Historians on America:The GI Bill of Rights
America.gov | 2013-01-23 11:07

Changing the social, economic landscape of the United States

A veteran of a more recent war meets with the Department of Veterans Services. Help is still available for returning vets.

The GI Bill of Rights, officially known as The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, was signed into law on June 22, 1944, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the same time, its passage through Congress was largely unheralded, in part because the Normandy Invasion was under way; but also because its fundamental significance and major consequences for American society could not have been foreseen. However, with the end of the war in both Europe and Asia just a year later, the GI Bill's provisions would soon be quickly and fully tested. Within a few years, the new law served to change the social and economic landscape of the United States.

Among its provisions, the law made available to World War II veterans immediate financial support in the form of unemployment insurance. Far more important, as it turned out, were generous educational opportunities ranging from vocational and on-the-job training to higher education, and liberal access to loans for a home or a business

While there were numerous bills introduced in Congress to reward the combat-weary veterans of World War II, this particular bill had a significant sponsor. The major force behind the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 was the well-known American Legion, a private veterans advocacy group founded in 1919. The Legion, during its 25th annual convention in September 1943, initiated its own campaign for comprehensive support of veterans. It labeled the resulting ideas, crafted into one legislative proposal by the Legion's national commander Harry W. Colmery, "a bill of rights for GI Joe and GI Jane," but the proposal soon became known as the GI Bill of Rights. The term GI – the slang term for American soldiers in that war – originally stood for "Government Issue," referring to military regulations or equipment. Wedded to the idea of the "Bill of Rights" in the revered U.S. Constitution, the "GI Bill" was bound to project an appealing aura in the halls of Congress as politicians sought ways to reward the homebound soldiers.

But there is more to the story. Though it might appear that the adoption and passage of the bill was entirely the result of unbridled generosity on the part of a grateful Congress, it was also in large measure a product of justified concern, even a certain fear, on the part of lawmakers about a radicalized postwar America. Prior to World War II, America had provided benefits and care to those disabled by combat, but had paid little attention to its able-bodied veterans. Within living memory of many public men of the time, neglect of the returning veterans of World War I, exacerbated by deteriorating economic conditions, had led to protest marches and disastrous confrontations. In 1932, 20,000 veterans gathered in Washington, D.C., for a "bonus march," hoping to obtain financial rewards they thought they had been promised for service in World War I, leading to one of America's most tragic moments. Altercations led President Hoover to call out the army, which under the leadership of future military heroes General Douglas MacArthur and Majors Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton used guns and tanks against the "bonus army."

In the minds of Washington policymakers who had witnessed this confrontation, the viable legislation to meet the needs of veterans that emerged in 1944 came not a moment too soon. Even when it was clear that the Allies were going to win, few foresaw the complete capitulation of the Axis powers one year later with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sudden return of more than 15 million veterans of the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, streaming home from the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

We must remember that for 12 years prior to the Japanese bombing attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – the attack that drew America into World War II – America was in a deep economic depression. Thus, the war, when it came, found the nation unprepared and largely uneducated, faced with the need to build a fighting force of young people who had known only the Great Depression years. Unemployment was widespread, with 25 percent of the workforce unemployed at the height of the depression in 1933. Breadlines and soup kitchens for even formerly prosperous middle-class men personified the era, and entire families thought they faced a life of poverty and joblessness. Most of the industrialized world in one way or another was caught up in the same calamity, with disastrous political results, including the rise of totalitarian regimes in crisis-ridden nations around the world.

Though the New Deal government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, first elected in 1932, initiated numerous governmental programs that generated some employment, 10 million people, or about 17 percent of the workforce, were still unemployed in 1939. The outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 brought forth a new surge of economic activity as well as an ensuing military draft. Ironically, it was the American entry into the war in late 1941 that put an end to the Great Depression, by taking young men temporarily out of circulation as most went into the military and putting everyone else to work on the home front, including large numbers of women. The American Legion, strongly supported by William Randolph Hearst and his chain of newspapers, waged their campaign for the GI Bill by stressing fear of a return to prewar breadlines and resulting threats to democracy.

