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Interview: How WWII Vets Reinvented America

By Marc Leepson
8/17/2018 • World War II Magazine

The GI Bill made college education and home ownership a reality for a new U.S. middle class.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, he proclaimed the bill gave “emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.” That turned out to be an understatement. What became popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights, or simply the GI Bill, provided returning World War II veterans with generous housing loans and educational benefits, and ultimately had a much greater impact on postwar life in the United States than Roosevelt or anyone else envisioned. In his new book, Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Edward Humes tells “the story of the men and women who returned from the most devastating war in human history to reinvent America.”

Were you indulging in hyperbole when you described the GI Bill as “the most successful piece of socially uplifting legislation the world had ever seen”?

That’s a subjective position, but I believe it wholeheartedly. The passage of the GI Bill was a transformative moment for our nation and the world. In the history of the country there has been only a handful of comparable pieces of legislation, beginning with the original Bill of Rights in the Constitution, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act [The Land Grant College Act] and perhaps the Civil Rights Act. In terms of the economic impact and transforming the culture of our country, it’s very difficult to find anything that rivals the GI Bill because its effects were so much more diffuse and far-reaching than anyone imagined at the time it was adopted.

How did the GI Bill fit into Roosevelt’s vision for postwar America?

For a lot of reasons, both altruistic and practical, Roosevelt believed he had to take care of the needs of veterans. But he saw that as one piece in a much larger puzzle, rather than an end in itself. His grand vision for his final term of office, if he had lived, was to pursue a Second Bill of Rights, guaranteeing a minimum wage and health care and a productive job and a decent home for all Americans. He argued that it followed the founders’ vision of securing the liberty of all Americans with an equally important economic security that the Constitution didn’t address.

What role did the GI Bill play in providing such economic security?

One of the most innovative things the GI Bill did was resuscitate the housing industry by taking the risk out of offering loans to returning veterans who never would have qualified for home financing. During the Depression and World War II, new housing starts in the country basically came to a standstill. Mortgages were not readily available because so many Americans had no capital. We were a nation of renters. With the GI Bill, there’s suddenly this very affordable way of owning a home. For a veteran it was cheaper to buy a house than rent an apartment.

That had an impact on nonveterans, as well, didn’t it?

You unleash all of that money into that housing sector, with this huge demand of veterans coming home and starting families and wanting a proper place to live, and whole communities rose out of nothing to fill that void. The first was Levittown in New York, and then the West Coast equivalent in Lakewood, Calif. Pretty soon suburbia appeared almost out of thin air. Meanwhile, the lending industry saw this as a great formula for making money and began to make low-interest loans and favorable terms available to everyone. It was a tremendous transformative moment for the country, and we continue to reap those benefits today.

How else did the GI Bill redefine the American dream?

Apart from housing, the most transformative aspect of the GI Bill was a four-year educational benefit that was made available to all returning veterans. College, which we now consider to be a middleclass birthright and something that every young American ought to aspire to, or close to it, was an elite bastion before World War II. It was not on the radar screen for most young Americans. This was a time when the majority of Americans didn’t have high school diplomas. Only a certain type of person was supposed to benefit from a college education. Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, predicted that the influx of veterans after the war would turn our colleges into “educational hobo jungles.” The colleges wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of the money, and they would take just any old veteran, and quality would go down the tubes. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

How so?

The demand for self-improvement and for an education and for a better life was overwhelming. Many more veterans took advantage of the education benefits than was anticipated. In terms of those who went to college, pound for pound they were the best students of their era. That was the moment when the demand for a college education and the perception of what makes college material, if you will, changed. There was a realization that there was enormous benefit to the country of having a more educated population, one for which a college education was readily available. College, just like home ownership, subsequently became a part of the American dream.

What kind of social impact did that have in the immediate postwar period?

You were educating 91,000 scientists and nearly 300,000 engineers, and hundreds of thousands of teachers and doctors and other professionals, creating a class that didn’t really exist in America in any significant way prior to World War II. Then you put them to work in every sector of the economy—in the defense industry, in the space program, in all the concerns that support our national security—it has a tremendous impact. Think about the single-mindedness and the purpose that the Cold War, for better or worse, brought to our country. It very much resembled that same attitude that was brought to bear in our efforts in World War II. The people who pioneered the technology, who came up with the weapons systems, who worked at all levels from the assembly line up to the drafting tables, up to the executive suites of the defense industry—by and large they were World War II veterans who were educated through the GI Bill.

Were women included in the GI Bill?

Absolutely. The American Legion called it “A Bill of Rights for G.I. Joe and Jane.” So women were definitely included. But the sheer numbers of women who were eligible for GI Bill benefits was miniscule compared to the men who were eligible, for obvious reasons. But for some women it was patently unfair. Some women were technically not uniformed members of the military, but served in a very similar capacity—and in some cases, such as the WASPs, were specifically promised benefits after the war, but the government basically reneged on that.

How have the benefits for subsequent generations of veterans compared with those provided to WWII veterans?

For each subsequent era there was a renewal of the GI Bill. The Korean War GI Bill was pretty good. But after that, the benefits became much less far-reaching. The cost of college began to climb, and the GI Bill education benefits didn’t keep pace. Homes became more expensive, and the benefits didn’t keep pace. It was just one more way our Vietnam veterans took it on the chin. The GI Bill had become one of those things in the culture that everybody thought they were familiar with and assumed it was being taken care of. In the history of government, if somebody is not looking and making sure it’s being done correctly, then pretty often it’s not. You’d think we’d learn that lesson.

What is the situation today?

We still have a GI Bill today, but it certainly does not reach the number of people that it once did. One in eight Americans served in World War II. Today less than 1 percent of Americans are going to receive GI Bill benefits. The original GI Bill set a very high standard. It was very costly. But in terms of increased productivity, tax revenues and other benefits to the economy, economic analysts have calculated that there was a $7 return for every dollar that was invested in educating veterans. Young people got a start in life they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and the payoff, in about 20 years, was tangible and real. We’re not making that kind of investment now.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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