Veterans' Organizations

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VETERANS' ORGANIZATIONS. In their purest form, veterans' organizations, which are voluntary associations, restrict their membership to former members of the military. Mostly social, fraternal, and service-oriented in their activities, veterans' organizations have also lobbied Congress, and later the Department of Veterans Affairs, for members benefits. Some also actively participate in electoral politics.

Most veterans' organizations emerged after specific wars; that is, their members served mainly in particular conflicts. General Henry Knox and other Revolutionary War officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati at Newburgh, New York, in 1783 to ensure their political clout in the new republic. The Cincinnati members soon turned to lobbying Congress for back pay and pensions. With the death of its last actual veteran in 1854, the society became exclusively hereditary. The Aztec Club, for officers of the Mexican-American War, successfully lobbied Congress to appropriate funds for the creation and maintenance of the current American soldiers' cemetery in Mexico City.

Individual Civil War units formed local veterans' organizations: in the North, posts; in the South, encampments. Benjamin F. Stephenson, of Decatur, Illinois, merged northern posts into the Grand Army of the Republic in 1866. In 1890 the GAR counted over 400,000 members. S. Cunningham and J. F. Shipp federated the southern state and local encampments into the United Confederate Veterans at New Orleans in 1889. At the time of their 1911 gathering at Hot Springs, Arkansas, the UCV numbered over 12,000. The United Spanish War Veterans (1899) also took in veterans of later conflicts in the Philippines, Haiti, and Central America, giving the USWV a total membership of 19,000 as late as 1964.

Amvets (1944) copied this ploy. Originally a strictly World War II veterans' organization, it added veterans from Korea, Vietnam, and peacetime service for a membership of 176,000 in 2000. The Vietnam War produced several veterans' organizations: the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition (1983), representing 325,000 veterans in 2000; the Vietnam Veterans of America (1978), with 45,000 members in 2002; and Veterans of the Vietnam War, with 15,000 members in 2002.

After World War I and the acceptance of universal conscription, many veterans began to see themselves as an emerging social class with political power. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States originally sought to rival the United Spanish War Veterans by accepting only those involved in overseas conflicts, but soon focused on the two World Wars, reaching two million members in 2000. The American Legion began as a professional association for volunteer soldiers, but in 1919 the American Expeditionary Force officers in Paris, France, turned it into a veterans' organization; it had three million members in 2000. These two organizations actively advocated an extreme form of patriotism that they both labeled "Americanism." The American Veterans Committee (1944) began as a liberal alternative, but its ties with U.S. communists kept it small in size, with 15,000 members in 2000. All three organizations tirelessly promulgated outreach programs to school children, flag rituals, and anniversary observances. Like service clubs, they flourished in small-town America.

After World War II, specialized veterans' organizations for branch of service, military unit, naval vessel, and military specialization emerged. They existed primarily for their reunions and history-related activities, accepting all family members of both veterans and nonveterans. In 1964, sixty-one national veterans' organizations had 7.8 million members. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognized sixty-eight national organizations with 8.5 million members.


Minott, Rodney. Peerless Patriots: Organized Veterans and the Spirit of Americanism. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1962.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Directory of Veterans Organizations. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1981.

Encyclopedia of Associations. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 1961–. Thirty-six editions as of 2000.


See alsoCincinnati, Society of the .