Woodrow Wilson had won his second term as President in 1916 on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War,” a reference to the worsening conflict on European battlefields which many believed would inevitably draw the United States to the side of Britain, France and Italy against Germany.
In April of 1917, just over one month after being inaugurated for his second term, Wilson committed his nation to its second foreign war. It was also the first war which relied not on volunteers but conscripted servicemen by a “draft.”
During World War I, Edith Wilson led numerous Red Cross charity drives and also volunteered at the Union Station canteen where many soldiers and sailors passed through before being shipped off to the European front.
At the White House she also used her own sewing machine to produce pajamas, sock and other necessary protection for servicemen.
She even issued a carefully worded public information statement about the need for parents to warn their sons going off to war against the threat of venereal disease.
Several former First Ladies also did their part during World War I.
Frances Cleveland undertook a national speaking tour, stirring citizens into voluntary patriotic duty. She was president of the Needlework Guild, a national organization which produced tens of thousands of necessary protective clothing items for servicemen exposed to the elements.
Edith Roosevelt was also a member and served as a local guild president. While Nellie Taft’s son Charlie was lucky to return alive after serving, Edith Roosevelt’s son Quentin died during active service as an airman in France.
Edith Wilson accompanied President Wilson to Europe once the war was ended for the signing of the Versailles Treaty, visiting England, Italy, France and Belgium. There, Mrs. Wilson was exposed to the harsh, muddy conditions of the trenches where the fighting men had lived and battled, and were still stationed, although now they were technically veterans since the war was over.
Of the presidential spouses who addressed various needs of U.S. war veterans as part of their official agenda, none was perhaps more important than Florence Harding.
Although her public agenda as First Lady also involved animal welfare and women’s civic equality, she was best remembered for undertaking action in a variety of ways on behalf of U.S. wounded and disabled veterans.
As a Senate wife, she had been visiting the returning wounded and disabled veterans who were being treated at Walter Reed Hospital and her experiences there led her to become a strong advocate for the federal government ensuring the well-being of those who had put their lives on the line in World War I.
Mrs. Harding called these veterans “my boys,” and continued to make frequent visits once her husband was elected President, bringing gifts for those who had no family in the region, reading to those who had been blinded, and taking dictation for those who were unable to write their own letters.
It was Florence Harding who established the annual White House veterans garden party, holding one each of her three years of incumbency.
Florence Harding who successfully influenced President Harding to name their friend, Colonel Charles Forbes as the first director of the newly-formed U.S. Veterans Bureau. Unfortunately, Forbes proved to be a callous and devious criminal who took kickbacks for veteran hospital building contracts, and the resale of usable military surplus which claimed were “damaged.”
Florence Harding considered Forbes to have committed the deepest of all betrayals, not only to her and the President personally but to “my boys,” as she had begun to call all World War I veterans.
The First Lady, however, was alert to the growing malfeasance at the Veterans Bureau.
She had developed a wide network not only of informants among bureau workers, but also regularly received letters from those in hospitals reporting on the system’s failings to deliver the care they were promised. She also encouraged veterans’ families to write her about individual problems involving their relatives who were in veteran hospital care and interceded on their behalf on numerous occasions, even making spot inspection tours herself.
Because of her publicly known devotion to the vets of World War I, Florence Harding was given the honor of placing a memorial sash ribbon the flag-draped coffin of the Unknown Soldier, to soon after be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Although she was not as politically involved in veteran affairs as Florence Harding had been, Grace Coolidge had the unique experience of having worked as a teacher of deaf children and had a particular comfort level with those who were disabled.
As a Red Cross volunteer, she particularly appreciated the struggle of veterans who had lost their sight or hearing and enjoyed reading to those who had been blinded.
She continued Florence Harding’s spring garden parties for veterans and made special visits to area veteran hospitals on what was originally called “Armistice Day” before being renamed Veterans Day.
During World War I, Lou Hoover had focused her energies on food conservation drives when her husband was named U.S. Food Administrator and also helped manage a herculean humanitarian task of preventing mass death by starvation of the Belgian people. As First Lady, she continued the garden parties.
During the Depression’s controversial “Bonus Army” march on Washington, thousands of impoverished veterans converged on the capital to demand early pension payments, and would soon clash with federal troops ordered to clear their tent encampments, a directive that was incorrectly believed to be at the direct orders of the President.
Mrs. Hoover kept clear of the violence but did make the anonymous effort of sending sandwiches and coffee from the White House.
In contrast was Eleanor Roosevelt. During World War I, she had also worked at the Union Station canteen and gave particular focus to the needs of sailors, with her husband then serving as President Wilson’s undersecretary of the navy.
In the first days of her tenure in 1933, she actually went into the Bonus Army’s encampments to meet with the disgruntled World War I veterans.
Although she did not bring word of any release of pension funds to them, she joined in their old war songs and expressed her hope that economic relief policies her husband was then initiating would soon help the vets as well as all Americans then suffering from unemployment and housing displacement.
The First Lady’s visit proved to boost their morale. “Hoover sent the army,” was the slogan after her visit, “but Roosevelt sent his wife.”