Saturday, December 19, 2015

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

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Christians have celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, on December 25th for centuries. Without any real record of Jesus' birth and without any information within a few generations of Jesus' time on earth providing any sort of date, how did we come to decide that Jesus was born on December 25?  Nothing in the Bible indicates any particular date.  For the first couple of centuries, there is no indication that early Christian communities celebrated the birth of Jesus at all, let alone on December 25.  Some Christian sects today celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6.

Roman Celebrations

One of many artists' renderings of the birth of Jesus.
In fact, we know almost nothing about how it actually appeared.
Some theorize that early Christian leaders chose the date to correspond with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was a week long celebration lasting from December 17 through December 25 as measured by the modern calendar.  This was  mid-winter celebration that was highly popular throughout the empire by the time of the Christian era.

Another theory is that it was meant to replace the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’. This was a celebration of the winter solstice, when the days began to get longer again.  It was also celebrated on December 25 (they were a few days off from what we know today as the actual solstice).  This was also a Roman civil holiday for the religion of Mithras.  Mithra was often portrayed as a baby in these celebrations marking the beginning of a new year (much like baby new year today).  Mithra was also popular in Egypt and Syria at this time.  These regions were also major centers of Christianity. Emperor Aurelian (214-275), was a proponent of the cult, making its holidays widely followed.  This was only a few decades before Emperor Constantine (272-337) made Christianity the State religion.

The notion, however, that early Christian leaders would simply perpetrate a fraud by declaring the date of Jesus' birth to blot out the holiday of another religion seems a bit odd.

Early Christmas References

The earliest reference to Christmas comes from the era of Constantine,  A Roman calendar from the year 354 AD references both the birth of Christ for the Christians and the Mithras celebration of the "unconquered sun" on that day. So the two were celebrated concurrently for at least some time.

There is no evidence that the Christian communities celebrated Jesus' birth for at least the first two centuries of Christian worship.  One early Church leader, Origen of Alexandria (165–264) writes mockingly about Roman practices celebrating birth anniversaries.  He dismisses them as "pagan" practices to be avoided. This indicates that Christians did not celebrate any birth anniversaries of their own.

Clement of Alexandria
The earliest reference we have to the birth of Jesus comes from Clement of Alexandria (150-215) who mentions a number of possible dates, none of which were in December:

“There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in the modern calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”

Augustine of Hippo
All of these dates fall in March or April, meaning no one contended Jesus was born in December or January.  Another clue comes from Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine notes around 400 AD that a mentions a local dissident Christian group known as the Donatists celebrated Christmas on December 25 but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 because it was an innovation.  Apparently the Donatists would not accept a date without a historical basis.  Since the Donatists were founded just after 300 AD, it would seem that they believed Jesus' December 25 birth was established before that time.

It that is case, the December 25 date was probably established at some time around 200-300 AD. During this period, Christianity was generally an illegal cult within the Roman Empire.  Church leaders were not in a position to blot out pagan holidays by reclassifying them during this period.  However, they may have wanted a celebration of their own at a time when everyone else was celebrating.

One theory that I find intriguing is based on the belief by early Church leaders that Jesus came into this word and left it on the same date.  The Gospels indicate the Jesus died during the Jewish celebration of Passover, which some in the early Church calculated to be March 25.  So, if Jesus was also conceived on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25.  When information was lacking, formulas like this were often employed to come up with a date.

No one knows for certain how December 25 came to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus.  It is, however, so deeply embedded now in western tradition that it would be impossible to change, even if conclusive proof of a different date was revealed.

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Further Reading:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rehearsals for Pearl Harbor

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Sometimes, the US can be its own worst enemy.  Such is the case leading up to the beginning of World War II.  American military planners essentially showed the enemy how best to attack the US military forces at Pearl Harbor, and then took no steps to fix the insufficient defenses.

In the years leading up to WWII, Pearl Harbor in the US territory of Hawaii served as one of the main Pacific naval bases for the US.  So many navy ships in one port in a relatively isolated group of islands made an attractive and easy target to any enemy seeking to cripple the US Pacific fleet.  Sure, it's easy for me to say that in hindsight.  But what about those who warned about it well ahead of time?

Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.  Could it have been avoided?
Gen. Mitchell Warns the Military, Gets Tossed Out 

Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell of the US Army was one of the first to draw concern to this danger.  After a 1924 tour of military forces in Asia,  Gen. Mitchell issued a lengthy report the following year warning of the growing Japanese air power.  He went into great detail about how Pearl Harbor could be easily attacked by Japanese air forces.  He said that the likely scenario would be a crippling attack on Pearl Harbor to take out the Navy, followed by an attack on military bases in the Philippines.  By eliminating the Navy, the Japanese could invade the Philippines with at least months before the US could rebuild a navy to respond.  His report even went so far as to predict the timing of the attacks down to the minute:

"Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island (Hawaii) at 7:30 A.M..... Attack to be made on Clark Field [Philippines] at 10:40 A.M. "

Of course, Mitchell got this wrong: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 at 7:55 A.M. and later at Clark Field, Philippines at 12:35 P.M. So Mitchell's estimate, 15 years in advance, was off by 25 minutes for Pearl Harbor and less than two hours for Clark Field in the Philippines!

The Mitchell Report, known as Winged Defense,  also criticized the lack of communication between the Army and Navy in Hawaii.  He noted that communication between the two branches would be critical during any attack, but that there were no systems in place to allow for this.

Gen. Billy Mitchell
Upon the issuance of this key report in 1925 by the man who had been in command of all US air combat in WWI, the military of course took immediate steps to develop better defenses for this military base that was the key to control of the Pacific....  Just kidding - all the more senior military officials either ignored or criticized the report.

One General commented that Mitchell's assumptions of possible enemy actions were unsound and preposterous. Another of his superiors claimed never to have seen the report until after it was published as a book a year later.  The military establishment had, for many years ignored or refuted Mitchell's compelling arguments that air power would dominate future military actions.  The 1925 report just made him too annoying.  Shortly after his report's publication, Gen. Mitchell was demoted to Colonel and transferred to a minor remote air base in San Antonio Texas, where he could be more easily ignored.

This is not to say everyone ignored him.  One government official commented:

"Should there be such a war,  America would have to fight it a long way from home...It would be gravely embarrassing to the American people if the ideas of your General Mitchell were more appreciated in Japan than in the United States." and "Our people will cheer your great Mitchell and, you may be sure, will study his experiments."

This official was a Mr. G. Katsuda from the Japanese Parliament, shortly after observing one of Mitchell's demonstrations of the superiority of air power against land and naval forces.  Japanese officials were invited observers.  These officials apparently took much more interest than US officials.

