This day in History 6/22: The 1944 GI Bill

It can safely be said that modern American culture began on June 22, 1944.

On that date, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law P.L. 78-346, or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights or simply the GI Bill.  This massive program, more than any other program save the interstate highway system, would shape and define postwar America.

The bill was begun under the shadow of tragedy.  In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans marched on Washington, demanding bonuses promised to them by the government at war’s end.  The “Bonus Army” was brutally suppressed by US cavalry units—a shameful episode that Roosevelt’s cabinet did not want repeated after the next conflict.

It was important for a nation as militarized as the United States during World War II to readjust to a civilian economy as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Furthermore, returning veterans needed, if not deserved, government support in the often brutal readjustment to civilian life.

 The 1944 bill contained three important programs.  The most famous of these was its education program: the initial bill allowed returning servicemen access to a college or vocational education at no cost.  It is estimated that by 1956 (the year the 1944 bill expired) almost 8 million veterans, 51% of all returning service personnel,  took advantage of education or training programs subsidized by Washington. 

For many returning soldiers, it was the first, and only chance, to get a college or university education.  This led to an academic flowering in postwar America, creating some of the most important minds at our service.  Engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, judges, and even actors and directors were created thanks to the largesse of the GI Bill.

(An important note, the 1944 bill provided that the government reimburse colleges directly.  This led to universities hiking tuition bills to Washington, widely perceived as tuition fraud.  Since 1952, the education program consists of stipends paid directly to veterans for their expenses.)

Notable GI Bill beneficiaries included Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Bob Dole, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gene Hackman, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tito Puente, Rod Steiger, James Wright, and even former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

If the first provision provided the “glamour” of the bill, the second would broaden its influence to every family in America.  Returning veterans were entitled to low-interest, zero-down payment loans for homes and businesses—an unthinkable prospect today considering the cause of our current economic woes.  For the first time, veterans can buy a home for their families and start businesses with help from Uncle Sam.  From 1944 to 1956, 2.4 million veterans had home loans backed by the Veterans Authority (later Veterans Administration, or VA) Though many factors contributed to it, the rise of the suburbs as a middle-class bastion can be directly attributed to these programs created by the GI Bill.

The last provision is notable not for its use, but for its lack of use.  Known as the 50-20 clause, the third provision provided servicemen with $20 once a week for 52 weeks a year while they were looking for work.  Remarkably, less than 20 percent of returning servicemen opted for this program, as most already found employment or used their GI benefits in higher education. 

Today few areas of American life aren’t touched by individuals who benefitted from the GI Bill—even though many servicemen and women today do not take full advantage of this opportunity.

Subsequent expansion of veterans’ benefits were enacted in 1952, 1966, 1984, and 2008.  Korean War and Vietnam veterans made even more use of their GI benefits: roughly 72% of Vietnam vets used education benefits under the GI Bill.  From 1940 until the end of the military draft in 1973, as many as one third of the population (when both veterans and their dependents are taken into account) could potentially have benefited from the programs created by the expansion of veterans’ benefits.

In 2008, Congress enacted a Post 9/11 GI Bill designed for veterans serving after September 11, 2001.  The new program greatly expanded previous endeavors, especially in regards to education.  It provides free education to any public college in the state that a veteran resides.  Furthermore, housing stipends and $1000 yearly allowances for books are available, among other benefits.

Even for a fiscal conservative like me, the GI Bill was, and continues to be, an important element not just for American education and economics, but also as a measure of our values.  Many naysayers simply don’t see this.

Some opponents of these bills use the same argument for welfare reform.  Handouts induce indolence, laziness, and dependence on government benefits.  Programs should be designed for a “hand-up”, not a “handout.”  If this were other populations, I would agree to an extent. 

This is not any other population.  Veterans, especially those who’ve seen heavy combat, are not bums on the street looking for spare change.  Believe me, they worked for those benefits.

For centuries, the battlefield soldier was cannon fodder, often literally.  After the smoke cleared and the army disbanded, a veteran had no options other than to pick up the pieces of his life.  Often, the long absence and horrors of combat were so unbearable that a former soldier could never function in society as he did before—and no one was there to help.

Yet here, we saw things differently.  I have yet to see another country devote so much of its public funds to the support and readjustment of its former defenders. 

The United States, for better or worse, is a country derived from the blood of its veterans.  It was borne in the fires of the Revolution.  It was baptized in the slaughter of the Civil War.  It achieved manhood on the battlefields of two world wars.  It suffered, often needlessly, in far-flung places such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

The GI Bill, and its subsequent revisions, was a remarkable step in our history.  It spurred generations towards a remarkable transformation from militarism to domestic tranquility.  Even more importantly, it demonstrated that our soldiers will never simply be considered fodder for enemy guns.

A soldier, thanks to the GI Bill, can serve his/her country just as much in peace as they can in war.

For today’s veterans, take a look at the Veterans Administration’s website about the GI Bill for further information about benefits and applying.

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