The United States is one of the foremost examples of a country that adopted an “exclusive” approach to veterans’ policy: namely, where welfare programs for veterans are treated separately from those covering the rest of the population. Ranging from free healthcare to old-age pension to civil service preference, former U.S. soldiers have access to a wide range of benefits administered by a single federal entity, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Though these programs are more varied and expensive than anywhere else in the world, their origin remains unexplored. This is not only because scholars of the welfare state have tended to focus on programs targeting traditionally marginalized groups, but also because scholars of veterans’ affairs rarely place their topic in the larger context of U.S. social policy. Both gaps stem from the prevailing assumption that veterans are one of the few privileged groups in American society whose benefits do not fall under the category of “welfare” but instead of earned rights. This paper bridges this divide by adopting a threefold approach: it places veterans’ benefits within the framework of the U.S. welfare state as a whole, it retraces their evolution from the colonial period to the Vietnam War, and it sets the U.S. experience in comparative perspective. In doing so, it highlights a series of factors that reflected not only the specific nature of warfare in U.S. history – such as its frequency and intensity – but also its timing and the fact that it rarely caused major civilian casualties or economic destruction, which allowed veterans to claim that they alone bore war’s burden – but also of its political system – for instance, the country’s relative political stability and the fact that the early extension of white male suffrage allowed U.S. veterans to influence politics before their counterparts in other industrialized countries.
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