Unfortunately, one thing Mitchell was not good at was knowing when to shut up.  Shortly after banishing Col. Mitchell to Texas, military leaders sent a group of three sea planes on a public relations flight from California to Hawaii.  One failed to take off. One had to land at sea and be rescued shortly after takeoff.  The third ran out of fuel and also had to have its crew rescued after a sea landing. Around the same time, leaders sent a military airship, the Shenandoah on a public relations tour through the mid-west.  It crashed during a storm, killing all aboard.

Mitchell knew some of the men killed and angrily made the following statements to a newspaper: “These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments,” Mitchell continued: “The bodies of my former companions in the air moulder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity.”

For these comments, the military decided to court martial Mitchell for “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service.”  The Court found him guilty and suspended him from military service.  That was enough for Mitchell, who resigned from the Army and retired to farm in Virginia. He died there in 1936.

War Games in 1932 and 1938 Make Clear the Vulnerabilities

Mitchell, of course, was not the only officer to see the danger of leaving Pearl Harbor exposed to aerial attack.  In 1932, Admiral Harry Yarnell proved Mitchell's theory correct during war games against Pearl Harbor,  The Navy conducted annual war games in which a naval fleet from California would move on Pearl Harbor.  The Pearl fleet would then move to intercept and the mock battle would take place in open sea.  In 1932, Yarnell decided to maintain radio silence as his fleet advanced.  He attacked without battleships, using just two aircraft carriers and three destroyers.  He avoided trade routes where his ships might be seen and reported, and decided to hit with an air attack on Sunday, when he knew most sailors would be off duty.

The "attack" consisted of simple flares and bags of flour.  They were enough to convince the war game referees that Yarnell's attack would have sunk every ship in Pearl Harbor, as well as every land-based plane on Oahu.

Yarnell’s success proved the effectiveness of an aerial attack from a carrier.  As a result, officials altered area defenses to protect against a real surprise attack from the air....  Again, just kidding - the Navy ignored the results of the war games, arguing that in a real life scenario, their battleships would have found the aircraft carriers before they got within range and destroyed them.

Some military officials, however, recognized the significance of these war games.  In 1936, the Japanese Imperial Naval Academy made the 1932 war games against Pearl Harbor part of the curriculum for students.  The final exam that year asked the question "How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?"

In 1938 Admiral Ernest King used an aircraft carrier to launch an aerial attack to make the point that Pearl Harbor was still vulnerable to this type of attack.  With this second war game confirmation of its vulnerability to air attack, naval officials realized the first war game was not just a fluke and that they needed to reevaluate air defenses at Pearl Harbor.  Sorry, again just kidding.  The navy again argued that, despite two successful war game attacks, such a sneak attack was impossible in a real life scenario and that the results of these sneak attack war games meant nothing.

1940-41: US Military Lines Up Ships and Planes as Easy Targets

Adm. James Richardson
In 1940, it was determined that the navy should move its main fleet from San Diego California to Pearl Harbor.  The Commander in Chief of the US Fleet, James Richardson vehemently objected to this. According to a newspaper article written shortly after the war:

"It was Richardson's belief – and indeed generally supported by the Navy – that the Fleet should never be berthed inside Pearl Harbor where it would be a mark for attack. This was particularly true in such troubled times when the airways of the East were hot with rumors of approaching conflict. What is more, Richardson held the belief that Pearl Harbor was the logical first point of attack for the Japanese High Command, wedded as it was to the theory of undeclared and surprise warfare. For ten years the U.S. Navy held "attacks" on the Army defenses at Pearl Harbor, and were always successful. Defending the base was rather hopeless, in his mind."

Adm. Husband Kimmel
Adm. Richardson met with President Roosevelt in October 1940 to press his objections to this move. Roosevelt listened to the military concerns and soon responded -- by removing Richardson from command and turning over command to the more compliant Admiral Husband E. Kimmel in February 1941. Less than ten months later, Adm. Kimmel would be standing at the window of his office in Hawaii watching Japanese planes destroy his fleet in Pearl Harbor.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the military in Hawaii was completely unprepared for an attack. Gen. Walter Short, the Army commander in Hawaii, was more worried about sabotage than attack. Commanders feared Japanese sympathizers on Oahu might attack aircraft, vehicles, and buildings. To guard against any such sabotage, they parked aircraft wingtip to wingtip on the flight lines, out in the open at Hickam, Wheeler, Bellows, and other airfields, making them especially easy targets for Japanese planes. Ammunition was stored far from aircraft, in a central location, meaning it would take much more time to arm aircraft before they could take off if needed.

Gen Walter Short
The military did have radar, but did not bother to keep it running during the day.  It was scheduled to be turned off at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday December 7. The radar operators on duty that morning, however, continued to keep it running as the truck that was scheduled to take them to breakfast was running late.  They detected approaching aircraft at 7:02 a.m.  They reported the detection, but most of the command staff had already left for breakfast.  The Lieutenant who received the report assumed it was an incoming US bomber group scheduled to arrive that day.  The radar operators were told not to worry about it. Still, they followed the incoming planes until 7:40, then lost contact, because the planes descended below radar.  Since there were no other reports of suspicious activity, they thought nothing more of it and headed to breakfast.  It was only after arrival at the breakfast hall that the operators received word that the attack had begun.  They quickly returned to their posts, but by then the attack was well underway.

Planes lined up side by side by side on the runways
made easy targets.
Perhaps if the Army Lieutenant who received the radar report also knew that at 6:54 a.m. the destroyer USS Ward sank a Japanese midget submarine in the mouth of the harbor, he might have not been quite so quick to dismiss the radar report.  But this sinking by the Navy was not reported to Adm. Kimmel's staff for another half hour.  No one thought to report it to the Army at all  The poor Army/Navy communications that Gen. Mitchel had warned about 15 years earlier had not gotten any better.

The result of this lack of preparation and vigilance was a near total loss for the US.  The Army and Navy combined suffered 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.  By comparison, the Japanese attackers suffered 64 killed and one captured.  The US also had all eight of their battleships and 11 other ships damaged or destroyed. Japan suffered four mini-submarines sunk and a fifth captured after it ran aground.  No Americans even fired on the Japanese surface fleet.  The Army Air corps had 347 out of a total 390 planes damaged or destroyed, mostly while sitting on the ground, out in the open, without any fuel or ammunition to launch.  Japan lost a mere 29 planes out of over 400 used in the attack.


Finally, only after the devastation was complete, did the military put in place adequate air defenses to protect the critical military bases there from future attack during the War -- So sorry, I couldn't resist. I am, of course, just kidding.  Rather than focus on the enemy, the local military actions focused on continuing misplaced fears of threats from the local civilian population.  One of the first steps the military took was to try to seize and censor any photos or film that civilians had taken of the Japanese attack.  The military also began reading and censoring all private letters and English speaking newspapers (foreign language newspapers were banned outright). It monitored all telephone calls to the mainland mandated English only for all phone conversations.

