditional notion that the postwar period was defined by a politically stifling “Cold War consensus.”


A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.