G.I. Bill & American Education
While the Servicemen's Readjustment Act wasn't the first "G. I. Bill" to be passed by the U.S. Congress, in terms of its wide-ranging impact on American public life, it was certainly the most significant. This article discusses the impact of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G. I. Bill, on American society and the lives of returning World War II veterans. The law, administered through the U.S. Veteran's Administration, proved enormously successful in staving off an anticipated postwar recession or depression and igniting the U.S. postwar economy. It also helped grow the suburbs and dramatically increase the college graduation rate. Hoping to repeat the success of the 1944 G. I. Bill, Congress acted in the 1952 Veterans' Adjustment Act and the 1966 Veterans Readjustment Benefits Act for Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, respectively. Following the abolition of the military draft in 1973, The Veterans Education Assistance Program (VEAP) was established in 1976 and ran until 1987. The current incarnation of the G. I. Bill, signed into law in 1985, is known as the Montgomery G. I. Bill.
Keywords American Legion; Bonus March of 1932; G. I. Bill; Montgomery G. I. Bill; Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944; U.S. Veteran's Administration; Veterans Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966; Veterans' Adjustment Act of 1952; Veterans Education Assistance Program
While most equate the G. I. Bill with World War II veterans, the reality is that Americans have a long history of providing for their veterans. Initially these benefits were for injured soldiers. Beginning in 1636, long before the United States existed, the leaders of the Plymouth Colony decreed that they would take care of soldiers injured in the war with the neighboring Pequot Indians. The Continental Congress made the same promise in 1776 to encourage colonists to enlist in the war against the British. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address in March 1865, spoke about the American pledge toward disabled veterans and their families. "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and his widow and orphan" (Lincoln, 1865, as cited in "G I Bill," n.d., par. 3). Congress acted on these words once again during World War I, passing comprehensive benefits for disabled veterans. Since 1930, the benefits have been administered by the Veterans Administration. ("GI Bill," n.d.).
The Making of the G. I. Bill
One of the catalysts for the passage of the G. I. Bill of 1944 was the Bonus March of 1932. In 1924, Congress gave "bonus" certificates to World War I veterans. Though the certificates were worth $1,000, akin to a U.S. savings bond, they couldn't be cashed until 1945. When the Great Depression began with the stock market crash of 1929, many millions of Americans - including hundreds of thousands of veterans - found themselves out of work and unable to provide for their families. This desperate situation sparked riots and protests across the country, as workers demanded relief from the state and federal governments. Meanwhile in 1932, the World War I veterans, who were in possession of bonus certificates worth $1,000 per person, marched on Washington demanding early payment. Journalist Joseph C. Harsch described the march and the marchers this way:
This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of people in great distress wanting help.... These were simply veterans from World War I who were out of luck, out of money, and wanted to get their bonus -- and they needed the money at that moment (as cited in "The Bonus March," n.d.).
The Bonus March
The veterans set up camp, military-style, in tents and abandoned buildings in Washington, D.C., pledging not to leave until Congress passed a bill to meet their demands for early bonus payment. President Herbert Hoover vowed to veto any such legislation should it cross his desk. The number of protesting veterans swelled to 20,000 strong by June 1932 ("The Bonus March," n.d.), and they were temporarily encouraged to see the House pass the Patman Veteran's Bill, only to have their hopes dashed when the Senate failed to act in a similar fashion. Though some were lured back home when Congress promised to pay for their return trips, others stayed to continue the protest. Among the remaining protestors tempers flared, stoked by frustration and the hot Washington summer, and in July federal troops moved in to clear out the protestors from neighboring buildings and local encampments across the Anacostia River. Many hundreds of veterans were injured in the melee, and some reports indicated that a handful were killed. Many Americans supported the law enforcement officials, while the New York Times noted that "Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at midnight tonight, and a pitiful stream of refugee veterans of the World War walked out of their home of the past two months, going they knew not where" (cited in "The Bonus March," n.d.). It was the worst violence in Washington since the British burned the city during the War of 1812.
Some historians have suggested that the aftermath of the Bonus March once and for all sank the reelection prospects of President Hoover and paved the way for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his promise of a New Deal for all Americans. But on the issue of paying bonuses, Hoover and Roosevelt were of one mind. With the Great Depression continuing and veterans still pressing their case to the new administration, Roosevelt attempted to placate them by giving them federal jobs building a new highway in the Florida Keys. A hurricane struck south Florida in 1935, killing over 200 veterans. As another election year, 1936, dawned, Congress finally succumbed to public pressure and gave the World War I veterans what they had long demanded - early redemption of their bonuses.
The G. I. Bill Legacy
As it turned out, the efforts of the World War I veterans made life far easier for World War II veterans. Historian Jennifer D. Keene (2001) describes the notion that military veterans could now expect a more prosperous life upon their return from service:
The GI Bill is rarely remembered as the final legacy of World War I to the nation. Yet ignoring Great War veterans' authorship of the GI Bill results in an imperfect understanding of why the law took the form it did when it did. Line by line, the most comprehensive piece of social welfare legislation the United States has ever known, it illustrated in vivid detail the struggles World War I veterans had endured to give meaning to their social contract with the state. For the first and perhaps only time, wartime military service became a steppingstone to a better life. The final legacy of World War I created one of the most prosperous, advantaged generations in American history (Keene, 2001, "Doughboys to be").
With the U.S. entering World War II late in 1941, and the American economy becoming a war economy, many business leaders and economists began predicting that the end of America's involvement in the war would bring about an economic recession or even depression. They reasoned this way because those wartime industries, which had been providing employment for millions of stateside Americans, would be slowed or even idled at the conclusion of the war. The prospect of another Great Depression and Bonus March was unpalatable to all concerned, and talk began of ways to avert a repeat occurrence.
As the war continued in both Europe and the Pacific, discussion in official Washington turned to job training and unemployment compensation for returning veterans. President Roosevelt, perhaps with still-fresh memories of the Bonus March a decade earlier, insisted in a July 1943 "fireside chat" to the nation that the country needed to do right by its veterans through unemployment insurance, job training and quality medical care. His proposals enjoyed wide support among the American people, with 70 percent telling Gallup pollsters in 1944 that they'd even pay higher taxes to support such benefits (Keene, 2001).
The 1944 G. I. Bill
With the help of the American Legion, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, an omnibus bill with provisions designed to help returning World War II veterans make an easier transition back to civilian life in the United States. As former American Legion commander Harry Colmery stated during the debate on the bill, returning GIs "should be aided in reaching that place, position, or status which they had normally expected to achieve, and probably would have achieved, had their war service not interrupted their careers" (quoted in Keene, 2001, "Combat Veterans"). This is an important point, especially when one considers that the United States did not have an all-volunteer force until the military draft was...
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