Today it’s hard to find anyone willing to speak against a law often described as one of the most important items of domestic legislation in the history of the United States. But the provisions codified in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – the original G.I. Bill of Rights – were far from universally accepted when the country debated how it would reintegrate American military service members who had been sent to fight in World War II and who numbered, by the time war had ended, nearly 15 million.
The United States had learned painful lessons from its earlier large-scale military mobilizations. The pension systems enacted to compensate Civil War combatants and their survivors proved so complicated, costly, and divisive that when the next big war came around – World War I – the government was more circumspect, scaling back veteran benefits and offering no assistance for non-battle injuries or age-related ailments. Instead, veterans were promised, in 1924, a deferred “bonus,” payable in 20 years. During the Great Depression, of course, World War I veterans, many of whom were standing in bread lines, desperately needed these bonuses, a crisis that eventually led to the debacle known as the “Bonus March,” in which active-duty service members were sent to forcibly remove protesting veterans from the capital. One of President Herbert Hoover’s final missteps, the “Battle of Anacostia Flats,” led by hard-charging Douglas MacArthur, further dimmed Hoover’s prospects for re-election.
Because it was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal, the G.I. Bill is often thought of as a broad-based welfare program designed to expand the American middle class. This was certainly one of the law’s most important consequences, but it wasn’t designed primarily as a tool for social mobility. Roosevelt wanted to acknowledge the service of veterans and reintegrate them into the economy, but he knew the American job market wouldn’t be able to accommodate such a sudden shock: In June 1943, the government’s Conference on Post-War Adjustment of Civilian and Military Personnel reported that the first year of demobilization would probably result in 8 or 9 million unemployed Americans.
In October 1943, the president asked Congress to enact legislation that would finance educational or vocational training for all who served in World War II. He foresaw long-term benefits: “rich dividends in higher productivity, more intelligent leadership, and greater human happiness. We must replenish our supply of persons qualified to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the postwar world.”
To craft this new benefit package, the White House and Congress sought input from veterans and their advocates. A leading voice was Harry W. Colmery, the former national commander of the American Legion who’d been an Army Air Corps pilot instructor during World War I. In December 1943, in a room at the Mayflower Hotel, Colmery, who’d been asked by the American Legion to serve on a special bipartisan committee, began drafting the outline of a bill. Over the next three weeks, he and other committee members met with education, banking, and employment experts and used these conversations to craft a bill that went beyond Roosevelt’s vision, to include loans for homes, farms, and small businesses; unemployment assistance; prompt settlement of disability claims; and the concentration of these and other veteran programs into an adequately staffed Veterans Administration (VA).
The bill was officially titled the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act,” but the American Legion’s public relations head, Jack Cejnar, knew this name was too dull to sell the public on its provisions. On Jan. 8, 1944, the organization unveiled its proposal for a “G.I. Bill of Rights,” an ingenious title that appeared to put members of Congress in the position of either voting for these rights or against them.
Ironically, much of the bill’s strongest public criticism came not from legislators, but from other veteran advocacy groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. These groups believed the G.I. Bill failed to prioritize the needs of veterans who’d suffered physical and psychological wounds from their service. Beyond a one-time bonus payment dismissed by lawmakers as too expensive, however, these organizations failed to provide a viable alternative proposal.
As the bill made its way through the House and Senate committees, several of its provisions – including those related to unemployment assistance, education, and training – were threatened by legislators who questioned whether they would encourage or discourage veterans from finding jobs. Some criticized it as a reckless spending bill that would simply expand the nation’s welfare system. Colmery, a Republican who wasn’t a fan of Roosevelt’s New Deal, resented the idea that veterans would become a drain on the nation’s resources. For one thing, the bill placed time limits on the benefits, to keep it from becoming an open-ended program such as Social Security.
Some of the nation’s most prominent academics, poised to receive an influx of millions of new veteran college and university students, weren’t crazy about the idea. Harvard University President James Bryant Conant complained the bill would benefit “the least qualified of the wartime generation.” Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, argued that “colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles. … Education is not a device for coping with mass unemployment.’’
