In 1944, approximately 16 million World War II servicemen and servicewomen learned that their military duty would translate into social and economic benefits of unparalleled proportions. The Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the GI Bill, granted veterans federally funded vocational training and education benefits; generous unemployment stipends; and easy access to low-interest home, farm, and business loans. While discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation in the bill's postwar implementation ensured that benefits were not equally available to all veterans, the social and economic effects of the GI Bill still proved enormous. With the GI Bill, the federal government created the most extensive system of social provisioning in the history of the United States and helped shape the social, economic, and political contours of the postwar era.
As early as 1942, a number of overlapping federal agencies and special commissions were investigating methods of offering postwar benefits to veterans. Early discussions for postwar planning originated in the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB). The NRPB urged that men and women who had participated in both the military and economic war effort be granted educational and vocational training as part of a larger effort aimed at expanding New Deal-style social provisioning. Another planning committee working under the auspices of the NRPB, the Conference on Post-War Readjustment of Civilian and Military Personnel (also known as the Postwar Manpower Conference, or PMC) looked into historical precedents for granting veterans educational benefits at the state and national levels. After studying Wisconsin's Educational Bonus Law of 1919 and Canadian veterans' benefits, the conference set its sights beyond mere monetary compensation, focusing instead on educational and vocational training for veterans. In a July 28, 1943, fireside chat, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined a plan for veterans based on the PMC recommendations. The president then prodded Congress to prepare the necessary legislation on several key veterans' issues: mustering-out pay; medical care; and education, unemployment, and pension benefits.
The demise of the NRPB at the hands of Congress in late 1943 undermined the political influence of the PMC and NRPB reports. However, in late 1942, another special committee operating under the auspices of the Navy and War departments—the Armed Forces Committee on Post-War Educational Opportunities for Service Personnel—had also taken up the issue. Named the Osborn Committee after its chairman, Brig. Gen. Frederick H. Osborn, the committee advanced legislative proposals that featured provision of one year of educational or vocational training for veterans serving over six months in the armed forces, with only a limited number of exceptionally talented former service personnel qualifying for extended education benefits. The Osborn Committee recommendations became the groundwork for the administration's legislative submissions to Congress. On October 27, 1943, in a speech lauding the committee's recommendations and announcing the administration's proposed legislation, President Roosevelt urged Congress to act promptly on the educational benefits bill as well as the other veteran-related proposals on mustering-out pay and unemployment benefits. The president's request found willing listeners in Congress. In fact, when the administration offered its proposals, twenty-six other veterans' bills were already circulating in various congressional committees. Clearly, such legislation was popular among the electorate—polling showed 90 percent of Americans in favor of government-financed education benefits for returning veterans as election year approached. Despite the broad support, however, successful veterans' legislation required the determined intercession by the largest of the veterans' organizations, the American Legion.
As the January 1944 session of Congress rapidly approached, the American Legion took up the cause of veteran benefits legislation. Between December 15, 1943, and January 6, 1944, a special Legion committee chaired by John Stelle, the former governor of Illinois, and dominated by Harry Colmery, former Legion national commander, drafted its own legislation. The Legion bill relied on various proposals that circulated throughout 1942-1943 for its concepts, but the Legion's proposal packaged all of the veterans' provisions into one omnibus bill. It also broadened the offering of educational benefits to all, regardless of "worthiness," and shortened the required length of service time for access to benefits from 6 months to 90 days. Moreover, the Legion proposal was clear that benefits would be administered through the Veterans Administration rather than by multiple federal agencies, addressing an ambiguity in the administration's proposals. At the start of the 1944 session of Congress, J. Bennett Clark, the Democratic senator from Missouri and a founding member of the Legion, introduced the bill in the Senate. In the House, the powerful chairman of the World War Veterans' Legislation Committee, John E. Rankin (D-MS), shepherded the legislation based on the Legion's proposals through committee and on to the floor.
The American Legion's public relations efforts quickly generated wide support for the measure. The Legion felicitously dubbed the legislation the GI Bill of Rights, a label that stuck nearly instantaneously. The Legion, supported by the Hearst newspaper chain and even using on-loan Hearst writers, lobbied intensively for the bill. The national organization's media connections and its network for grassroots political activism employed a wide range of lobbying tactics, including interviews on radio talk shows, movie news clips, petitions, and direct contact with legislators. Through these tactics, the Legion raised public awareness of the bill and kept the pressure on Congress.
Not all of the veterans organizations immediately joined the Legion in aggressive support of the GI Bill. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) initially opposed the measure, instead supporting a large bonus for World War II veterans, as the organization had for veterans of World War I. Ultimately, a special meeting of Legion and VFW officials persuaded the VFW leaders to join the Legion in support of the bill. The Disabled American Veterans, a national organization, opposed the measure up through its passage, fearing that the nation's commitment to disabled veterans would be diffused and weakened by such broadly defined benefits for the able-bodied.
