The High Road to Self-Support Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As soldiers returned home from Europe during and after World War I, many were faced with the physical difficulties of readjusting to living and working in American society. After seeing the horrors of war in a conflict that featured a new level of horrific weaponry, many soldiers came back only to be diagnosed with what was, at the time, called “shell shock,” though few realized its long-lasting effects. After many more wars, involving millions of soldiers, the condition is today classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although such problems can be identified throughout the history of warfare, dating back to the history of the ancient world, it is only with the twentieth-century wars that Western societies began to seriously address the needs of the soldiers whose condition had been so dramatically impacted by the experience of war. Douglas McMurtrie’s article represents the state of thought on “crippled” soldiers in the aftermath of World War I.

Summary Overview

As soldiers returned home from Europe during and after World War I, many were faced with the physical difficulties of readjusting to living and working in American society. After seeing the horrors of war in a conflict that featured a new level of horrific weaponry, many soldiers came back only to be diagnosed with what was, at the time, called “shell shock,” though few realized its long-lasting effects. After many more wars, involving millions of soldiers, the condition is today classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although such problems can be identified throughout the history of warfare, dating back to the history of the ancient world, it is only with the twentieth-century wars that Western societies began to seriously address the needs of the soldiers whose condition had been so dramatically impacted by the experience of war. Douglas McMurtrie’s article represents the state of thought on “crippled” soldiers in the aftermath of World War I.

Defining Moment

Even before the United States entered World War I in 1917, many knew what kind of problems were going to result for the returning soldiers, as the war had been going on for more than three years for America’s allies, Great Britain and France. Additionally, the pension system, which had been set up to assure Civil War soldiers that they and their families would be cared for should they be disabled, was proving to be very expensive, costing more in one year than the federal government had spent on the entire war. Although the duration of American involvement in World War I was relatively brief, the horrors of the battlefield impacted hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers. Both physical and psychological traumas dramatically challenged many of the veterans as they sought to rejoin American society, which was ill-equipped to handle the special needs many of them had.

The World War I era also represented the latter stages of the Progressive Era in the United States, a time when reformers sought new ways of dealing with the social problems that faced those who might be considered less fortunate in society. What Jane Addams sought to do for impoverished inner-city immigrants at Hull-House (which was replicated at “settlement houses” in many cities), people like Douglas McMurtrie sought to do for veterans returning from World War I: start programs that would help them gain a marketable skill, allowing them to create a career for themselves and their families. The same year America entered the War; the US Congress passed the War Risk Insurance Act Amendments of 1917, which authorized vocational training for veterans dealing with dismemberment, vision or hearing impairments, and other disabilities. Progressive reforms made sense because many Americans viewed pensions to veterans as nothing but handouts to people who falsely claimed to be disabled, whereas programs like the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, which McMurtrie directed, were geared at helping disabled veterans gain the ability to work, in order to support themselves.

This movement toward occupational rehabilitation impacted the programs of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, some of which had “curative workshops” that more closely resembled workshops than medical institutions. Among other skills, classes were offered in telegraphing, clerical occupations, and woodworking. In fact, amputees in woodworking classes in some hospitals actually crafted their own artificial limbs. Programs like McMurtrie’s sought to take soldiers, who had already completed their medical rehabilitation, but still faced a life with a disability, and address not only the disability itself, but also the perceived idleness that might come from having one’s needs provided for by teaching them a useful trade. McMurtrie’s program dealt with both the soldier and the potential employer, addressing the concerns companies might have about hiring a disabled person and demonstrating to the veteran that they were capable of learning and using a fulfilling trade.

Author Biography

Douglas C. McMurtrie was a publisher and graphic designer by trade, as well as being a well-known historian of publishing. However, it was his philanthropic activities that led to his writing about soldiers returning from World War I. Beginning in 1910, McMurtrie began writing to help people with disabilities, and in 1912, he became editor of the American Journal of Care for Cripples. He served as president of the Federation of Associations for Cripples during 1915–1919. After the United States entered the war in 1917, McMurtrie became director of the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, which was tasked with providing education and career opportunities for handicapped veterans. As director, McMurtrie helped establish rehabilitation centers for war veterans, and during 1918 and 1919, McMurtrie became a prolific author on veterans’ issues advocating for a social approach to rehabilitation that went against the prevailing approach, which focused exclusively on the veterans’ medical issues.