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 passed by a slim congressional majority and was signed into law on June 22, 1944, just 16 days after American troops stormed the beaches at Normandy. Over the next decade, more than 2 million veterans would attend college with G.I. Bill assistance, including books, tuition, and a monthly stipend; by 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of American college students. Years later, a repentant Conant would concede that the students who came to Harvard with the help of the law – mostly urban and rural working-class men – were “the most mature and promising students Harvard has ever had.”
Building a Middle-class Nation
The G.I. Bill’s three main provisions – grants for education or training; federally guaranteed home, farm, and business loans with no down payment; and unemployment compensation – were administered by the Veterans Administration, and were immediately successful, securing opportunities for veterans and economic stability for the nation. Less than a year after the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender to the Allies on Sept. 2, 1945, the largest demobilization in history, Operation Magic Carpet, had repatriated millions of American military personnel from the European, Pacific, and Asian theaters. Seventy percent of these veterans were employed. Almost a million were in school; another million were receiving assistance to supplement farm work; more than 400,000 were participating in on-the-job training programs; and more than 300,000 were receiving assistance to establish their own businesses or professional practices.
Colmery and his friends at the American Legion didn’t know it at the time, but these numbers – which would continue to grow and extend help to millions more – achieved far more than merely softening the landing for returning veterans. Before World War II, college and home ownership were mere fantasies to the average American, and the G.I. Bill freed up energy and ambition that had remained shackled throughout the Great Depression and the war. It’s no exaggeration to say the law transformed American society; as much as any event in American history, it democratized the American Dream. More than half the 15.3 million World War II veterans took advantage of the law’s education and training provisions.
Access to low-interest mortgages provided by the G.I. Bill reflected Colmery’s belief that veterans deserved to own their own homes, and by the time the law had expired in 1956, the VA had guaranteed 5.9 million home loans, totaling $50.1 million, to veterans, enabling many to move from urban apartments to homes in areas outside cities that had, prior to the war, been reserved for the wealthy and upper-middle class. The word “suburbs,” in fact, did not become a part of the American lexicon until the postwar era when developers, striving to meet demand, carved out these new enclaves.
Many historians have claimed the G.I. Bill was a leading factor in transforming America from a working-class, largely agricultural society into the world’s first predominantly middle-class nation. In his book When Dreams Come True: The G.I. Bill and the Making of Modern America, author Michael J. Bennett argues that the law’s overall effect was “a social revolution even greater than Henry Ford’s.” Bennett wrote:
More than any other law, the G.I. Bill was responsible for the post-World War II explosion in college graduates, the education of leaders of the civil rights movement, the growth and dominance of the suburbs, and the proliferation of interstate highways, supermarkets, and franchise stores and restaurants. Quite literally, the G.I. Bill changed the way we live, the way we house ourselves, the way we are educated, how we work and at what, even how we eat and transport ourselves.
In taking special notice of the education of civil rights leaders, Bennett was acknowledging an uncomfortable truth about how its provisions were implemented: While the bill’s American Legion sponsors insisted the law’s provisions should apply to every veteran who had served, regardless of race or gender, the reality was that many veterans, and particularly African-Americans, were unable to take advantage of the G.I. Bill’s opportunities until the passage of civil rights legislation two decades later. Many schools, for example, remained closed to women and African-Americans, and many postwar housing developments – including Levittown, New York, the archetype of American suburbia – remained racially segregated.
When the original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, it had provided education or training benefits to a total of 7.8 million veterans. Twenty-nine percent of veterans had taken out low-interest loans to purchase homes, farms, or businesses, while only 14 percent had made full use of the bill’s most controversial provision: unemployment compensation, in the form of $20 weekly payments for a maximum of 52 weeks.
A 1965 study by the Veterans Administration found that G.I. Bill college graduates, with their increased earning power, had increased federal tax revenues by more than a billion dollars annually and driven increased demand for goods and services – benefits far in excess of the law’s total $14.5 billion cost.
