Public Responsibility for the Veteran
It is a great honor and pleasure for me to be here this morning and I am grateful to the governmental Research Association for extending me the opportunity to discuss, “Public Responsibility for the Veteran.”
I do not propose today to speak for the veterans. No one can set himself up as the veterans’ spokesman. The campaigns were so far-flung -- the duties so dissimilar -- that the reaction upon each veteran was varied rather than identical, so no one can speak for the veterans as though they were a corporate body with a crystallized point of view. It is therefore natural that they should have varied conceptions of what the public responsibility is for them as veterans for each man feels differently, and length of service, days in combat, wounds--none of these offer any definite indication of what he feels he is entitled to as a former serviceman. Therefore, what I say to you today, is what I personally believe, is the extent of public responsibility for the veteran.
There are certain basic obligations and responsibilities that the public owes to the veteran. These responsibilities were crystallized in the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” or what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights.
The people of America, through Congress, felt that in the passing of this act, that the veterans of World War II would not be the recipients of the neglect and the indifference experienced by the veterans of World War I. The single dominant thought of the public was that the men and women who offered their lives in the most terrible of all wars should be assured a full share in the traditional American Life which they fought to defend; that there should be a generous measure of that free opportunity which is the basis of the American Way of Life; that this Servicemen’s Readjustment Act should be a master rehabilitation plan and that it would provide a scientific approach to the veteran problem of this war.
Some of the public even felt that this G.I. Bill of Rights would repay a man for the fighting and sacrifices that he had made. A large part of the public felt that, with the passage of this Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, the veteran would be given all those things for which he fought; that it would provide him with an opportunity to get ahead by his own efforts and abilities, unhampered by private or governmental compulsion.
We, the people, contracted through this G.I. Bill of Rights that the veteran of this war would find no horizon narrowed by handicaps incurred by his war service. This was our belief.
The G.I. Bill of Rights was passed in 1944. It has been now in operation for two years. Let us see whether it has fulfilled the hopes that the public placed in it. Does it really, “Provide him with an opportunity to get ahead by his own efforts and abilities, unhampered by private or governmental compulsion?"
Let us examine the record --
Press stories, editorials, magazine articles, radio broadcasts, full-page newspaper advertisements and persuasive and eloquent speakers have broadcast to the people of America the main provisions of the G.I. Bill of Rights. They cover: Hospitalization, Education and Vocational Training, Employment and Housing.
What are the facts in regard to veterans’ hospitalization?
In theory, this G.I. Bill of Rights has authorized the appropriation of $500,000,000 for hospitals and proper medical and psychiatric treatment for our veterans; that no veteran would be without competent medical attention and proper hospitalization.
And yet, in the practical application we find that there are a woefully insufficient number of veterans’ hospitals throughout the country. In the State of Massachusetts there is at present only one Veterans’ Administration Medical and Surgical Hospital and that hospital has a capacity of a mere 325 beds. The Veterans’ Administration is planning to locate a 1000 bed hospital in the area--but this addition will leave this state facing a severe shortage of beds. There will only be 1300 beds to provide the hospitalization that the veteran has been promised -- 1300 beds to care for 700,000 veterans. Statistics show that there should be 2.5 beds per 1000 population -- but in Massachusetts under present allotments there will be only 0.2% beds per 1000 veterans.
This situation has become so critical that an outstanding national magazine recently ran an article entitled, “Third-Rate Medicine for First-Rate Men.” This article revealed startling evidence that many of our veterans are being neglected and denied basic rights, benefits, and privileges which Congress had provided for them. This well-documented article constitutes a challenge to the people of this nation who are interested in the veteran. Everyone agrees that we must maintain the very highest standards in dealing with the supremely urgent problem of the care of the wounded and mentally afflicted veteran.
We must not, we cannot, tolerate incompetent, indifferent, careless treatment of our men and women who gave their best in war. The veterans must not be exposed to bureaucratic medicine.
There are the facts -- Have the people of America fulfilled their responsibility to the sick and wounded veterans?