Document Analysis

The problem of what to do with a large number of returning soldiers with either physical or psychological problems readjusting to life in American society was not something that had been dealt with in the United States since the end of the Civil War. But the problem had not gone away–pension costs for the Civil War, which had ended just over fifty years prior, were still proving very costly. So, rather than providing pensions for injured veterans, Douglas McMurtrie of the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men detailed a different solution to the problem: once the injured veterans had completed their medical rehabilitation, they could be occupationally rehabilitated as well. Giving such soldiers a means of self-support would not only serve to reduce the cost to the federal government, but more importantly would give the veterans a much-needed dose of self-confidence.

The state of medical and psychological thought at the time, especially among Progressive Era reformers, advocated social and economic opportunities as the way to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, and McMurtrie’s arguments reflect this. Though his description of the rehabilitation process, stating “[e]very effort has been made to minimize worry or exertion on his part,” seems naïve considering what is now known about PTSD, it demonstrates his belief that the giving of benefits to veterans without expecting anything further from them is the basic cause of their difficulties, rather than the psychological wounds from which they may be suffering. The cure, according to McMurtrie, is aiding the disabled veteran in learning a skill and helping him locate a good-paying job. This, he argues, will reawaken initiative within the veteran and make him more likely to complete the training and rejoin society in a productive manner. As a side-benefit, this training will also help relieve the federal government’s long-term responsibility to those who fought the war.

McMurtrie concludes his article by stating a number of conditions that will help make for successful outcomes. First, he states that “[t]he choice of trades in which disabled men may wisely be trained is of primary importance.” This is not only because of the disability, but because veterans need to be placed in jobs with good long-term prospects. If the veteran were to only be employed for a short time, it would likely discourage him. Finally, the veteran must volunteer for retraining, as forcing such a program on them would likely end in failure.

Essential Themes

Under McMurtrie’s direction, the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men sought referrals of appropriate participants for their occupational rehabilitation program from doctors throughout the United States, taking out advertisements in the Journal of the American Medical Association to publicize their work. The Red Cross was hardly alone in its work and outlook, as people, such as Wisconsin’s well-known Progressive governor, Robert Lafollette, took his cue from programs like McMurtrie’s, starting a worker’s compensation program in his state that included occupational rehabilitation for both veterans and civilians who had been injured at work. By 1920, the US Congress had passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act–an action that McMurtrie had personally urged the federal government to take.

However, many veterans still wanted Congress to honor the promise they had made to pay a war bonus to veterans, especially with the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929. In June and July 1930, veterans descended on Washington, DC, to demand benefits, but were forcibly dispersed by current American troops. However, it did demonstrate the importance of veterans’ matters, and spurred the establishment of the Veterans Administration on July 21, 1930, which has since acted as the main federal conduit for providing medical and occupational benefits to American veterans.

Unfortunately, many of those wounded soldiers that McMurtrie sought to help also were afflicted with psychological problems related to their wartime service that were very poorly understood at the time. Many doctors initially argued that “shell shock” was not a mental illness at all, but rather a physical condition–an injury caused by the physical shaking of the brain due to the loud explosions characteristic of the unprecedented artillery bombardments during World War I (a condition that today we might call traumatic brain injury). Some even accused those who demonstrated symptoms long after leaving the battlefield as malingerers, who sought only to use the public’s pity for their condition to get handouts. Such soldiers needed far more involved treatment than could be provided by an occupational rehabilitation program. Post-traumatic stress disorder, however, would not be made a valid psychological diagnosis until 1980.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Alexander, Caroline. “The Shock of War.” Smithsonian 41. 5 (Sept. 2010): 58.
  • Babington, Anthony. Shell Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neuroses. South Yorkshire, UK: Leo Cooper, 1997. Print.
  • Keene, Jennifer D. World War I: The American Soldier Experience. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. Print.
  • Linker, Beth. War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.
  • Shephard, Ben. War of Nerves, Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914–1994. London: Pimlico Books, 2002. Print.
  • Verville, Richard. War, Politics, and Philanthropy: The History of Rehabilitation Medicine. Lanham, MD: U P of America, 2009.
Categories: History Content