Installation of barbed wire around
Iolani Palace after the attack
Despite just being attacked by a foreign army, the military continued to believe the local population still constituted the greatest continuing threat. The army declared martial law, issued orders closing all saloons and prohibiting the sale of liquor.  Apparently drunken saboteurs are the most dangerous.  It also suspended civil courts and instituted military provost courts in their place.  It closed all schools for an indefinite period; suspended food sales (so the military could inventory and ration food supplies) and greatly restricted gasoline sales. The military even banned the use of all US currency, issuing script that was only valid to be spent in Hawaii.  It also froze all wages, pay raises apparently being another threat to national security.  It also barred Japanese nationals from earning more than $200 per month.  All private ownership of firearms was also prohibited.

With the declaration of martial law and suspension of constitutional rights, the military proceeded immediately to round up dozens of local civilians of Japanese, German, or Italian descent. Eventually this number would rise to several thousand.  Many of these were American citizens, and no evidence ever came to light that they or anyone else on Hawaii was an enemy agent or saboteur.  In fact, the only related act of civilian violence was a group of Hawaiians who killed a Japanese pilot who crash landed on a remote island.

Most of these military restrictions remained in place for than six months.  Some aspects of martial law, including the suspension of habeas corpus (the right not to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial) remained in place nearly until the end of the war.

Even after the attack, officials never put in place any better air defenses or even sufficient monitoring to prevent another attack.  Japanese submarines remained around the island for weeks without being detected.  The Japanese flew at least two flights over Pearl  Harbor to survey the damage.  One flew over around dawn on December 18. Another flew over at night on Jan. 6-7.  Failure to implement any new enemy detection procedures meant that neither plane was detected.

Listen to a free podcast of this episode.

For Further Reading:

Ok, it's not really "reading," but there was a movie made in 1955 called The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell starring Gary Cooper.  If you are interested in this stuff, get it and watch it.  Personally, I think the bias of the movie is too pro-government, but that is what you got in the 1950's.

You can also watch a silent movie taken of the actual Billy Mitchell at a send off party of all of his friends, when he got tossed out of DC and sent to Texas in 1925

You can read more about Mitchell here:

You can also read Mitchell's 1925 Report here:

Sites dealing with the war games of 1932 and 1938:

Attack and Aftermath:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Pilgrims were not Puritans

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We've all heard one story or another about the Pilgrims coming from England landing on Plymouth Rock. They founded what became the Colony of Massachusetts, inspired by a desire to practice their religion freely, eventually pushing out the Indians and eventually developing New England into a Colony with great religious zeal.  Unfortunately, just about all of that is wrong.

Most of the paintings of the first Thanksgiving, like this one, were 
painted centuries later and contain major historical inaccuracies.
Much of our confusion comes from people not understanding the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans.  Sadly, the vision of the Pilgrims died out rather quickly and succumbed to Puritan control of what became New England.

The Pilgrims were actually a rather small and unique group of people  In the early 1600s, less than a Century after King Henry VIII created the Church of England, religion in that country remained very unsettled.   There were many who still wanted to be Catholic. Others were quite happy with the Church of England, which was in many ways similar to the Catholic Church other than having replaced the Pope with the King as the head of the Church. Still others, Puritans, wanted to change the Church of England to make it more like the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches in northern Europe. Distinct from the Puritans were the Separatists  This group wanted to practice a form of Christianity that sought to be much like the early Church of the first or second centuries, although it did have a strong Calvinist influence.  It did not want to change the Church of England.  It wanted to practice its own distinct and separate form of Christianity.
John Robinson
The Pilgrims' Spiritual leader

The Pilgrims, as we call them today were clearly in the separatist camp. Their leader, John Robinson summed up the idea: "The main ends for which the Lord gathereth and preserveth his church upon earth are that he might have a peculiar people, separated unto himself, from all other peoples, to call upon his name in faith and to glorify him, their heavenly Father in their holy conversation, whom he also might glorify in the end of their faith, the salvation of their souls."  In other words, Christians tended to be a small sub-group called by God out from the masses. While the group welcomed others who wanted to be a part of this select group, they did not feel the need to force the rest of the world to worship as they did.  This was a very distinct difference between the separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans in England, as well as those Puritans who later settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America.

Leaving England

There was no such thing as freedom of religion in England at that time.  Everyone was required to be a member of the Church of England.  Many in the group had been imprisoned or had their property confiscated.  Some had been executed.  As a result, the group, which was centered around the small village of  Scrooby decided to leave England.  Even leaving the country was illegal.  The group made several failed attempts to leave, resulting in many more being imprisoned. On the first successful voyage, only portion of the Pilgrims were able to board a ship, while others, mostly the women and children, were captured by authorities while still on shore, Those who sailed away endured an arduous 14 day voyage -- to Holland (which took 14 days because of terrible weather).

Leiden as it appeared in the early 1600's
Holland was known for its religious tolerance. The group first left in late 1607.  They first located in Amsterdam but eventually settled in Leiden in 1609.  There, they began to work and practice their faith as they wished.  Eventually many of those still imprisoned in England were released and permitted to join the group in Leiden.  The group of about 120 was apparently welcomed by the city and began working mostly in the local weaving trade, or similar urban trades.  They were active in the community and involved with the relatively new University of Leiden.

William Bradford
Governor of Plymouth
After about a decade, the group decided to leave Holland.  There were several factors that led to this decision.  First, while they were still free to practice their religion, the Dutch government began passing several laws restricting the actions of separatist sects such as theirs.  The group saw that things were headed in the wrong direction.  As William Bradford put it: "So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."  Notice that Bradford did refer to them as Pilgrims.  It was not a term used to define their community, but they looked on the voyage to the new world as a sort of pilgrimage with a religious purpose.  More often, when referring to members of the community, they would call themselves "saints."

 The primary expressed reasons for leaving were not primarily over religious freedom.  One big factor was that they felt they were losing much of their English culture.  Their children were learning to speak Dutch and would likely integrate into the larger Dutch culture around them if they remained.  Another factor was the hard work of a tradesman in a city was very different from the small town agricultural setting that they left in England.  As Bradford put it "Though their minds were free and willing, yet many were so oppressed with their heavy labors that their bodies bowed under the weight and became decrepit in their early youth; the vigor of nature being consumed in the very bud, as it were." Working sweatshop hours in a factory to make a living was not the dream most of them had for themselves.  Farming was much more attractive to this group raised in an agricultural community.