Same Rules for All
In spirit, as well as specific provisions, the GI Bill was enormously democratic. Benefits were available to every veteran upon his release from active service. The rules were the same for everyone. The only requirements were military service for at least 90 days, and an honorable discharge. No financial means tests were applied, no complex tax credits had to be computed, and, most important, no preferences were given for military rank or service experiences. Length of service was used to apply only to duration of educational benefits. Minimal bureaucratic red tape was imposed for the use of any benefit.

The end of World War II was a time of great drama and release for the nation as a whole. Naturally, few people, including many closely connected to the GI Bill's development, were aware of the implications of this revolutionary new law. Commentary of the time – inside and outside of Congress – tended to stress the costs and benefits of the unemployment readjustment allowance contained in the bill and to underestimate the education and loan program provisions. The readjustment allowance authorized $20 a week of unemployment funds for 52 weeks – and soon became known to its beneficiaries as the "52-20 Club." Because of the Great Depression, few in the age group of typical GIs had ever held a job. Skeptics in and out of government said that the giveaway of $20 a week would lead to irresponsible idleness. Opposition arose in Congress from some southern members who resisted providing that much money on an equal basis to blacks and whites. In the mid-1940s, $20 was a lot of money. For 15 cents or even less, one could buy gasoline, cigarettes, beer, milk shakes, or go to a movie. Yet – and this is indicative of that generation's response to the war's end, and the stigma in those days that came with accepting public money – only slightly more than half the veterans even claimed the money; and most used it for so few weeks that less than 20 percent of the estimated cost was actually spent.

For educational benefits, the method was for the Veterans Administration (VA) to certify eligibility, pay the bills to the school for tuition, fees, and books, and to mail a monthly living stipend to the veteran for up to 48 months of schooling, depending upon length of service. For home loans for GIs, the VA guaranteed a sizeable portion of the loan to the lending institution and mortgage rates were set at a low 4 percent interest. The formal aspects of these programs have lived on in subsequent, though less generous, versions of the GI Bill for Korean War and Vietnam War veterans – and still continue as an enlistment incentive for America's current volunteer military under what is now known as the Montgomery GI Bill.

A Boost to Education
However, it was the original bill that changed everything. First among the lasting legacies of the GI Bill of Rights is the now commonplace belief that education can be and should be available to anyone, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, or family status. High school graduation was a rare achievement prior to World War II. Millions of members of the armed forces had not even graduated from grammar school and many young Americans did not go beyond the 10th grade. In the 1940s, only 23 percent of the military had a high school diploma and about 3 percent had college degrees. By making it possible for the sons of farmhands and laborers to get a better education than they had ever dreamed of, the GI Bill gave widespread and permanent credence to the idea that education is the pathway to a better job and a better life.

In 1940, a total of about 160,000 people in the United States earned college degrees. Thanks to the bill, the graduating class of 1950 numbered nearly 500,000. Importantly, these were not teenagers going to college. About half the college-student military veterans of that generation were married, and 25 percent had children. In addition to the eventual total of 2.2 million World War II veterans who attended college, another 3.5 million vets made use of vocational school opportunities, 1.5 million used it for on-the-job training, and 700,000 took farm training. The veteran chose any school or training program to which he could gain admission. Dependents of servicemen killed in action could also use the benefits. And GI educational benefits were available abroad as well. In 1950, the Veterans Administration reported that 5,800 veterans were studying in 45 countries under the GI Bill. In admitting battle-scarred vets back to civilian life, most campuses took cognizance of any educational training taken by many GIs while in service. The American Council on Education, the umbrella organization for all sectors of higher education, developed a guide for evaluating military experiences, so that suitable credits could be awarded to help speed the vet through college more quickly and then into the civilian workforce.

