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Professor Robert Saxe Discusses His Research on U.S. Veterans

Publication Date: 11/9/2012

This weekend and on Monday, Americans across the country will gather in parades and at war memorials to celebrate Veterans Day, a national holiday which has its origins in World War I. First known as Armistice Day, the holiday was created to honor the end of the First World War. The transformation of the holiday to its modern name occurred in 1954 when President Dwight Eisenhower designated Nov. 11 as Veterans Day. While Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday in May, commemorates those who have died serving in the United States Armed Forces, Veterans Day was designed to honor those who have served and are still living.

Here in Memphis, traditions include the annual Veterans Day parade downtown. Rhodes History professor Robert Saxe has done research on the treatment of veterans in the United States. In his book, Settling Down: World War II Veterans’ Challenge to the Postwar Consensus, Saxe outlines the ways in which many veterans were silenced after returning home from World War II.

“I’ve looked at how a lot of times, veterans of World War II are referred to as the ‘Greatest Generation’, an idea which sometimes implies that they worked hard but weren’t really critical of anything,” says Saxe. “This was not the case. Veterans were critical of all kinds of things when they came home, including the war. But by 1950, you aren’t really hearing these voices anymore. So in my book, I talk about how the Cold War made it more difficult for people, even these heroes, to express controversial opinions.”

In his research for the book, Saxe conducted personal interviews, and spoke with people from groups like the American Veteran’s Committee, a progressive veterans group founded in 1943. Saxe says that in the process of researching for the book, he came across many compelling stories about the post-war lives of veterans. Among them are some about WWII veteran and former United States President John F. Kennedy, who first ran for Congress in 1946.

“In that race for Congress, he was running against other veterans,” says Saxe. “One of his opponents had been in the service as a recruiter for the Women’s Army Corps. There’s this nice moment when Kennedy hears that [his advisors] are trying to suggest that this man wasn’t a real man, or a real hero like Kennedy, and Kennedy absolutely would not let them do it. He wouldn’t let them badmouth someone else’s war record. That was a line he was not willing to cross, and I think that really tells you something about these veterans’ camaraderie.”

In his book, Saxe also discusses African American veterans of World War II, many of whom came home fighting for civil rights. Many famous civil rights activists, including Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry, were veterans of World War II.

Historically, veterans have been honored in various ways including monumental legislation, like the GI Bill, which was instituted after World War 1.

“The GI Bill was one of the most path-breaking bits of social legislation ever to be passed,” says Saxe. “For many of the WWII veterans I interviewed, GI benefits allowed them to be the first in their families to attend college. Of course, you have groups like African Americans who weren’t treated so well, and who were greeted with a lot of racism when they returned home from war.”
In terms of modern celebrations of Veterans Day, Saxe says he would like to see more policy changes that would honor current vets.

“I think Veterans Day is nice, and I applaud that we have it,” Saxe says. “But I would like to see that channeled into some sort of political action like WWI veterans accomplished with the GI Bill. That’s what I’d like to see on Veteran’s Day. Still, I think our communities do a good job of making sure we don’t forget about sacrifice, and that’s important.”

(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)

Tags: Events, Faculty


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