Planning the Voyage

Once they decided to leave, there was great debate on where to go.  A large contingent wanted to move the group to Guyana in South America.  At the time, the area was disputed by the Spanish and Dutch. It is likely that the Dutch were encouraging the group to go there to help solidify their claim to the area.

In the end, though, the group decided to go to the English colony of Virginia.  At the time, Virginia claimed land all the way up to what is today New York.  There were already a few Dutch settlements around the Hudson River area and the group had received promising reports that the region was ripe for settlement.  Because the area was claimed by England, the group sought English permission to settle there.  They also could not afford the cost of the voyage and needed financial backing.

In order to  accomplish these goals, they convinced investors in England to support them. A group headed by Thomas Weston, known as the Merchant Adventurers agreed to underwrite most of the costs.  Essentially the Pilgrims sold themselves into indentured servitude.  They agreed to work for the company for seven years, sending back fur, lumber, and other valuable goods to repay English investors.  All profits from all work belonged to the investors.  No land would be assigned to any colonist during these first years, as they would live communally on company land.

Travel to the New World

Mayflower: artist's rendering
No contemporary drawings of
the ship exist.
The trip across the Atlantic was a difficult one.  The Pilgrims hoped to have two ships, the larger Mayflower was chartered for the trip.  It was designed as a cargo ship, so passangers had to make due with rather uncomfortable conditions. The group also purchased a smaller ship, the Speedwell so that they would have a vessel to keep with them at the colony.  Unfortunately the Speedwell proved not to be seaworthy.  After several attempts, they had to leave it behind. These failed attempts also delayed final departure until autumn  The trip itself took just over two months, departing from Plymouth England on September 6, 1620 and first sighting land on November 11.  Keep in mind that this was the contemporary dates. During the next century, the calendar would be adjusted by 10 days.  So by the modern calendar, they arrived on Nov. 21, well into the period when the harvest was over and the cold of winter was arriving.

There were 102 passengers on that first trip.  There was also the ship's crew, of which there is no record or specific count, but it is estimated to be between 25 and 50 men (most estimate around 30) comprising the ship's officers and crew.  Only one passenger died on the Atlantic crossing, but one was also born en route, meaning the ship arrived with the same number total.  Another four passengers died on the ship during December as they were searching for a place to settle for winter camp.

It is interesting to note that of the passengers on the Mayflower, a little less than 2/3 were members of the congregation and their families or servants.  The remaining number were families sent by the Merchant Adventurers who financed the trip.  These people were presumably all members of the Church of England and seem to be motivated primarily by the economic opportunities of the project rather than any religious motivations.

Although the initial plan was to settle near what is today New York City, the Mayflower first sighted land near what is today Provincetown Harbor.  They first dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, many miles from Plymouth Rock.  According to contemporary accounts, they drafted the Mayflower Compact and on that same day, sent a party to shore to search for fire wood, and whatever else they could find. There was no contemporary record of exactly where they first landed, probably because the site would not have had a specific name yet.  But from the description, it was clearly somewhere near the tip of Cape Cod   There was no reference to any landing on Plymouth Rock, first or otherwise, until more than 100 years later.  That seems to be part of the fable created many generations after the fact.  The Compact says very little other than that they agree to remain under the authority of the King, advance the Christian faith, and create "equal and just' laws to run the community that they would create.

Many people think that the Pilgrims named the Plymouth colony after they town in England from which they departed.  This is not the case.  They area had already been explored in 1614 by John Smith (from the Jamestown colony) and named before the Pilgrims arrived.  The name Plymouth was already written on the maps used by the Mayflower.  The Pilgrims simply accepted that name without any thought to changing it.

The Mayflower attempted to travel south along the coast to reach the original destination near modern New York, but weather prevented them from making such a trip safely.  With winter almost upon them, and with food and disease beginning to cause deaths aboard ship, the group spent several more weeks scouting the area for a good place to set up winter camp.  They finally decided to settle at Plymouth

William Bradford, who later became the colony's governor, noted "it was the best they could find, and the season and present necessity made them glad to accept of it."  During the time it took to settle on a spot, winter had made life difficult.  Hunger and disease were beginning to take their toll. Four more passengers died in the space of one week in mid December as the ship continued to look for a winter camp location.  The location was rushed and not focused on the long term benefits of the location.

The Plymouth Colony

The entire group lived communally in the Plymouth colony.  The Pilgrims did not seem to pressure any of the "strangers" as they were sometimes called, to join the congregation or participate in their religion.  While there were no specific guarantees of religious freedom in the colony's laws, the Pilgrims seemed content to allow members of other religious traditions live and work among them, at least in these early years.  Decades later, in 1650, the colony passed mandatory Church attendance laws, after the establishment of Puritan Massachusetts and such laws had been passed there.  It is not clear whether the non-members of the Congregation all attended Church, although it appears that most did so voluntarily.  It is certain that all colonists were not required to become a member of the congregation in those early decades.  The Pilgrims also did not attempt to convert local Indian tribes to Christianity in these early years.

The Colony seemed woefully unprepared to survive the winter.  They did not have enough food and supplies. The planting season was well over by the end of December when they first settled. Perhaps because they initially planned to land near the Hudson River where there were already some small encampments, they hoped to take some assistance from the communities there.  But even so, it does not seem a good plan to dump over 100 hungry colonists on a small encampment of a few dozen people who are not expecting such a large influx of hungry visitors for the winter.

In any event, there were absolutely no colonists in the area they settled.  Some were happy to be outside of the Virginia Colony.  It meant their charter was not valid, but it also meant they would not be governed by the laws of Virginia.  There was some hope to trade with the local natives.  But making contact and establishing trust would prove difficult.  First contact, resulted in an armed battle, although no one was killed.  Other attempts to establish a parlay for discussion usually ended up with the Indians running away.

In some ways, the Pilgrims were very fortunate in where they settled.  There had been a large tribe living in the area which had been wiped out almost completely by disease spread by European explorers who had been in the area in prior years.  The Patuxet tribe had been wiped out.  If there were any survivors, they had fled the area and been absorbed by other tribes.  As a result, the Pilgrims found land that was already cleared and ready for planting.  They also found a number of buried chambers of corn, probably seed corn stored for spring planting.  Some of this may have been abandoned by the Patuxet.  But at least some of the stored corn was owned by the nearby Nauset Tribe.  This food theft may have contributed to some of the early violence between the two groups.

Even so, the first winter was extremely difficult.  Weather and hunger probably contributed to the susceptibility of disease.  Nearly half of the passengers and crew died over the winter.  Many of the survivors were too weak to work or defend the colony.  There were several encounters with natives over the winter, resulting in some undetermined number of Indians killed.  Almost all the adult women died, leaving only four survivors by the fall of 1621.