Not only did the GI Bill make access to higher education practical for men from all backgrounds, it changed the meaning of higher education in public consciousness from the 1950s onward. Prior to the war, higher education in the United States was mostly private, liberal arts, small-college, rural, residential, elitist, and often discriminatory from institution to institution with respect to race and religion. Today, opposites of those words provide better characterizations of higher education in the United States. American universities are now overwhelmingly public (80 percent of enrollments), focused heavily on occupational, technical, and scientific education, huge, urban-oriented, suitable for commuter attendance, and highly democratic. Now, upward social, educational, and financial mobility, rather than certification of the upper classes, is what American higher education offers to Americans and increasingly to others in the world. The resulting technological miracles in computing, in industry, medicine, and space can be attributed to a continuing stream of educated men and women.

A Flood of Veterans on Campus
Few of the minds behind the GI Bill could have envisioned the enormous enthusiasm of that generation of young men when they understood the significance of the education provisions. Few colleges and universities were prepared for the numbers of veterans who appeared to register. None were prepared for wives and children of students, a phenomenon never before experienced. Many major state universities doubled or tripled their enrollments in one or two years. University administrators felt the need to perform miracles as they faced huge lines of students, overflowing classrooms, and overworked faculty and staff. Campuses sprouted makeshift dormitories, prefabricated huts developed for the military that now held classrooms instead, and even trailer camps. Around many campuses there was the constant turmoil and noise of construction. The impact upon the surrounding communities was dramatic in terms of spurs to local business and housing development, an impact that only grew stronger in many locations over the coming decades as colleges and universities amassed more resources and prestige.

By the time initial GI Bill eligibility for World War II veterans expired in 1956 – about 11 years after final victory – the United States was richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-educated individuals.

These college graduates raised expectations throughout the country, and their skilled labor contributed to a burgeoning and literate technological middle class. There was no going back to the old America dominated by agriculture and by life in small towns. College attendance, increasingly followed by careers in urban areas, became an expectation for many thereafter. By the early 1970s, one in five Americans had a college education, compared to one in 16 prior to the war. In 2004, more than 16 million Americans were enrolled in institutions of higher education, including community colleges. Currently, 1.1 million students earn bachelor's degrees each year in an American institution and an equal number earn graduate and professional degrees.

A Catalyst for Social Change
Most important, the GI Bill was one force leading to enormous social change. Settled views regarding sex, religion, and race were shaken up. Not only did the bill expose ordinary people to liberal social concepts through higher education, it led to a great mixing of different groups on campus.

Though many women had entered factories or done other kinds of work during World War II, the postwar experience of high marriage rates, sharply increased birthrates, and new opportunities for home ownership led to a home-centered role for women for the next two decades. About 64,000 of the 350,000 women veterans of World War II took advantage of the bill's higher-education opportunities, but at the time preference was largely for men and many women's colleges even went coed to accommodate the sudden spurt of enrollment. But once the opportunity had been made available, the sons and daughters of the vets (the so-called "baby boomers" born in the 1950s and ‘60s) went on to higher education in greater numbers. Today in the United States more women than men attend colleges and universities.

In the democratic euphoria that followed the war, many Americans reassessed their prewar prejudices. Jewish veterans gained entry into many fine schools previously known to reject or apply strict quotas for Jewish applicants, and they, as well as Catholics, benefited from the growth of public institutions in urban areas. The GI Bill helped move these children of European immigrants into academe, business, and the professions, and thus essentially eliminated religious bigotry in American higher education.

Historically black institutions of higher education experienced sharp increases in enrollments and were granted federal funds for expansion of campus construction. In northern urban areas, black veterans of the war attended formerly all-white institutions. Still, the United States was a racially segregated society in the l940s, a pattern that continued in many regions in the 1950s. The military services were segregated (until President Truman issued a desegregation order in 1948), as were the schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Many black veterans were turned away from overly crowded black institutions and yet could not attend white southern schools. It took several years and another generation to accomplish what the GI Bill could not; but the foundation and development of a black middle class was a highlight of that postwar generation.

