- Debra Scala Giokas
Florence Harding: Champion for Her Boys, the Veterans of World War I
On November 11, 1921, the unidentified American soldier who died in France during World War I was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a memorial called the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. President Harding asked for a two-minute moment of silence from the thousands of people in attendance. He said, “We know not where he came, but only that his death marks him with everlasting glory of an American dying for his country.”
First Lady Harding placed a wreath on the tomb on that Armistice Day. This tradition is done every Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Florence also led the effort to sell red-dyed poppies to help raise funds for the veterans, which is also still done today.
Florence cared for the soldiers even before she became first lady. When her husband was serving as a United States senator during World War I, Florence worked at Washington’s Union Station and brought coffee and reading materials to the soldiers.
When the soldiers came back from war, there were questions to answer. What were they to do? Where would they go? How would they feel normal again?
“Normalcy” was the trademark term used during the Harding Administration, and Florence used her position as first lady to help veterans.
She called them “My Boys.” If she saw one of her “boys,” she would stop and make sure that he would have the help he needed. She volunteered as an aide at Walter Reed General Hospital. She shook many hands and cared for many hearts.
Florence Harding standing with seven young men in uniform on the steps of her home in Marion, Ohio, in 1920 during the “front porch” presidential campaign for her husband Warren G. Harding. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection
The White House Garden Party
Florence established the White House Veterans Garden Party. She would invite her “boys” to the White House for sandwiches, cake, lemonade, and punch on the great lawn. They came on crutches, with canes, and in wheelchairs. They came blinded and bandaged. Florence made an effort to greet them all. One disabled veteran had given her a four-leaf-clover, and Florence put it in a locket. Another made her a tin box.
The First Veterans Bureau
It is because of Florence’s work in veterans’ affairs that the first Veterans Bureau was established under the Harding Administration to help the veterans with their postwar care.
Florence was determined to make things better, and she encouraged veterans’ families to write to her about their problems. Florence would even make inspections of the facilities herself.
Florence was a compassionate person. She recognized the suffering in others, as she herself suffered greatly from a condition of the kidneys called nephritis. This caused her deep pain in her abdomen and caused her hands and feet to swell. She was bedridden for three or four months at a time. But in spite of her hardships, she persevered.
An Advocate for Many
She not only cared for the veterans, but she also advocated on behalf of women, African Americans, prisoners, and animals. Florence and Warren had run a newspaper before entering politics, and she knew how to work with the media. She posed for photos that would tell the stories about her causes and influence public opinion.
Florence was the first First Lady to be in the White House after World War I ended. She was also the first woman to vote for her husband in a presidential election, the first First Lady to fly in an airplane, and the first to have been divorced.
Most of all, she and her husband President Warren G. Harding deeply appreciated the sacrifices made by veterans in the World War I, “the war to end all wars.” She opened the door for future first ladies to use the position as a platform to fight for causes they believe in.
The Harding Home Presidential Site is located at 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue in Marion, Ohio. The Harding Presidential Center, built alongside the Harding home, opened in 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the front porch campaign.
Florence Harding is included in my book, LADIES, FIRST: COMMON THREADS.