Relations with the Natives:

The next stroke of fortune for the colony came in March.  A single Indian approached the fortified camp and made clear he wanted to talk.  To everyone's shock the Indian, named Samoset, spoke English and was looking for beer.  He had been in contact with other European ships in recent years.  A week later, Samoset brother others including a man the Pilgrims came to know as Squanto.

Squanto was the only known survivor of the Patuxet tribe that had once lived on this land as part of the tribe that had been wiped out by disease.  Squanto had been captured at around age 20 by an English explorer and taken back to England.  He was trained as an interpreter in hope of future English dealings with the natives.  He returned to the area with Capt. John Smith in 1614, but was immediately recaptured by another Englishman under Smith's command, operating his own scheme to sell Indians as slaves in Spain.  Squanto was transported to Spain as a slave.  A group of friars in Spain freed him and helped him get back to London, where he hoped to find a way back home.  He worked in London for several years as a ship builder before getting work on a ship headed for Newfoundland in 1617. The voyage never got near his home and he ended up returning to London.  Finally, in 1619, he made his sixth trip across the Atlantic to reach him home.  Once there, he learned the devastating news that his entire tribe had been wiped out by disease.  Alone, he began to live with the nearby Wampanoag tribe.

As the new English encampment began to take shape over the winter, the Wampanoag Chief wanted to make contact with this new group.  Who better than the man who spoke their language?  Squanto went to live with the Pilgrim community.  He taught them farming techniques with the native crops, but more importantly, opened a dialogue with the local tribes.  Through him, the Pilgrims were able to apologize to the Nauset for stealing their corn and agree to compensate them, which greatly improved relations.  They also entered into a mutual defense pack with the Wampanoag Indians.  The Wampanoag were being threatened by the nearby Naroganset tribe and hoped the English would be valuable military allies with their technology: guns and armor.

Squanto was invaluable to the Pilgrims.  One has to marvel at the sequence of events that delivered this interpreter to the Pilgrim's front door just when they needed it most.  With no tribe of his own, Squanto quickly became a valued member of the Colony.  At one point, he was captured by the Wampanoag and a group of Colonists risked their lives to rescue him.

Sadly, Squanto died only a year and a half after joining the colony.  It is unclear if he died of disease or was poisoned by a local chief who was jealous of his growing power because of his unique position between the natives and colonists.  In any event, his short service, created decades of good relations between the colonists and Wampanoag.  Warfare would only return a generation later as Puritan influence from Massachusetts and outsider demands for access to more Indian lands resulted in a destructive war.

The First Thanksgiving

At least the first harvest was successful.  There is relatively little known about the first Thanksgiving.  The only contemporary reference comes from a publication written by colonist Edward Winslow:

“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

One thing we know is that there were not many women.  Remember that only four of the 52 colonists still living were adult women.  The 90 natives that came to the event were apparently all men as well. Deer is mentioned as a major component of the feast, which lasted three days.  There as also the results of a fowling expedition.  Presumably this included wild turkey, but also likely included goose and duck.

I picture this first Thanksgiving as a large scale multi-day barbecue, with deer roasting on an open spit, dozens of men enjoying the celebration, and lots and lots of beer.  Yes, the Pilgrims were major beer drinkers.  A large barley harvest had been grown that year primarily for making beer.  Men, women, and children all consumed large quantities of beer, although it was rather weak and did not typically lead to drunkenness.  There were also shooting contests and other outdoor games.

The Colonists did not call this feast "Thanksgiving".  Giving thanks to God would likely have been a somber event in Church, not a three day man-fest of celebration, games, and eating.  As the feast took place before the second ship reached the colony in early November, most historians believe the event took place some time in October.  It appears to be a celebration but was also a time for bonding between the colonists and the Wampanoag, when the groups could get together and enjoy one another's company.

Relations within the Colony:

Even with some native assistance, the first few years of the colony were particularly difficult.  The Mayflower returned to England in April, leaving the colonists on their own.  They had to plant crops, open up trade talks with natives, build more structures, and begin to figure out how to repay the investors who had sponsored their voyage.  Under the terms agreed, the Colony would live and work communally to provide the English investors with a profitable return on their work.

Work was hard and survival seems to have been the main focus of the colonists.  There is little mention of any religious or sectarian strife between members of the Congregation and other colonists.

One example of inter-religious relations was related by Bradford, now Governor of the small colony. The Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, considering it of pagan origin.  But other members of the Colony did wish to remember it, as was traditional in England.  As Bradford recalls Christmas 1621, "On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them."  In other words, Colonists not members of the congregation were permitted to celebrate Christmas, even though the Pilgrims chose to work that day.  Now, Bradford continues in his story to say the Pilgrims returned at lunch time to find the others out playing games.  Bradford stopped the merriment and told them they could celebrate Christmas as their religion respected, but that it was not fair that they play games and relax while others are doing the work necessary for the colony's survival.  Once could argue this was religious intolerance since relaxing on Christmas was part of the minority's tradition.  But it seems more that Bradford was worried that "freedom of religion" might just become an easy excuse for getting out of the work that needed to get done.

Surprisingly, the colony did not have a minister during these early several years.  John Robinson, the minister to the Congregation that moved from Scrooby, England to Leiden in the Netherlands did not make the initial trip because the majority of the congregation remained in Leiden.  He had intended to travel to the colony, but died before a trip could be arranged.  Several Church of England ministers were sent but rejected by the colonists.  The first acceptable minister, Ralph Smith, did not arrive until 1629.

In November 1621 another ship, the Fortune, arrived from England carrying 35 more passengers. Almost all of the passengers were sent by the English investors still focused on making the colony profitable.  The new visitors did not do much for the dearth of female colonists as 34 of the 35 were men.  The ship also carried an angry letter from Thomas Weston demanding to know why the dying colonists had not spent part of the winter collecting valuable trade items to ship back on the Mayflower's return and why they had kept the Mayflower with them for so long..

The new arrivals found the colony so squalid and barren that they considered getting right back on the ship and returning to England.  Many had to be talked out of returning by the ship's captain, who was not authorized to take them home again.  They also arrived without any supplies.  As Bradford put it: "When they were landed they had not so much as a biscuit among them, or any other food, neither had they any bedding, nor many clothes, only some sorry things they had in their cabins, not even a pot or a pan in which to cook food."  The colony, which had barely stocked away enough winter food for the original colonists, had to put everyone on half-rations, and still ran out of food by spring.

Despite these hardships, the colonists spent about two weeks collecting, packing and loading animal furs, oak clapboards, and other trade goods to begin paying down their debt to the investors.  It would have pleased the investors to receive this down payment, had not the ship gotten lost on its return and been captured off the French coast.  French authorities seized all the cargo, but eventually allowed the empty ship and crew to return to England and the frustrated investors.