Let us examine the record in relation to the education and vocational training for the veteran --
In theory, the G.I. Bill of Rights entitles the veteran to enroll at a college or university of his choice and to complete his education. It also provides him with the right to obtain vocational training. This same bill provides that the veterans’ tuition be paid and that he be granted, while attending school, $50 per month if he is single and $75 a month if he has dependents.
This was not an act of charity to the veterans. It was a simple act of justice to them. As a matter of fact, it was a measure in behalf of the common welfare.
But the failure has come in the practical application of this right for the veteran.
What hypocrisy to tell a veteran that he has a right to go to college when a half-million veterans who were fully qualified in every way, were rejected during the past collegiate year for lack of room.
What our legislators failed to take into consideration is that education presupposes, not only willing students, but facilities for studying and learning, as well.
How many veterans do you know who have desired to obtain an education only to find that when they arrived on the campus, the doors were barred to them. What good does it do to tell them that perhaps in four or five years a place may be found for them. The veterans that I know and that I have talked with, do not want to wait five years. They want to go to college now.
You and I know that the longer a veteran is forced to wait, the more will his desire for further training decline and, in all probability, he will never go. This will not only be detrimental to the veteran, but it will be a great loss to the nation. With most of these veterans, it is a case of now or never and, the shocking part of this situation, at least to me, is the fact that reliable educational authorities have informed me that the peak demand from veterans for training and higher education will not be reached until 1950 or 1951.
Now, I ask you, -- Has the public’s responsibility for the veteran in relation to education been met?
Let us examine the record in regard to decent and adequate housing for the veteran --
It is a matter of common knowledge that there is a grievous shortage of housing in every metropolitan area and, with this urgent demand for houses, prices have sky-rocketed. For example: in this area, houses that were poorly built in the late 20s and sold in the middle 30s for $4700, have recently been sold for $8500. In some of the newer sections where houses were built during the 30s sold for $6500, prices have jumped to $12,000 and even higher. In one residential section, built up during 1939 and 1940, small single houses of 5 or 6 rooms which sold for $4500 to $5200, and which were considered no bargains at that time, are being sold today for $9300 to $9800. How many veterans that you know can afford to carry a $10,000 house?
Everyone knows that the housing situation is becoming increasingly critical and it is affecting millions of veterans. What veterans need are low-cost rental apartments -- $30-35 per month. These are virtually unobtainable and there is little hope for relief in the next 12 to 18 months. And in many cases the veterans are being further embittered by the necessity of paying under-the-table premiums -- premiums that they usually can’t afford.
You and I know that it is too apparent to warrant contradiction that there will be no appreciable relief from the housing shortage in the near future despite radical priority orders. The result of this will mean that the families of thousands and thousands of veterans will experience distress and suffering during the coming winter.
You and I know that most of the housing available today is unfit to live in, overcrowded, and lacking in simple sanitary facilities. And yet, it is the only kind of housing for which most veterans can afford to pay.
This problem, then, is not altogether one for the national government, nor the responsibility either. It calls for legislative and community support and an all-out effort if the situation is to be met.
In a recent meeting in Boston, Wilson Wyatt, National Housing Expediter, was bombarded with questions and complaints from the chief executives of 39 Massachusetts cities. A Mayor from one near-by city made the observation that the divorce rate is the worst in the history of this nation because returning veterans cannot find homes and are forced to live with in-laws. This results in broken homes. It results in juvenile delinquency and in crime. For the safety of our community, yes, and of our nation, we must solve immediately this critical housing situation.
Can anyone deny the basic fact that the veteran has a right to a decent home? Yet he is lucky if he finds a mere shelter.
It is difficult for the average veteran who has seen this country produce for war -- who has seen the United States build barracks for millions of troops -- change the face of barren islands -- build air strips in five days -- pour roads through jungles -- fight on many fronts -- supply allies and have enough left over to throw away -- to understand why it is impossible in times of peace to provide places to live for the returning veterans. It is difficult to understand and no veteran I know understands it. The fact remains that houses have not been built and that millions of veterans are unable to find a decent place in which to live.
