Ron Lora: The G.I. Bill enhanced the American Dream

In a “fireside chat” in the midst of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Veterans must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line or on a corner selling apples. We must this time have plans ready.”

He remembered that veterans of World War I were not assimilated well into civilian life. They felt that their peers at home had gotten a jump on them after the armistice. The percent of nonfarm unemployed reached 17 percent in 1921 before declining during the decade and then rising sharply during the Great Depression. Congress had passed the Bonus Act of 1924, promising veterans a bonus depending on their days of wartime service, but it was not to be paid until 1945.

In 1932, with the Great Depression in full swing, nearly 20,000 aggrieved, unarmed veterans marched on Washington to demand early cash redemption of the promised bonus. However, Congress would not yield, and President Herbert Hoover refused to meet with them. Instead, he sent the U.S. Army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, against them, with tanks, machine guns and tear gas. Veteran encampments were destroyed and the men chased out of the nation’s capital.

Soldiers had gone off to war and returned to civilian life bereft of help. Never again, President Roosevelt decided. Therefore, 80 years ago on June 22, he signed the GI Bill, more formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. (GI, or “Government Issue,” is slang for military personnel.) The innovative new social policy paid college and vocational school expenses for World War II veterans, subsidized low-cost mortgages and business loans and for a year offered jobless benefits of $20 a week.

When a push was needed, the American Legion jumped in to ensure passage of the bill. Enjoying a widespread network, it marshaled support in the public and in Congress by organizing petition drives and appearing on radio talk programs. The Women’s Auxiliary for the Legion also joined in, showering Congress with telegrams.

The results were transformative. A recent University of South Carolina study found that “by the time the original G.I. Bill ended in 1956, roughly half of our 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program. These trained educators, healers, artists and leaders radically transformed the face of higher education in America, driving a major expansion in institutional growth, raising academic and national standards, and cementing college as the cornerstone of middle-class American life.”

Among the millions who benefited from the GI Bill were well-known public servants such as Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford; Chief Justices John Paul Stevens and William Rehnquist; Senators Bob Dole and John Glenn; and entertainers such as Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte. “A new lease on life,” said the latter. Actor Tony Curtis praised a government that was “affectionate to us.”

With space in short supply, campuses across the nation responded with hastily erected temporary housing and trailer courts. The bill significantly altered the enrollment balance between public and private colleges. Prior to this legislation, student enrollment was evenly split, but after the passing of the G.I. Bill, the number significantly tilted in favor of public institutions. Today more than 70 percent of students attend a public university.

A balanced examination of all World War veterans reveals that the bill did not always work as intended. There was a darker side, especially for Black veterans from the Deep South, where Jim Crow laws remained powerful. Southern congressional leaders made sure that GI programs were administered not by the federal government, as President Roosevelt intended, but by state and local institutions. Consequently, discrimination was widespread.

And not only in the South. A detailed study by the Centre for Public Impact revealed that in 1946 “the University of Pennsylvania enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000.” In New York and New Jersey, “fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”

New incarnations of the GI Bill would be forthcoming. But already in the post-World War II decade, Americans could see a federal government at work that had learned lessons from history, not least the value – morally, socially, economically – of respecting a significant portion of its citizenry as thankworthy members of society. That a concomitant reality of fear generated important support for the GI Bill does not negate the government’s creative responsive. For many millions, the American Dream took on new meaning.

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.