The Colony did not receive another visit for almost two years, when in the summer of 1623, two ships arrived with 96 more colonists, including more of the congregation from Leiden.  The colony became active in the fur trade, starting a large trading post in what is today Maine to collect more furs to help pay off their debts.  More colonists continued to arrive in the late 1620's.  But after 10 years, the colony had grown to only about 300 people.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1630, a group of Puritans arrived, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby in what would become Boston.  The first group included a fleet of ships with over 700 passengers, immediately making the new colony more than double the size of the Pilgrim's in Plymouth Colony.  Over the next ten years the Puritans poured into Massachusetts so that within 10 years, there were nearly 10,000 colonists.  This influx led to war with the Indians in 1637.  The Pilgrims in Plymouth tried to act as peace keepers, but ultimately had to side with and fight along side their fellow colonists against the Indians.

The End of the Plymouth Colony

After the end of the English Civil War, King Charles II began to pay more attention to the North American Colonies.  The English found the large number of small colonies difficult to administer and decided to create the Dominion of New England, which eventually included all the land from what is today New Jersey to Maine.
Charles II essentially 
obliterated Plymouth as 
an independent colony.

The new government met with strong opposition to measures which included new taxes, trade restrictions, challenges to local land claims and attempts to impose the Church of England in the region.  Remember, Charles II had seen his father executed by Puritans in England during the Civil War, and was not a fan of Puritans.  The short-lived Dominion of New England was dissolved by 1691, but the legal authority for the colonies had to be recreated.  As you will recall, the Plymouth Colony founded without a charter because it settled outside of Virginia. The Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been revoked when New England was established.  Massachusetts leaders were able to get their charter restored and have it include the lands claimed by the Plymouth Colony. As a result, Plymouth was absorbed into Massachusetts and would never again operate independently.


Much of what we remember about the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims comes from the Puritans of Massachusetts, who essentially co-opted the Pilgrims' story into their own. Religiously, there were certainly similarities between the two groups, though politically they were very different.  Because the Pilgrims were such a small group, and remained small, they simply came to be remembered incorrectly as the first wave of Puritan settlement in New England.  The subtle distinctions tend to get lost in the story telling of history.

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

For Further Reading:


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (2007).

Online: - A discussion of the congregation's life in Leiden, Netherlands. - The reports filed by the Pilgrims for their investors in England. - Gov. Bradford's account of the voyage and Colony's foundation - Writings of John Robinson, the congregation's founder.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

History of Veterans' Benefits

Listen to this episode as a podcast.

As Veterans Day is upon us I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the way the US has treated its Veterans throughout history.

The American Revolution:

The Revolution began before we even had a government.  The brave volunteers were more concerned about being hanged as traitors if they lost, much less their treatment if they won.  But the Continental Congress created an army and navy and made promises to the men who served.

Picture of a Revolutionary War Soldier
from an 1820 Pension Payment Voucher
There were desperate times during the war when men considered leaving the army and Congress had nothing of value to offer.  So, in 1778, Congress voted to provide all American commissioned officers who agreed to continue in service until the close of the war, a continuation of half pay for another seven years. Enlisted men got a one time payment of eighty dollars (roughly $1000 in today's dollars).

Despite these promises, Congress continued to face threats of mass resignation as the war continued to drag on with no end.  At the same time, inflation was eating into the value of pay and promised pensions.  In 1780, Congress extended the offer to officers to receive half pay for life.

When the war finally ended, Congress had no money to provide back pay, let alone pensions.  Instead of back pay, Congress had to give all officers and men "commutation certificates" which might be redeemed for money at some later date.  But, there was no guarantee when they could be redeemed, nor any interest paid on them.  In the meantime, rampant inflation made the certificates virtually worthless.  Most veterans sold them to speculators before everything was lost.  If you held onto your certificate for a decade or so, you would have been able to redeem them.  After the Constitution was established and a new monetary system created, the Federal Government finally made good on these debts. But few veterans were able to wait that long or take that chance.  Final payment primarily benefited the speculators.

But good news! Congress finally kept its promise on the pensions.  The Congress passed a law granting full pay for life for all Revolutionary War veterans, both officers and enlisted men.  The problem was this law passed in 1826, about 50 years after the war.  So if you were an 80 year old veteran at a time when the average life span in this country was about 35 years, you finally got some pension money.  In 1864, Congress granted an additional stipend of $100/year to remaining veterans of the Revolution. As you may guess, there were not many left, more than 80 years after the war had ended.  The government made last pension payment from the Revolution in 1869.

There was also a Pension Act passed in 1818 which offered a pay of $20/month to former officers and $8/month to former enlisted men of the Revolution who served for at least nine months.  This law, however, only applied if the veteran was impoverished.  The Government examined income and property holdings and denied most claims.  Lest the veteran grow too fat and happy on that pension (about $300/month in today's dollars for an officer, $120 for enlisted), he was required to give up any disability or State pensions being received in exchange for the federal pension.

The pension laws did cover men who served in State militia units as well as the Continental Army and Navy.  But there were many women who traveled with the army in support roles.  They were denied any benefits.  Some African American veterans were granted freedom from slavery in exchange for enlistment.  Since it was decided that they had already received that benefit, there was no need to provide any pension benefit to them.

Many Revolutionary War soldiers had been promised land bounties as well.  The US had a great deal of western lands to make available to veterans after the war.  But the government found a way to screw the veterans on this promise as well.  To redeem a land bounty, one had to file a claim of at least 4000 acres.  Most bounties were for a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred acres depending on rank and term of service.  One could theoretically combine one's claim with those of others to make a joint claim.  But coordination like that between veterans was nearly impossible.  It did, however, benefit speculators who could buy up many claims and combine them together for redemption.

The War of 1812 and the Mexican War

The Pension act of 1818 applied to veterans of wars after the Revolution as well.  But again, these pensions only applied if the veteran demonstrated financial need or suffered a war wound that prevented them from working.  They were very difficult to get and to keep.  Since many Americans saw them as an early form of welfare, they did not want to apply for them.

Mexican War veterans were promised 160 acres of western land.  This was of benefit to some veterans interested in settling in the west were unclaimed land was still plentiful.  However, settlement of these lands was a real danger as many settlers were massacred by Indians. Many soldiers, however, sold their claims to speculators for a fraction of their true value.

Disabled veterans and windows of those killed in the war could apply for a half-pay pension.  For private, this amounted to $3.50/mo (roughly $100/mo in today's dollars).