Now then, has the public met its responsibility to the veteran in providing him with decent and adequate housing?
And lastly, has the public met its responsibility to the veteran as far as employment is concerned?
In theory, the veteran has been promised employment.
Next to housing, unemployment is the most serious problem confronting the nation today. The speed and efficiency with which we meet the problem of the veterans’ unemployment will determine, in the long-run, whether we remain the most powerful nation on earth.
It is impossible to expound here this morning this situation in detail, but the urgency of doing something about it is so self-evident I sincerely believe that a simple statement of facts will be sufficient.
The emergency is alarming. At this very hour we have more than 2,500,000 veterans who are claiming unemployment compensation. Just think of it, 2,500,000, and the number drawing unemployment is expected to increase as there are 1,500,000 more men who will shortly be discharged from the armed forces.
In New England, there are over 130,000 war veterans collecting approximately $2,000,000 weekly in unemployment allowances and the significant feature of this, according to W. Clifford Harvey in the Christian Science Monitor, is that they are taking this unemployment allowance rather than utilize the 50,000 job openings recorded in the United States Employment Service. This might sound startling to some of you but when you analyze and review the available jobs: Dish-washers, short-order cooks, elevator operators, stock-room jobs, etc., you will find that very few of them pay more than $25.00 per week. When you stop to consider lunches and carfares and the taxes taken out of this amount of money is it any wonder then that many veterans seek their unemployment allowance?
The tragedy of this army of unemployed veterans lies in the fact that the longer they remain idle and are obliged to receive relief, the less likely they are to succeed in competitive free enterprise when they do find work. Such a situation will harm not only the veterans, but the country as a whole.
The cruel irony of the veterans’ unemployment situation is that there is a wide gap in our economic machine which could be filled by the veterans.
We have modern plants, surplus equipment and material which were developed during wartime and only 50% of those plants are now being utilized. To win World War II we created the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Are we going to let this “Arsenal of Democracy,” now adaptable for peace, slip away from us by allowing it to go to waste?
Today in America, we have untold natural resources that are still untapped and undeveloped. We have more than 11,000,000 acres of good land yet to be opened; in some of our possessions we have hardly scratched the surface to develop the natural wealth.
Is it not the duty of industry, of management, of labor, to accept the responsibility of providing jobs for veterans?
I cannot conclude without mentioning the sad and inexecrable predicament of the veteran with a service-connected disability. There is at present no additional compensation for the veteran with dependents. Frequently, due to his disability, he is unable to hold a job, and if there is illness in his family he must appeal to the city or state welfare boards. This is a lamentable situation and the responsibility lies with the federal government. It must be remedied at once.
I have briefly discussed this morning the responsibility that the public has accepted for the veterans by its laws and the declarations of its leaders. I have also tried to show how far short these laws and declarations have fallen in returning the veterans to normal peace-time life.
Much of this failure can be explained by the great scope of the problem -- rehabilitation of 18,000,000 veterans into civilian life. It was a new problem and it was complicated by the fact that industrially, also, the nation was converting itself from war to peace.
It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that some failures would be made but the failures that we have seen in hospitalization, education, employment and housing are serious failures. And perhaps the most serious consequence of these failures is the disillusionment of the veterans. I think that it would be safe to say that the let-down felt by the veterans -- the result of the glowing reports from the home-front, of the bright promises dazzled before their eyes, of the very phrase, “G.I. Bill of Rights,” has turned many veterans bitter towards their country and its citizens who, they feel, have betrayed them and this embitterment has resulted in some ill-advised actions.
Those actions should serve this country as a warning signal as to what could happen if that disillusionment became general.
We should earnestly pray that that day will never come. It will never come if all of us realize that the mere passage of legislation through Congress does not of itself solve problems. It takes action on all levels and by all of us and that action should come from the heart; for remember -- the veteran is not merely a problem -- the veteran is your husband, your brother, your daughter, your son.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files. Series 02. Speeches, 1946-1952. Box 95, Folder: "Massachusetts Federation of Taxpayers Association, Magnolia, 11 September 1946".