Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Chris Rasmussen graduated from Grinnell College and received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He is Associate Professor of History at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. His article “‘This thing has ceased to be a joke’: The Veterans of Future Wars and the Meanings of Political Satire in the 1930s” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.
Decades ago, when I was starting out as a historian and researching a dissertation on state and county fairs, I met Bob Odenkirk, who was starting out as a comedian—long before he became famous playing Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. “Do you do comedy?” he asked me. “No, I do history. But I do funny history.” Historians have long understood that studying humor offers insight about the past—when we get the jokes told in other times and places we get something about their culture. The Veterans of Future Wars (VFW) began as a joke among a few Princeton students in 1936, and quickly became a nationwide sensation. Examining Americans’ varied responses to the VFW’s joke enabled me to enter into their debates over war, peace, politics, and satire in the 1930s.
Veterans of Future Wars. The name alone was funny, at least to those with a dark sense of humor. It dared to poke fun at the prospect of dead soldiers and grieving mothers, and delivered a scathing commentary on World War I, the veterans’ lobby, and militarism. As one magazine put it, the VFW was engaged in “nonsense with a deadly serious purpose,” and its joke touched a nerve. Many Americans found it hysterical, while others found it unfunny, even downright offensive. Veterans’ groups considered it an unpatriotic slander. Both the enthusiasm and antagonism provoked by the VFW help reveal Americans’ conflicting attitudes about war and veterans in the 1930s, when isolationism and antiwar sentiment ran high.
In the spring of 1936, Princeton senior Lewis Gorin, Jr. was irked by Congress’s recent vote to pay immediately a bonus that was due to World War I veterans, but slated to be paid in 1945. Gorin detested the opportunism and loudly proclaimed patriotism of the veterans’ lobby (the American Legion and the original VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars). He was also horrified by the carnage of World War I, the rise of Nazism, and the specter of another European war. Isolationism was potent in the mid-1930s, and many Americans regarded American entry into the Great War a disaster not to be repeated. So Gorin hatched the Veterans of Future Wars, a satirical organization that demanded that the U.S. government pay immediately a bonus to every young man of draft age, so they could enjoy their bonus while they were young—and alive.
Gorin’s satire went viral, as we would say today. Within weeks upwards of 60,000 college students enlisted in the VFW. College students were vitally concerned with issues of war and peace in the 1930s, even more than with the Great Depression. Most of the students who joined the VFW were excited by its potential as an antiwar movement, and found the organization’s humorous approach to activism far more appealing than the dreary meetings and internecine squabbles of conventional political organizations.
This article grew out of my interest in the 1930s, but was directly inspired by a two undergraduate lectures—Prof. Richard Challener’s and my own. In 1990, while I was a graduate student at Rutgers University, I worked at Princeton University as a preceptor (that’s Princeton-speak for “T.A.”) in Prof. Challener’s course on American diplomatic history. In his lecture on isolationism, Prof. Challener discussed the Veterans of Future Wars as expression of Americans’ determination never again to be drawn into a European conflict. I had never heard of the VFW, and it cracked me up and intrigued me. After class, I told Prof. Challener that the VFW would make for an interesting article about student activism in the 1930s.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Researching the VFW was just plain fun.[/pullquote]
Years after I first heard about the VFW in Prof. Challener’s class, I found myself writing my own lecture on isolationism, and remembered the VFW. Because the VFW was a satirical organization of college students, I thought students would find it engaging, and incorporated it into my lecture. Afterward, I resolved to write an article about it. Conveniently, because I had landed a job at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, the VFW papers in the Seeley Mudd Library at Princeton were only a short drive from my home. I also found some great sources in the archive at Vassar College, home to the VFW’s women’s auxiliary, the Future Gold Star Mothers, an organization for young women doomed to lose sons in a future war. Lampooning maternal grief provoked a firestorm of criticism, and the organization soon changed its name to the Home Fires Division.
Researching the VFW was just plain fun. The organization’s papers were filled with letters from students at colleges across the country, antiwar activists, politicians, journalists, leftists, conservatives, and enraged veterans. Proponents gushed that Lewis Gorin deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, while critics declared that he ought to be hanged for treason. Sifting through the debate over the VFW’s satire transported me back to the 1930s and into the heated dialogue about war, peace, veterans, and satire. (As an aside, when I began sifting through the VFW papers, I enjoyed discovering in the organization’s ranks a few members who subsequently became great historians, including Richard P. McCormick of Rutgers, Lynn White, Jr., and Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.)
Eighty years ago, the Veterans of Future Wars launched its satirical attack on the veterans lobby and war. During World War II and the Cold War, ridicule of the military and the government was often stifled. Stephen Kercher’s book on comedy during the Cold War era, Revel with a Cause, attests to the power of humor to keep alive a current of dissent at a moment in which such dissent was repressed. The release of Stanley Kubrick’s film, Dr. Strangelove, in 1964 started an explosion, so to speak, of anti-authoritarian humor in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary American culture abounds in satire, as the success of The Onion, The Daily Show, and Last Week Tonight attests. The VFW, to me, presages our age of irony-drenched culture.
The VFW has often been dismissed as a lark or a hoax, but I think historians should be alert to the possibilities inherent in seemingly oddball topics. Warren Susman famously remarked that the history of the 1930s would be incomplete without Mickey Mouse, and I would add that it would also be incomplete without the VFW. The popularity and criticism of the VFW’s dark joke offers a revealing look at Americans’ debates over war and militarism in the 1930s, as well as the power of satire. The VFW’s satire of veterans’ lobby and war is both instructive and amusing. Veterans of Future Wars. It still cracks me up.