Philadelphia Naval Asylum
In 1871, general pensions were made available for almost all veterans of the War of 1812.  Again, this was more than 50 years after the War, so most veterans were long dead.  Survivors could enjoy $8/month (about $160/month in today's dollars).  In 1887, veterans of the Mexican War were added to the rolls.  They only had to wait about 40 years!  To prevent any of the youngest soldiers from getting an early pension, a provision was added requiring recipients be at least 62 years old.  Of course, any veterans from either war that has professed even the slightest verbal support for the South during the Civil War were denied all benefits despite their loyal service in the earlier wars.

During this period, the government also began to consider the medical care of wounded veterans. The Naval Asylum, was established in Philadelphia in 1812. Two facilities were established in Washington, D.C. -- the Soldiers’ Home in 1853 and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1855. Obviously, these were of limited use if you did not live near Philadelphia or DC.  But they did provide help to some.

Civil War

The Civil War was the first real broad based veterans benefits system available to most of those who fought in the war.  The first pension law was passed just after the war began, in 1862.  It granted pensions to any soldier, sailor, or certain civilian contractors a pension of $8-$32  per month (mostly dependent on rank) for any soldier suffering a disabling injury, or to the family of any soldier killed while in service.  A big change in this law was that deaths from disease as well as battle wounds were covered.  Prior to WWII, most soldiers died from the many diseases that spread through the armies, than from wounds in battle.  Still, this was not a lot of money.  $8 was about half the pay of a private and would be about $190 in current dollars.   Also, the veteran did not have to prove poverty.  Most disabled veterans would likely be impoverished anyway given that most jobs required able bodies for physical labor.
Civil War Pension Record
Book Cover

Congress also stopped all pensions for anyone living in a State that had seceded, even if the individual veteran remained loyal to the union.

Unlike earlier wars, post war laws actually became more generous.  In 1866, the minimum pension for disability went from $8 to $20, and increased again in 1872 to $24, or about $475 in today's dollars.  Imagine living today on less than $6000 per year.  It was not much, but better than had been provided to earlier veterans.  The subsequent laws also loosened up the definitions of disability, resolving many criticisms of benefit denials against wounded vets who were not quite wounded enough.  Soldiers on partial disability could receive some benefits, but had to be examined by a government certified doctor once or twice each year to prove the disability was continuing.

A more comprehensive pension act was proposed in 1887, but was vetoed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland.  Democrats received most support from the South, where virtually no veterans received federal benefits but would be obliged to pay for them through taxes. Passage would have to wait for the election of President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican and Union army veteran himself.

The Pension Act, finally passed in 1890, established benefits for disabled veterans as well as families of those deceased.  The big change in this law was that the death or disability need not have occurred during the war.  Any veteran who became disabled at any time for any reason could receive a payment.  Similarly, dependent family members could receive a pension for any veteran who died after the war, regardless of circumstances.

In 1906 old age alone was defined as a disability, allowing virtually all (Union) Civil War veterans still living to receive a pension.  Amazingly, in 1958, Congress decided to grant pensions to eligible Confederate veterans and their families.  Sure this was 93 years after the war ended, so far too late for almost everyone  But because the law included family members, there were a notable number of dependents, roughly 1000 southerners benefited from this change.  Also, because Civil War pensions granted lifetime aid to children of veterans who were disabled before becoming adults, there is still one Civil War pension being paid today (2015) more than 150 years after the end of the war.  The recipient is a daughter of a veteran who ironically served on both sides.  He started with the Confederacy, but deserted and moved to the Union Army just before Gettysburg.

Spanish-American War

Veterans of the Spanish American war benefited primarily from the same laws passed for Civil War veterans.  Most of the laws on the books by this time benefited any US military veteran, regardless of the war in which they served.  In 1912, the Sherwood Act guaranteed a pension to any veteran of any war beginning at the age of 62.

World War I

As the US entered WWI, the Government established the War Risk Insurance Act.  The essentially provided all members of the military with death or disability insurance, paying $4500 (roughly $82,000 in today's dollars).  This was in addition to existing death or disability benefits that remained in the law.   Soldiers could also purchase additional low cost insurance from the government if they wanted additional coverage.  Another law granted a one time discharge allowance of $60 (just under $1000 in today's dollars) when soldiers left service with an honorable discharge.

The Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918 authorized vocational rehabilitation training.  Rather than simply handing out cash payments to wounded veterans, the government took an active role in helping them train for jobs that could accommodate their disability.

In 1919, veteran's medical care finally moved beyond a small number of military hospitals and was put under the responsibility of the Public Health Service.

In 1921, new legislation combined the War Risk Insurance, rehabilitation, and medical care under a single department called the Veterans Bureau.

Despite these reforms, benefits were still often hard to obtain and often considered too limited.  One major complaint for WWI veterans was the fact that inflation had wiped out the value of much of their military pay while in service.  Civilian government employees had received bonuses to compensate for loss due to inflation, but members of the military got nothing. President Harding vetoed the first bill arguing it was fiscally irresponsible.  President Coolidge also vetoed a second attempt saying  "patriotism...bought and paid for is not patriotism." This time, however, Congress overrode the veto and the bill became law in 1924.

The Bonus Bill, formally called the World War Adjustment Compensation Act did not actually give any money to the veterans.  Essentially it acted as a life insurance payment.  Each soldier was entitled to up to $625 (about $8600 today), depending on their length of service.  He received a certificate redeemable in 20 years for the cash amount.  If the soldier died before then, the certificate could be redeemed at the time of death.

US Army burns Veterans out of their Shantytown
in Washington DC, 1932
The Bonus Pay became a major political issue during the Great Depression.  In 1932, veterans demanded early payment of these bonuses because so many of them had lost their jobs and were on the streets.  When President Hoover refused to act, between 15,000 and 20,000 veterans marched on Washington to demand reform.  They became known as the Bonus Army and set up shanty town in DC, many left after a few weeks of inaction, but several thousand remained in Anacostia with their families having nowhere else to go.. Rather than assist the veterans, the military, on orders for President Hoover and led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, rolled tanks through the camp with tanks, killing several veterans and burning down the shantytown.  The protesters were dispersed or arrested and no assistance was given. Shockingly, this action did not help President Hoover's reelection bid a few months later.

Despite his treatment of the Bonus marchers, President Hoover was not deaf to the needs of Veterans. In 1930, he established the Veterans Administration.  The new VA took over the responsibilities of the Veterans Bureau, as well as the Pensions Bureau and the national homes for soldiers.

In March 1933, President Roosevelt passed the Economy Act, which repealed all statutory benefits for all veterans of the Spanish American War and later wars (but leaving benefits for Civil War veterans intact).  The new law gave the President authority to establish benefits by executive order. The normally free spending Roosevelt slashed benefits.  In 1935, his authority was ended and Congress renewed most of the benefits as they existed before the 1933 law.