Updates: The Forever G.I. Bill
In the 75 years since its passage, the G.I. Bill has been updated and modified to match economic and political realities. In response to several cases of overcharging and fraud associated with the original G.I. Bill, for example, the benefit package for veterans of the Korean War authorized payments to veteran students to subsidize tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, rather than direct payments to colleges and universities. About 2.4 million Korean War veterans used these education benefits, about half of them to attend higher education academies. More than 1.5 million Korean War veterans obtained home loans. In 1956, the VA extended educational assistance to the dependents of veterans who were killed or disabled due to their service.
The Vietnam G.I. Bill, first enacted in 1966, underwent several modifications before it ended in 1976; by then, a higher proportion of Vietnam-era veterans had used their benefits for higher education than any previous generation: Of the 10.3 million eligible, 6.8 million veterans took advantage of the bill’s education and training provisions.
After 1973, when the nation’s military became an all-volunteer force, VA benefit programs were designed in part to aid in the recruitment of military personnel. From 1976 through 1987, veterans received assistance under the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP). Unlike previous programs, VEAP required participants to contribute to their education benefits from their own salaries, after which the VA matched contributions at a rate of 2 to 1. Nearly 700,000 veterans used VEAP benefits for education and training – but by the mid-1980s, it was clear that military recruitment was falling short of expectations. Congress, with leadership from Mississippi Congressman G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, enacted the Veterans’ Educational Assistance Act of 1984, more commonly known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill or MGIB. The MGIB kept the same basic structure and pay-in requirement as VEAP, but offered benefits to more veterans, including eligible reservists. The program offered up to 36 months of assistance to cover tuition, fees, and living expenses. More than 2 million service members have earned higher education degrees with MGIB assistance.
The largest expansion of veterans’ educational benefits since the original G.I. Bill began in August 2009, with the implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Veterans who had served after Sept. 11, 2001, were eligible for benefits including the full cost of any public college in their state, a housing allowance, and a $1,000 annual stipend for books. The Post-9/11 law was also the first to allow beneficiaries to transfer their entitlements to a dependent. An updated version of the bill, passed in 2011 and known as a “G.I. Bill 2.0,” expanded benefits to eligible National Guard members, and expanded benefits to include non-degree-granting institutions, flight training programs, on-the-job training, and certain licensure, certification, or placement tests.
The changes and fixes continue to evolve. The people who drafted the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill did not foresee that the war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, would last longer than the 15-year “use-it-or-lose-it” time limit they had placed on veteran benefits. Under the law, veterans had 15 years after their discharges to use the money. But – as it did for many Americans – the economic recession that began in 2008 introduced greater fluidity into the lives of veterans; after years of relative stability, many found themselves compelled to move, look for work, or seek training opportunities in a changing job market.
The G.I. Bill’s most recent update is aimed at these and other 21st-century issues. Officially named for the man who drafted the first G.I. Bill, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 implemented more than 20 new provisions, many of which were simple tweaks, expansions, or cuts. The most noteworthy feature was the elimination of time limits to use benefits for new enlistees. The new law, known also as the Forever G.I. Bill, also expands eligibility to a wider group of service members, including National Guard members, reservists, and Purple Heart recipients; provides additional money to students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs; and includes pilot programs to encourage enrollment in high technology programs.
While many of the details are different, the intent of the Forever G.I. Bill is the same as that devised by the men who composed the original law 75 years ago. As Colmery wrote, while corresponding with the colleagues who helped him draft the bill, “We recognize that the burden of war falls upon the citizen soldier, who has gone forth, overnight, to become the answer and hope of humanity; we seek to preserve his rights to see that he gets a square deal.”
To Warren Atherton, who commanded the American Legion from 1943 to 1944, the G.I. Bill was far more than a reward to be paid for military service; it was a tool that could be used by returning service members to further the growth and prosperity of the United States. “The continuing duty of citizenship is to apply the lessons of this war to the establishment of a better and stronger nation,” he said. “As these veterans have led in war, so must they lead in peace.”
This article originally appears in the Veterans Affairs & Military Medicine Outlook 2019 Fall Edition