Pensions, Military and Naval

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PENSIONS, MILITARY AND NAVAL. The United States has granted pensions to participants in all its wars and to members of the regular army and navy in peace time. They include: (1) pensions for injuries incurred in the service or to dependents of those whose death was caused by the service; (2) qualified service pensions for service of specified length combined with some other qualification, such as age, disability, or indigence; and (3) pensions for service alone. Since World War II even the reserve components of the services have a retirement schedule.

The systems grew haphazardly. Before 1817 American wars were fought mainly by volunteer armies. Pensions were offered as inducements to enlistment in colonial wars and in the Revolution. Early federal enactments granting pensions to persons who had served in the Revolution provided only for disabilities incurred in the service. The first service pension law was enacted in 1818, and the first pensions for widows of soldiers of the Revolution were granted in 1836.

A separate system for the regular army and navy was established in 1790. The acts raising troops for the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War promised the volunteers the same pensions as the regulars, and acts increasing these pensions before 1862 applied alike to the army and navy, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War. The first service pension was granted for the War of 1812 in 1871, and for the Mexican-American War in 1887.

Two innovations appeared during the Civil War. First, the "general laws" of 1862, providing uniform pensions on account of death or disability of service origin for both regulars and volunteers of the armed forces, applied to future wars. Second, certain specific disabilities were pensioned in 1864 at higher rates than under the general laws.

A combination of political factors, including patriotism, the soldier vote, veterans lobbies, and pension attorneys,

led to the establishment in the United States of the most generous pension system in the world. President Grover Cleveland's vetoes of private pension bills and of the Dependent Pension Bill of 1887 made the subject an issue in the election of 1888. The act of 1890 gave a qualified service pension to Civil War veterans who, from any cause, were incapacitated for performing manual labor. In 1904 an administrative order made age above sixty-two years a pensionable disability under this act. The first Civil War pension for service alone was enacted in 1920. At the beginning of the Spanish-American War, volunteers and state militia were specifically granted the same pensions as regulars. In 1920 a qualified service pension was given to all above sixty-two years of age.

The philosophy of veteran treatment was transformed by World War I and its aftermath. Subsequently the able-bodied veteran shared immediate and substantial benefits with his less fortunate comrades-in-arms. The new policy began during the war with enactments of a liberal life insurance program and a $60 discharge allowance. Thereafter, benefits progressively grew, largely through the persistent, indefatigable efforts of the American Legion, organized in 1919, almost simultaneously with the federal Veterans Bureau, created to oversee the traditional care taking of casualties. Able-bodied veterans were soon lobbying for what was called the Bonus Bill, predicated on $1 per day for domestic service and $1.25 per day for overseas service. In 1924 Congress passed the bill over President Calvin Coolidge's veto. Sums exceeding claims of $50 were paid in life insurance certificates maturing in 1945, when the principal was to be paid. Compound interest and an adjustment scale made an average claim of $400 worth $1,000 at maturity. The depression came, and veterans organizations militated for preferential treatment. In 1931 Congress overrode President Herbert Hoover's veto to authorize veteran borrowing from the Treasury of amounts up to 50 percent of their certificates. The next year the Bonus Expeditionary Force marched on Washington, D.C., in a futile effort to force premature, lumpsum payment. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt's veto of a bill for such payment was sustained. In 1936 his veto was overridden and the then enormous sum of $2.491 billion was disbursed. It was an omen. From the Revolution to 1930 all federal disbursements to veterans totaled about $15 billion, a sum that by 1973 would cover only a year and a half of Veterans Administration (VA) commitments.

Established in 1930, the VA expanded rapidly in scope and complexity, originally befriending 4.6 million veterans, 3.7 percent of the U.S. population. By 1971 veterans numbered 28.3 million, a sizable 13.7 percent of the citizenry. It was estimated that they had about 97.6 million relatives, making 47 percent of the U.S. population actual or potential beneficiaries of the VA.

The major benefits provided by the VA are medical care, insurance, education and training, loans, and guardianship of minors and incompetents. Some 60 percent of the budget goes to compensation and pensions, the former to recompense veterans for the loss of earning power because of injury or disease arising from military service. Pensions recognize an obligation to give aid when necessary for non-service-connected disease or death. Some 20 percent of the VA budget goes for medical programs. In 1972 the VA maintained 166 hospitals and 298 other facilities, such as nursing homes and clinics, serving 912,342 inpatients. After World War II, GI bills of rights gave education or training to nearly 16 million veterans, besides their dependents. For World War II service, such benefits expired on 25 July 1956; for service in Korea, on 31 January 1965; and service after the Korean War generally provided an eligibility of eight years from the day of release from active duty. The first GI bill was generous, covering up to forty-eight school months all the costs of tuition, fees, and study materials and providing living allowances of a monthly $65–160, scaled to the number of a veteran's dependents.

By 1972 the VA had a staff of 182,546 people, almost exactly ten times the size of the regular army at the out-break of the Civil War, underscoring the great expansion in veteran benefits since then. By the end of the 1990s, the annual fiscal 1999 VA budget was over $40 billion.


Daniel, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1971.

McConnell, Stuart C. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Donald L.McMurry

R. W.Daly/a. g.

See alsoArmy, United States ; Bonus Army ; Bonuses, Military ; Defense, Department of ; Demobilization ; Pension Plans ; Soldiers' Home ; Veterans Affairs, Department of .