Over Here; How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream by Edward Humes. Harcourt, 2006.
Edward Humes puts the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944) in the same class of “transformative legislative achievements” as the Morrill Land-Grant College Act (1862) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). Commonly known as the G.I. Bill, it granted benefits to sixteen million returning servicemen and women. Benefits included hospitalization, unemployment benefits, free higher education and technical training, and low interest loans on houses with no down payments. Though Humes contends that few in 1944 understood its transforming character.
The G.I. Bill began as part of a third wave of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Veteran’s organization in the country, including the American Legion supported benefits. Most Americans were wanting to show their gratitude to those who had fought the good war. Congress was looking for a means of ensuring that returning servicemen readjust to civilian life. They would become voters.
Servicemen returning from World War I had not been treated so well. After much agitation by veterans, the Coolidge Administration finally agreed to a bonus. But it was in the form of government bonds worth $7000 (2006 dollars) and not redeemable until 1944. A protest by veterans in Washington in 1932 (the Bonus Army) had been broken up by the army under orders from President Herbert Hoover and led by General Douglas Macarthur. It was a public relations disaster for the Hoover Administration. Everyone wanted to avoid a repeat of that spectacle.
Despite Roosevelt’s intentions, the G.I. Bill was not colorblind.
Representative John Rankin, Mississippi, and head of the House committee on veteran’s legislation understood that benefits given to returning black soldiers would transform the South’s racial politics. Initially hoping to block the bill, Rankin managed to get a provision which turned the awarding of benefits over to local and state officials.
In this and other ways the nation’s generosity did not extend equally to black Americans. Nor to the millions of defense workers, many of them women, who had also interrupted their lives to fight the good war.
Most universities and colleges welcomed returning veterans to their classrooms, emptied in the ’40s by the military draft. Though Humes points out that some patronizing university educators were “concerned” about how returning veterans would fare in their elitist institutions. Many would be the first of their family to enter college; some were high school dropouts.
It turns out that G.I.s were ‘over achievers.’ They were serious about wanting a college education and then getting on with their lives. In 1956, six years after most G.I.s had graduated and gone off to jobs and families, Iowa State University faculty were still commenting on what good students they had been.
The G.I. Bill also altered the landscape of urban America. The no-downpayment and low-interest mortgages created a huge demand for modest, “starter homes.” Since there had been little housing built during the Depression and the War, the Bill was welcomed by the housing industry. There was, however, little in the way of urban planning, and most of the new housing was mass-produced and built in the suburbs and largely for whites veterans.
Housing was a lead sector with a huge linkage effect to the furniture, appliance, and houseware industries. Detroit loved the new drive to the suburbs. In other words housing was vital to the American economy’s survival with the end of war production.
The G.I. bill created a class of capitalists who owned a house and hence an asset. They became part of the ‘ownership society.’ Perhaps ‘ownership’ was one reason for veterans tending to become more conservative as years passed. Humes notes that World War II veterans often opposed similar benefits for the veterans of the Vietnam War. The “greatest generation” having benefited from big-government programs, ultimately opposed big government.