016 Recovering Soldiers WalterReed Needlework c1918 LoCConvalescing soldiers performing needlework as occupational therapy at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C., c.1918.

1921: Veterans Bureau is born - precursor to Department of Veteran Affairs 

By Jeffrey Seiken, Ph.D., Historian, Veterans Benefits Administration
via the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office

President Harding's mission

When he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1920, Warren G. Harding issued a solemn promise to the more than four million Americans who had served in the U.S. armed forces during what was then simply called the World War: “It is not only a duty, it is a privilege to see that the sacrifices made shall be requitted, and that those still suffering from casualties and disabilities shall be abundantly aided and restored to the highest capabilities of citizenship and enjoyment.” (1)

At the time of the election, dissatisfaction with the benefits programs for World War I Veterans ran rampant throughout the country. Discharged soldiers, influential Veterans groups such as the 800,000- strong American Legion, politicians, and the press alike agreed that the current system was, if not broken, in dire need of reform. The over 200,000 service members who returned from the war with physical or mental ailments were eligible for several different types of benefits, but they had to navigate the bureaucracies of three different federal agencies to receive them: the Bureau of War Risk Insurance (BWRI) for insurance and compensation, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) for medical and hospital care, and the Federal Board for Vocational Education for rehabilitation, education, and job training.

In the eyes of its critics, this system was not only confusing and inefficient, but it also failed to deliver to disabled Veterans the benefits and services that were their due. All insurance and disability claims had to be processed by the BWRI central office in Washington, DC, and the staff struggled to keep up with the 20,000 or more requests that flooded the mail room on average each month. The PHS also came under fire for the quality of the hospital services it provided. The agency relied on a patchwork network of government-owned or leased hospitals supplemented with beds contracted at civilian hospitals, but conditions in these facilities varied widely. Furthermore, the demand for care exceeded the supply. A 1920 report estimated that another 10,000 beds would be needed in the upcoming fiscal year, primarily for Veterans suffering from tuberculosis and psychological illnesses. Finally, the vocational training made available to disabled Veterans at commercial schools, factories, businesses, and other private facilities produced few positive results. Only a small fraction of the over 200,000 beneficiaries eligible for rehabilitation actually completed their assigned program.

Harding won the 1920 election in a landslide and after his inauguration in March 1921, his administration took on the task of fixing the defects in the benefits system.The presidential committee he appointed in April 1921 required just a few days of hearings to identify the root of the problem: “The principal deplorable failure on the part of the government to properly care for the disabled veterans is due in large part to an imperfect organization of government effort.” (2) The solution? The committee recommended consolidating the programs for disabled Veterans of the World War into an independent federal agency led by an executive who reported directly to the president.

Congress took up the committee’s proposal and by summer passed Public Law 67-47, popularly known as the Sweet Act after the name of the legislator who introduced it, establishing the Veterans Bureau. Harding signed the bill into law one hundred years ago this week, on August 8, 1921. The next day, he named Charles R. Forbes, a personal friend and decorated war Veteran who was currently running the BWRI, as the bureau’s first director. 

In its first annual report submitted to Congress in 1922, the new agency hailed its creation as “one of the epochs of veteran relief.” (3) While that was perhaps overstating the case, the founding of the Veterans Bureau did mark an important stage in the evolution of the benefits system. With the stroke of a pen, Harding brought into existence a vast new organization with broad powers, expansive responsibilities, and a budget that was one the largest in the federal government.

Read the entire article on the VA History Office web site.

External Web Site Notice: This page contains information directly presented from an external source. The terms and conditions of this page may not be the same as those of this website. Click here to read the full disclaimer notice for external web sites. Thank you.