BGSU’s Ortiz is ‘history detective’

Soon after joining the history faculty at Bowling Green State University last fall, Dr. Stephen Ortiz took on his first case as a detective.

The mystery surrounded an Easter Seals-like stamp with the words “Pay the Bonus” beneath an image of a World War I doughboy. Also appearing on the stamp’s left side was the right half of the logo of the Veterans of Foreign Wars—a logo with which Ortiz was very familiar through his ongoing research of the VFW.

With those clues, it didn’t take long for the assistant professor of history to solve the case, whose resolution is scheduled to be revealed nationally as part of the Public Broadcasting Service’s “History Detectives” on Monday (July 28). Including the stamp story and two others, the hour-long program premieres at 9 p.m. on WBGU-PBS.

“History Detectives” solicits historical mysteries from viewers and combines traditional investigative techniques with modern technologies and lots of legwork to solve them. Many items are submitted to the show but few pan out as viable story lines, said Ortiz, noting that they must have a compelling element or significance in American history.

In his case, Ortiz explained, a man whose grandfather was a World War I veteran was curious about the stamp’s origins and the importance of the bonus issue.

Bonus history
Ortiz said the producers of “History Detectives” talked to scholars who had material about the Bonus March. The march was a 1932 assemblage of World War I veterans, their family members and others in Washington, D.C., where they sought immediate payment of “adjusted compensation” (the bonus) promised to veterans in legislation adopted by Congress in 1924. Based on days of service, the bonus averaged about $600 per person but for some was as much as $1,500 or more. The problem, from the perspective of veterans mired in the Depression by 1932, was that the 1924 statute didn’t allow distribution of the bonus until 1945. Legislation that would have changed that had passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, and the marchers’ attempt to force the issue was met with force by Gen. Douglas MacArthur-led Army troops, who destroyed their “Hooverville” camps on the outskirts of the capital.

Ortiz said one of the scholars contacted by “History Detectives,” Lucy Barber of the National Archives, suggested they call him if the case involved the VFW. That call came last November, said the BGSU historian, who has written about the veterans’ organization as well as the Bonus March. For a book to be published next year by New York University Press, he has been researching the VFW and veterans’ issues in the 1930s at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

He had seen the “Pay the Bonus” stamp at the library. “There was no doubting the authenticity of this,” Ortiz said. “It was just a matter of placing it, time and place.”

At the library, the stamp from a San Francisco VFW post was found on a May 1935 petition, among the thousands of pieces of mail sent to Roosevelt asking him to sign bonus-payment legislation that, unlike in 1932 and again in 1934, had made it through Congress. Ortiz said he discussed “what an enormous issue this was in ‘35” during his “History Detectives” taping at Hyde Park in January with Wes Cowan, one of the show’s four hosts.

Rest of the story
Despite the considerable urging to support the bill, FDR vetoed it before a joint session of Congress and on a live radio broadcast—actions not taken by any other president before or since, Ortiz pointed out. Roosevelt’s rationale, and Herbert Hoover’s before him, he added, was that the 1924 law represented a contract that couldn’t be broken and that, during the Depression, the federal government couldn’t afford the estimated cost of the bonus payments—over $2 billion for about 4 million veterans.

In 1936, however, when Congress again passed legislation that FDR again rejected—that time in a 200-word note—the veto was overridden.

The Depression-era presidents’ thinking about the economic effect of the bonus payments was just the opposite of the presidential position on this year’s economic stimulus payments, Ortiz noted. “Both Hoover and Roosevelt derided the idea it would have any impact on the Depression whatsoever,” he said, but the one-time cash infusion helped make 1936 the United States’ most successful economic year since 1929.

He pointed out, too, that FDR later provided more expensive veterans’ benefits when he signed the G.I. Bill in 1944.

Battle aids VFW
Also benefiting from the bonus battle was the VFW, which Ortiz said had started prodding Congress to allow veterans to cash in their bonus bond-like certificates even before the stock market crash in October 1929. “The VFW, from 1929 to ’36, was the strongest proponent of immediate payment of the bonus,” he said, adding that its lobbying was also a way to entice veterans to join what was then a much smaller organization than the American Legion. And it worked—the VFW grew from about 60,000 members in 1929 to roughly 300,000 in 1936, making it “one of the only dues-paying, voluntary organizations to not only survive the Depression, but come out more powerful,” Ortiz said.

His interest in the VFW and veterans’ stories stems in part from his father, a physician with the Veterans Administration. Then, when he came upon VFW documents while in graduate school at the University of Florida, he realized the organization and the bonus issue had received little previous scholarly treatment.

His forthcoming book, “Beyond the Bonus March and G.I. Bill—How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era,” is the first by Ortiz, who holds three degrees in history from Florida, including a Ph.D. conferred in 2004.

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Editor’s note: For more information, contact Dr. Stephen Ortiz at 419-372-8201 or sortiz@bgsu.edu.

(Posted July 21, 2008 )