On March 24, 1944, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of the Legion's bill. In the House, however, Rankin's committee bogged down—in no small measure because of the chairman himself. Rankin viewed the education features with skepticism, believing that only a small percentage of already-privileged veterans would take advantage of them. Moreover, he treated the unemployment features with outright disdain. An ardent white supremacist, Rankin feared the unemployment provision's impact on the work habits of the African Americans in his state and region. African Americans would not quickly rejoin the workforce, he argued, if they were being paid generous unemployment benefits. Rankin complained it would "spoil" them. Once a bill modified to meet some of Rankin's objections to the unemployment and education features emerged from committee, the resulting House version of the bill also passed unanimously. Large discrepancies existed, however, between the House and Senate versions. In the House-Senate Conference Committee, Rankin renewed his attacks on the unemployment and education benefits. The conference stood deadlocked, with the Senate version appearing to be doomed. Only a last-minute, dramatic intervention by a previously absent conferee, Rep. John S. Gibson (D-GA), broke the deadlock and allowed the GI Bill to emerge in a form close to the Senate version. Once agreed upon, the conference version easily passed both houses on June 13, becoming law on June 22, 1944, in a celebratory White House signing.
In its final form, the law offered exceptionally generous benefits to all veterans other than those dishonorably discharged. Veterans were eligible for low-interest home, farm, and business loans. They could receive unemployment pay of $20.00 a week for up to 52 weeks. For education and vocational training, service personnel who began their service before the age of 25 and served for at least ninety days would receive one year of benefits. For each year of service, the government would pay for an additional year of education, up to four years total. Moreover, veterans pursuing education and training would receive cash stipends of $50.00 per month for single veterans, $75.00 for those who were married (approximately $600 and $900 in adjusted dollars). The bill's administration coupled federal enrollment, certification, and funding with a decentralized local management that channeled veterans to approved programs and distributed loan money.
The period between 1944 and 1950 saw the number of conferred college-level degrees triple, due in a great part to the millions of veterans who attended colleges and universities on the GI Bill of Rights after finishing their service in World War II.
New Deal-era ideas about social provisioning were not what generated the momentum for the GI Bill. To a large degree, more traditional concepts of citizenship grounded in military service gave the legislation its cultural and political resonance. Whatever its origins, however, the bill had a powerful impact on the lives of veterans and on the postwar United States. Overall, 51 percent of veterans used the education and vocational benefits. Veterans poured into the nation's colleges and universities. By 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college enrollments. Vocational training was an equally important form of social provision. Indeed, some 5.6 million veterans used vocational training, while only 2.2 million veterans attended colleges and universities. Fourteen percent of veterans received unemployment benefits. Some 29 percent of veterans availed themselves of low-interest home, farm, and business loans. In 1947 alone, for example, the Veterans Administration (VA) approved 640,298 loans.
This staggering level of federal funding for housing and education provided the foundations for social and economic transformations in the postwar United States. VA home mortgages were at the core of housing expansion and suburbanization. Higher education and vocational training for those who would not previously have had access to such tools was the basis for an expanding middle class and postwar economic prosperity. Moreover, the success and popularity of the federal program for veterans helped maintain the postwar political consensus on the benefits of an activist federal government. Critics suggest, however, that the GI Bill merely perpetuated existing class, race, and gender divides in the United States. Those who have investigated the impact of the bill's reliance on local administration consistently have found that women, African Americans, and homosexual veterans suffered discrimination and unequal access to GI Bill benefits. Local administration of VA home loans also accelerated and consolidated strict residential segregation across the country. Despite these significant shortcomings, the GI Bill remains one of the most successful and popular federal programs in the nation's history.
- "Redefining the New Deal: World War II and the Development of Social Provision in the United States." In The Politics of Social Policy in the United States, edited by , , and , 81-122. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. , and .
- When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1996.
- "Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Social Citizenship under the 1944 G.I. Bill." Journal of American History 90, no. 3 (December 2003): 935-957. .
- When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. .
- "The Creation of the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944: Melding Social and Participatory Citizenship Ideals." Journal of Policy History 17, no. 4 (2005): 345-374. .
- Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ‥
- The G.I. Bill, the Veterans, and the Colleges. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
- "‘First a Negro … Incidentally a Veteran': Black World War Two Veterans and the G.I. Bill in the Deep South, 1944-1948." Journal of Social History 31 (Spring 1998): 517-544.
- Preparing for Ulysses: Politics and Veterans During World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
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