Not everyone wanted to go to college. During the war, the military had done an excellent job teaching a wide array of subjects, from reading to engineering, to millions of men from varied backgrounds. Thus motivated, many veterans obtained a high school diploma through the General Educational Development Testing Service of the American Council on Education, still known as the GED. Others continued on in vocational training schools in electronics, medical services, or business schools. Employers were encouraged to continue training their own workers with the help of the GI Bill, thereby facilitating movement into the working mainstream. Many then continued their education, establishing a grand tradition of continuous lifelong learning.

A Nation of Homeowners
This was the second durable legacy of the GI Bill. It turned the American people as never before into stakeholders, self-reliant property owners, owners of homes and businesses prepared to take responsibility for their communities because they now owned a piece of it. The dramatic impact of the GI Bill on the physical, geographic, and economic landscape of the nation is as important a legacy as the educational benefits.

It is hard to imagine the extent of the housing crisis and the pent-up consumer demand for all the necessities of life after 16 years of depression and war. It was not just the whole lack of new housing, but also that existing homes had fallen into disrepair. Even as some building resumed right after World War II, materials from nails to shingles were in short supply. Homebuilders had to compete with those building the stores and office buildings needed to restart the economy. The increasing urbanization of the nation, with most jobs concentrated in large cities, made the housing problem acute in major metropolitan areas. But the GIs returning home after years away were determined to make up for lost time by marrying, raising a family, and, of course, finally owning a home of their own, a potent symbol of economic and psychological security.

Assembly-line manufacturing techniques were applied to the building of homes. By the end of 1947, the Veterans Administration guaranteed well over one million home, business, and farm loans. Housing starts jumped from 114,000 in 1944 to 1.7 million by 1950. By 1950, the Veterans Administration guaranteed loans for over two million homes.

The "VA Loan," as it was called, meant that the government co-signed about half of a veteran's mortgage. This encouraged developers to build, bankers to lend, and veterans to buy, often with no down payment. The resulting explosion in consumer demand stirred the spirit of American manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and local officials who built new roads, schools, churches, and shopping centers. Manufacturers created or recreated in postwar style every conceivable household item to fill those new shopping centers and homes. Since the inception of the GI Bill and similar laws that followed, 16 million veterans have purchased homes using VA loans. Today, nearly 70 percent of the American people own their own homes.

A Decentralized Market Approach
The third legacy of the GI Bill devolved from the manner in which it was administered and funded. Under the terms of the statute, the administration of the program was concentrated in the Veterans Administration (now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs) rather than scattered government agencies or private institutions. It was a centralized federal program that was based on a decentralized market approach. Congress chose to fund the GI Bill educational benefits through the veterans themselves over the protests of the educational establishment, which had initially hoped and sought entirely to control the postwar allocation of such resources. This approach established the basic postwar method for subsequent federal loans and grants to college students. To this day in the United States, funds targeted at educational opportunity, such as student loans, still go directly to the student and not the institution. Similarly, the postwar housing crisis was addressed through individual loan guarantees rather than government-built and -managed housing projects, many of which have not served well in efforts to solve subsequent housing crises.

In retrospect, the GI Bill may appear to some to have been a huge public "welfare" program. But it would be wrong to think of it that way. As initially administered, it was a special law for a very special time, made available only to one generation of veterans and unrelated to need. But it has had a lasting legacy through continued application of its major themes for all veterans of wars subsequent to World War II and still serves as an inducement to sustain a volunteer military force. For non-veterans, and indeed for the nation, it established a model framework for achievement through education and property ownership. In addition, it helped create a climate where intellectual ambition became a commonplace among Americans of all backgrounds, leading to greater social tolerance, and far greater demand for a wide variety of choices, both in the consumer sphere and in other ways of living.

What the GI Bill represented, whether intended or not, is that a clear national commitment to upward mobility for a heterogeneous population pays enormous dividends for both individuals and the nation. The GI Bill enabled the nation to overcome years of instability, restored the nation's human, economic, and social capital, and helped catapult the United States to leadership on the world's stage.


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