The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is an organization of U.S. war veterans, who, as military service members fought in wars, campaigns, and expeditions on foreign land, waters, or airspace; it was chartered by Congress in 1936 and is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri.
The VFW resulted from the combining of several societies formed immediately following the Spanish–American War. In 1899, little groups of veterans returning from campaigning in Cuba and the Philippine Islands, founded local societies upon a spirit of comradeship known only to those who faced the dangers of that war side by side. Similar experiences and a common language drew them together.
The American Veterans of Foreign Service (predecessor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States) was established in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 29, 1899, by Spanish-American War veteran James C. Putnam. The Colorado Society, Army of the Philippines, was organized in Denver, Colorado, on Dec. 12, 1899. Shortly thereafter, a society known as the Foreign Service Veterans was born in Pennsylvania. These three veterans organizations grew up side by side, increasing in scope and membership until August 1913, when at an encampment held at Denver, they merged their interests and identities in a national organization now known as the VFW.
Since the late 19th century, veteran organizations have influenced the nation’s domestic, defense, and foreign policies. They have lobbied for benefits and have been engaged in political debates over America’s preparedness for war. Moreover, veteran organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have seen themselves as privileged to define America’s cultural values, in particular, the meaning of patriotism because of their members’ defense of America through military service.
From the beginning, the VFW organization limited its membership to officers and enlisted men (and later women) honorably discharged from the military who had served in any foreign war, insurrection, or expedition in the service of the United States. The major original purposes of the VFW were to promote comradeship among its members, to perpetuate the memory of the dead, and to assist the widows and orphans of veterans. In 1925, the organization established a National Home for Veterans’ Orphans.
One of the VFW’s more noteworthy efforts resulted in the passage of the 1924 World War Veterans Adjusted Compensation Act, also known as “the Soldier’s Bonus.” This act granted World War I veterans a deferred payment, due in 1945, as compensation for wages that were lost due to wartime service. In 1932, a spontaneous gathering of 15,000 unemployed veterans in Washington, D.C. demanded early payment of that bonus. Congress’s refusal to grant payment and the violent dispersal of the so-called “Bonus Army” increased social and political tensions during the depths of the Great Depression. The VFW opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration’s cuts in veterans’ benefits in the Economy Act of 1933. It also played a crucial role, along with the American Legion, in lobbying for an earlier payment of the bonus. In 1936, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto of legislation providing that payment.
In the early 1930s, the VFW supported a series of neutrality laws that sought to prevent America from entering another overseas war. After the Munich Pact of 1938, isolationist sentiment within the organization waned. Upon the United States’ entry into World War II, the VFW’s first official act was to lobby Congress to provide for immediate life insurance coverage for all service personnel. Through its efforts, Congress approved a bill that would award a $5,000 policy to every member of the service and his or her dependents.
The VFW’s main contribution to the war effort was in the area of civilian defense. This included promoting a physical fitness campaign and recruiting auxiliary police and firefighters to replace those who had joined the service. The VFW also established an Aviation Cadet Committee to test and drill men 18-26 years of age so they could qualify for the Air Corps. The VFW successfully recruited 75,000 men for the Air Corps and another 45,000 for other branches of service.
The greatest accomplishment of the VFW, along with its chief rival, the more politically powerful American Legion, was the effort that led to passing of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944. Initially, the VFW remained lukewarm to the GI Bill and feared a recurrence of the postwar backlash against veterans’ benefits by big business that had occurred in the 1920s and early 1930s. But in the end, the VFW embraced the GI Bill of Rights and played a crucial role in its passage. In contrast to the World War I bonus, the GI Bill was widely hailed as one of the greatest pieces of legislation passed by Congress in the 20th century.
In addition to its main aim of aiding veterans, the VFW sought from its beginning to promote patriotism among Americans. For example, it placed emphasis on respect for the American flag; as early as the 1920s it distributed nearly a million copies of a booklet, “Etiquette of the Stars and Stripes,” to schools and other organizations. One of its achievements was a lobbying campaign that in 1931 led Congress to officially designate “The Star-Spangled Banner” as America’s national anthem.
The VFW National Legislative Service office in Washington, D.C., monitors legislation that affects veterans. It alerts the membership to key legislation and lobbies Congress and the executive branch on veterans’ issues. The office often assists congressional staffs in preparing legislation. In the early 2000s, the VFW legislative goals included a VA budget with sufficient funds to provide adequate veterans health care, vocational training and retraining for veterans, and employment opportunities for veterans.
The VFW has almost 16,000 trained service officers to assist veterans and their dependents in gaining federal or state entitlements. These service officers help with military discharge upgrades, records correction, education benefits, disability compensation, pension eligibility, and other types of veterans’ issues. Field representatives conduct regular inspections of VA health care facilities, regional VA offices, and national cemeteries.
Historically, the VFW has promoted patriotism through its “Americanism Program.” It provides materials and information and sponsors events and activities that are designed to stimulate interest in U.S. history, traditions and institutions. The “Voice of Democracy” program is a national essay competition that annually provides more than $2.5 million in college scholarships and incentives.
In February 2003, the VFW issued a statement that charged the administration of President George W. Bush with seriously under-funding the health care needs of the nation’s veterans. The VFW stated that it had joined with the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, and other veteran and military organizations to seek mandatory or guaranteed funding to improve the funding provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (formerly the Veterans Administration).
As of 2020, the VFW has 1.6 million members and Auxiliary members, forming 6,000 local chapters known as Posts, grouped into 52 departments covering the 50 states, the Asia-Pacific area, and Europe.
Delaware County Veterans of Foreign Wars posts:
• Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #3297 meets at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of every month at 481 S. Sandusky St. in Delaware. For more information, call 740-369-9984 or visit www.vfw.com.
• Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #8736 meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month at 435 McGill St. in Sunbury. For more information, call 740-965-2804 or visit www.vfw.com.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at [email protected]