July 21, 2012 marks the 82nd anniversary of President Herbert Hoover’s signing of Executive Order 5398 on July 21, 1930, which authorized the Veterans Administration and kicked off the second consolidation of federal Veterans’ programs in U.S. history.
The first consolidation of federal Veterans’ programs took place nine years earlier, on August 9, 1921, when Congress combined Veterans’ programs created for World War I Veterans—the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Federal Board of Vocational Education (rehabilitation division), and Public Health Veterans’ hospitals--into a single new government organization known as the Veterans Bureau. Mounting dissatisfaction from Veterans over the ineffectiveness of that first consolidation, along with a greater expansion of benefits authorized by the World War Veterans Act of 1924, further taxed existing Veterans’ programs and led Congress to approve another consolidation nine years later. As the second consolidation bill made its way through Congress in the spring of 1930, the proposed name for the new federal entity was the “Administration of Veterans Affairs.”
On July 3, 1930, Congress passed Public Law 71-536 giving the president authority to consolidate federal Veterans’ programs via an executive order. When President Hoover signed the executive order two weeks later, he officially initiated the merger of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and U.S. Pension Bureau with the Veterans Bureau and designated the new entity as the Veterans Administration.
The National Homes, an independent federal program since 1865, had been in operation for 65 years providing Veterans with hospitals, rehabilitation, and social programs in residential settings called “homes.” The Pension Bureau, part of the Dept. of Interior since 1849, had administered pensions for 81 years; however, Veteran’s pensions had been a function of the government for much longer—141 years (as of 1930), beginning in 1789 with the first U.S. pension law. The amalgamation of these two well-established, iconic American institutions along with one of the largest insurance operations in the world, during the early days of the Great Depression and in the midst of the government’s largest Veterans’ hospital construction program in history (at the time), was a Herculean task that took over a year to implement. The Veterans Administration went into full effect on July 1, 1931. General Frank T. Hines, who was in charge of the Veterans Bureau since 1922, didn’t even have to move his office when he became Administrator for the Veterans Administration as the location and center for federal Veterans’ programs remained the same—on Vermont Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The 1930 consolidation and creation of the Veterans Administration did not bring together all federal Veterans’ programs. Prosthetics for other than World War I Veterans, certain annuities, job placement, burial benefits such as national cemeteries, American national cemeteries abroad, and government headstones remained in the hands of other agencies.
Four months after EO 5398 was signed, further consolidation took place. On November 4, 1930, Executive Order 5476 transferred Veterans’ prosthetics and the administration of special annuities (paid to the discoverers of yellow fever and its etiology) from the War Department to the Veterans Administration, effective December 1, 1930.
During the 1930s, Civil War battlefield national cemeteries were transferred from the Army to the Department of the Interior and remain under their care today. Later, all but two national cemeteries were transferred to VA in 1973, along with the Presidential Memorial Certificate program initiated by President John F. Kennedy, in the third major consolidation of federal Veterans’ programs. Arlington National Cemetery and the former U.S. Soldiers Home Cemetery in D.C. remain under the U.S. Army’s purview. American cemeteries abroad (i.e., France, Mexico, Philippines) have been administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission since 1923. Since 1855 St. Elizabeth’s hospital and cemetery in D.C., housed generations of mentally ill military Veterans—often having been transferred from National Homes—many of whom are buried in the cemetery there; it is now owned by the D.C. government.
After 58 years, the Veterans Administration was terminated with the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, Public Law 100-527, signed on October 25, 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. The Department of Veterans Affairs went into full effect on March 15, 1989.