A Memorial Day Tribute To The G.I. Bill
One of the best tributes to our fallen troops, in my opinion, is taking very good care of their surviving comrades. To celebrate Memorial Day we have excerpted a piece from the beginning of The G.I. Bill: A New Deal For Veterans, by Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin which looks at just how beneficial the G.I Bill was not only for troops but for all of America. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies and the Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University. Stuart M. Blumin is Professor Emeritus of American History, Cornell University.
In July 1995 President Bill Clinton spoke at a commemorative service in Warm Springs, Georgia, soon after the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Looking back on FDR’s long and remarkable presidency, Clinton identified as its “most enduring legacy” an achievement that came neither from the Hundred Days of initial New Deal legislation nor from the structural reforms of the Second New Deal, nor even from FDR’s successful prosecution of World War II. Rather, Clinton pointed to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944-The GI Bill- a law passed late in Roosevelt’s presidency, following his initiatives but shaped by many others besides himself. The GI Bill, Clinton observed, “gave generations of veterans a chance to get an education, to build strong families and good lives, and to build the nation’s strongest economy ever, to change the face of America.” This one piece of legislation, he continued, perhaps with an eye to his own presidential legacy, “helped unleash a prosperity never before known.” It was a New Deal for veterans and, through them, for the postwar nation as a whole.
Fifty years earlier this would have seemed a very strange choice for an FDR encomium, but by the 1990s it was as reasonable as choosing Social Security, the WPA, or victory over the Nazis. When Clinton spoke, praise for the GI Bill was widespread and partook of the increasing respect and nostalgia among the vast majority of Americans for what the journalist Tom Brokaw would soon call “the Greatest Generation”-the young adults (many of them boys and girls who quickly became adults) who, in foxholes and bombers, shipyards and munitions factories, helped rescue the world from fascism. The very large numbers who had served in the military during the war returned to help create a peacetime society of unprecedented prosperity, and it came to be generally understood that the GI Bill was the essential instrument of their successful reintegration into civilian life. Clinton, himself a postwar “baby boomer,” spoke for a generation of Americans who saw the GI Bill as the key to a kingdom of peace and plenty.
Praise for the GI Bill was is by no means restricted to members of FDR’s political party. Bob Michel, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois, who served as minority leader in the House of Representatives for fourteen years (the longest minority leadership in U.S. history), has described the GI Bill as “a great piece of legislation” that “cut across the economic strata” and made it possible for “many thousands of veterans, including tens of thousands who would not have thought of college,” to get undergraduate degrees. Michel points to the almost universal approval of the bill. “I don’t know of anyone,” he reflects, “who has ever maligned it.” Michel was himself a highly decorated World War II veteran and a beneficiary of the GI Bill. Nonetheless, it is clear that his admiration for this legislation is not just informed by his own good fortune but also reflects the experiences of an entire generation.
Leaders from outside politics have also expressed admiration for the GI Bill, and these include many who do not ordinarily favor forceful government solutions to pressing social issues. Two years before Clinton’s Warm Springs address the widely respected management theorist Peter F. Drucker wrote that future historians might welcome to regard the bill as “the most important event of the 20th century” in that its provisions for government-subsidized college education for World War II veterans “signaled the shift to the knowledge society.” Drucker’s was a sophisticated appraisal of how one public initiative could, even as a largely unintended effect, unleash larger forces that would in turn transform an entire society. His analysis reinforces, too, the popular perception of the bill as a product of bipartisan consensus, when what seemed to matter at the moment of its passage was not Democratic or Republican political advantage but the interests of the veterans and the nation at large. It bears the stamp of neither party. It is an American document, a mid-twentieth-century Bill of Rights. The American Legion, pressing hard from late 1943 for its version of a comprehensive veterans’ bill, originally called it the Bill of Rights for GI Joe and GI Jane.
As is suggested by this language of rights and of GI Joe and Jane, much popular praise for the bill has been more personal than that of public leaders asked or inclined to reflect on its general significance. It was what gave your father or grandmother or some elderly veteran who told you his story the opportunity to realize in his or her own lifetime what could have been only distant dreams while in a foxhole in the Ardennes, in a field hospital in Italy, or in a breadline during the Great Depression. Personal success stories that trace back to the GI Bill abound within families and well beyond, some of them known to us, to be sure, because, like Bob Michel’s, they involved famous people.
The GI Bill-assisted career of William Rehnquist, former chief justice of the Supreme Court, is one such story. Rehnquist had a brief taste of college life at Kenyon College before entering the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. When his military service was finished, he used the GI Bill to enroll at Stanford University (he was attracted by the California climate), where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and eventually a law degree. He became a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, and the rest, as they say, is history. When asked years later how he had chosen his profession, Rehnquist answered, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “The GI Bill paid for an occupation test that told you what you ought to be. They told me to be a lawyer.”