World War II

On the eve of war in 1940, Congress passed the National Service Life Insurance Act, which provided low cost life insurance to members of the military.  This is the basis for the law that exists to this day.

That same year, the Selective Training and Service Act, which authorized the nation’s first peacetime draft, guaranteed reemployment rights to all employees who left a job to volunteer or because they were drafted into the armed forces.  This legal guarantee also exists to this day.

Ad for GI Bill Benefits
The Disabled Veterans’ Rehabilitation Act of 1943 created a new vocational rehabilitation program for disabled World War II veterans. It was similar to the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of WWI, but eventually grew much larger and broader in scope.

The biggest change, however, was passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, but more commonly known as the GI Bill. This law had three key provisions: There were three key provisions.
  1. Education: authorized the payment of up to $500 (which was enough to pay for school at the time) per school year for tuition, fees, books and supplies, plus a monthly subsistence allowance.
  2. Business loans: authorized federally guaranteed home, farm and business loans of up to $2,000, with no down payment and 50 percent guaranteed by the government.
  3. Unemployment: veterans who had served a minimum of 90 days were entitled to a weekly payment of $20 for a maximum of 52 weeks. 
Another law, the Veterans Preference Act of 1944 gave Veterans preference for government jobs, as well as mandating preferences for private employers receiving government contracts.  The post-WWII era saw a major expansion in VA hospitals to provide care the large number of veterans.

Korean War

Many of the assistance laws under the GI Bill had expired by the time of the Korean War.  To provide assistance to a new generation of veterans,  Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1950, which created new job training for wounded veterans.  The new law was expanded to assist peacetime veterans who might also need the help.

Korean Veterans received fewer benefits
than their WWII counterparts, but they did 
get a memorial on the National Mall first.
The Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952, called the Korean GI Bill, provided unemployment, job placement, loans and other benefits similar to those provided to World War II veterans.   The education component was reduced, offering benefits or only three years rather than four.  It also did not pay for tuition directly.  Rather veterans received checks to cover whatever expenses they wanted. For the most part, payments did not completely cover all of the costs needed to complete college.

In 1958,  Congress passed the  Ex-Servicemen’s Unemployment Compensation Act.  This created a permanent system of unemployment insurance for all veterans, regardless of when they served. States managed the plan which was supported by federal funds.  Because States had some control over the details, amounts and duration of assistance varied.

Around this same time, the VA changed pension plans to take into account need, rather than a fixed amount per soldier.  Veterans with higher incomes and assets received less assistance, taking the program back to a welfare style program helping those who needed it most.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam era saw another major expansion of VA hospitals.  Combat medical care had improved so that many soldiers who might have died with similar wounds in earlier wars now survived.  This resulted in a much higher need for medical care for returning veterans.

In 1966, Congress passed the Veterans’ Readjustment Benefits Act, often called the Vietnam GI Bill, Veterans who had been on active duty for at least six months could receive one month of educational assistance for each month of service, later expanded to one and one-half months for each month of service.  During the Vietnam era, most draftees served 18 to 24 months, meaning at most three years of educational assistance unless one opted to stay in the military for a longer term.  No distinction was made between veterans who served in combat and those in non-combat deployments.

The military also created the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, which provided $10,000 in life insurance to veterans.  In 1971, Congress created the VA mortgage program to help disabled veterans pay for special accommodations to their homes.

Modern Era

Following the end of the draft in 1976, new veterans benefits were created with the goal of attracting new recruits to the military The Veterans’ Educational Assistance Act of 1977 limited eligibility to those entering military service after Dec. 31, 1976. This program permitted a service member to contribute up to $2,700 to a personal education fund.  The federal government would match the service member’s contribution with two dollars for each one contributed.  Unfortunately, most service members did not take advantage of this 401(k) style system and it never received wide adoption.

In 1978 Congress passed the Veterans’and Survivors’ Pension Improvement Act. This law must have been named ironically, because it did little to improve pensions.  Rather, the new law considered not only the veteran's income and assets, but also those of his or her spouse, meaning that veterans with working spouses typically lost pension income.  If a veteran or spouse received income from another source such as a job, a military pension would drop dollar for dollar to keep the income the same. This made work pointless for many veterans or spouses who might otherwise work at lower income jobs.

In 1986, Congress changed laws related to medical care to cut the number of Veterans eligible for free medical care.  Free benefits were limited to veterans with service-related disabilities and those with low incomes, as well as other specific groups of veterans, including former prisoners of war, veterans exposed to herbicides and ionizing radiation and veterans of World War I.  Higher income veterans with non-service related disabilities would have to pay for part of their treatment.

Realizing the failure of the 1976 education program, Congress replaced it with a new one that essentially forced service members to save.  The Veterans’ Educational Assistance Act of 1984 provided educational assistance benefits of $300 per month for up to 36 months, in exchange for completing three years of active duty or two years of active duty and four years in the reserve. To be eligible.  Part of this was paid for by requiring the service member (if he or she chose to participate) to have monthly pay reduced by $100 a month for the first 12 months of enlistment. The money was nonrefundable, so a recruit had to agree to it at the time of recruitment, and could not get the money back if they decided not to go to college after leaving service.

Although the VA continued to provide some vocational assistance, the Emergency Veterans’ Job Training Act of 1983 reimbursed employers up to 50% of an employee's wages (up to $10,000) for hiring any Korean or Vietnam era veterans.

President Reagan signs the law elevating 
the VA to Cabinet level, after  cutting
veterans' medical benefits. 
In 1990, Congress limited disability pensions, which had been granted automatically to any veteran over the age of 65.  Under the new law, veteran applicants of any age had to prove they had a permanent total disability in order to qualify for a pension.

Despite these cuts, the administration wanted to appear to care for Veterans.  In 1988 it elevated the VA to cabinet level status, meaning the Veterans Administration became the Department of Veterans Affairs.  So the head of the VA got to sit in on Cabinet meetings, but little else changed for veterans themselves.

In the 1990's the first Gulf War prompted some minor improvements to benefits, but no major changes to those eligible for benefits.

Today the VA receives around $170 billion per year.  With about 22 million veterans in the US, that means we spend amount $7700 per veteran per year.  About one-third of this goes to disability payments to disabled veterans.  The other major cost is medical care, mostly supporting the large network of VA hospitals and clinics around the country. There is also a wide array of other benefit programs for veterans covering education, training, housing, retirement, and burial.


Over time, as the US has grown wealthier, it has done more for its veterans.  It also tends to be more generous after a large war that has produced a large number of veterans.  Of course, controversy continues to this day as to the cost and level of coverage provided to those who risked their lives to protect this country in times of danger.

Listen to this episode as a podcast.

Further Reading: