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In 1944, the U.S. government feared the flood of returning World War II soldiers as much as it looked forward to peace. To avoid economic catastrophe, FDR, the American Legion, William Randolph Hearst, and others began crafting the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. It would be the single most transformative bill of the twentieth century.
Spun as the G.I. Bill of Rights, this program for vets included home loans, health care, educational funds, and career counseling. The effects were immediate and enduring—the suburbs, the middle class, America’s ever-increasing number of college graduates, the lunar landing—all are tied to the G.I. Bill. The Greatest Generation would not exist without it: Norman Mailer, Bob Dole, John F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, Jimmy Carter, Clint Eastwood, and many others benefited from its provisions. Here are the stories of some of these men and women, how their lives changed because of the bill and how this country changed because of them.
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The Accidental Remaking of America
Although he had no idea at the time, Allan Howerton’s journey to Denver began two years earlier, on January 11, 1944, when two very distinct road maps to postwar America landed on Congress’s doorstep.
One vision for “winning the peace” came wrapped in the pomp and ritual of the president’s annual State of the Union address. The other was scrawled by lobbyists a mile from the Capitol, on hotel stationery, then hastily typed up for public consumption.
One represented nothing less than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan to expand the Founding Fathers’ original vision of a just America: giving every citizen the right to a rewarding job, a living wage, a decent home, health care, education, and a pension—not as opportunities, not as privileges, not as goods to which everyone (who could afford them) had access, but rights, guaranteed to every American, from cradle to grave. He called it a “Second Bill of Rights.”
The other plan, courtesy of the era’s most powerful veterans organization, the American Legion, advanced a more modest goal, or so it seemed: to compensate the servicemen of World War II for their lost time and opportunities, offering 16 million veterans a small array of government-subsidized loans, unemployment benefits, and a year of school or technical training for those whose educations had been interrupted by the draft or enlistment. The Legion called this a “Bill of Rights for G.I. Joe and Jane.”
The first plan promised to reinvent America after the war.
The second offered to put things back to where they were before the war.
As it turned out, neither plan’s promises would be kept. FDR never got the chance to remake America. Instead, the G.I. Bill did.
This was not by grand design, but quite by accident, as much a creation of petty partisans as of political visionaries. Yet the forces set in motion that day in January 1944 would power an unprecedented and far-reaching transformation—of education, of cities and a new suburbia, of the social, cultural, and physical geography of America, of science, medicine, and the arts. And just as importantly, the blandly and bureaucratically named Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, forever remembered as the G.I. Bill of Rights, would alter both the aspirations and the expectations of all Americans, veterans and nonveterans alike.
A nation of renters would become a nation of homeowners. College would be transformed from an elite bastion to a middle-class entitlement. Suburbia would be born amid the clatter of bulldozers and the smell of new asphalt linking it all together. Inner cities would collapse. The Cold War would find its warriors—not in the trenches or the barracks, but at the laboratory and the wind tunnel and the drafting table. Educations would be made possible for fourteen future Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 17,000 journalists, 22,000 dentists—along with a million lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers, pilots, and others. All would owe their careers not to FDR’s grand vision, but to that one modest proposal that was supposed to put the country back to where it had been before the war.
There was never anything like it before.
There is nothing like it on the horizon.
It began with a simple question: Now what?
WHILE president, lobbyists, and Congress debated how best to “win the peace,” Allan Howerton and the other members of K Company went off to finish the war, sailing from New York Harbor aboard a converted luxury liner, the HMS Stirling Castle, as a military band stood dockside and played, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”
Howerton had always imagined sailing off to the sounds of a stirring march, not the latest Andrews Sisters swing, though in truth, he had never expected to sail off to war at all. The Army initially had placed him in a college-based engineering program, with the promise of a billet rebuilding Europe after the war. He spent his first year in the Army at Drexel University in Philadelphia, marveling at his good fortune, basking in a college education he had never expected to be available to him.
Then he found himself unceremoniously transferred to the infantry when frontline casualties mounted, and warm, able bodies became far more important to the Army than engineering degrees. The military had abruptly canceled most of its college programs and dumped several hundred thousand soft college boys into boot camp, then shipped them overseas. Howerton bunked in the converted luxury liner’s emptied swimming pool as the jam-packed Stirling Castle’s long convoy zigzagged to Europe, dodging German U-boats, or so they all hoped. He spent the voyage writing his girlfriend, Mary, and dreaming of his return to her and to his old life.
Sixteen months later, with the war won and the occupation and reconstruction of Europe begun, another vessel crammed with servicemen carried a very different Allan Howerton home. After ten days on a stormy Atlantic Ocean, the cry, “New York!” rang out, and along with hundreds of other uniformed men he dashed to the rails and the upper decks for a first glimpse of home. There was no convoy this time, no zigzagging to avoid the deadly bite of torpedoes, no band waiting on the pier—just the coppery green shimmer of the Statue of Liberty, a distant, unreal skyline, and, closer by, the oily New Jersey shoreline, with its modest homes and warehouses looking strange to eyes grown accustomed to the ruined grandeur of Europe. Howerton felt exhilarated, relieved . . . and uneasy.
After a few weeks, Howerton mustered out of the Army at Fort Dix, still in his uniform, his future, a path once seemingly so clear and certain, now invisible to him. Damningly, mystifyingly, frustratingly, the uneasiness he initially dismissed had not faded but had taken firm root in his gut and grown. His civilian clothes felt strange and wrong; he could not wear them for any length of time, and so he stayed in uniform, as did many newly discharged G.I.s, caught between two worlds, neither soldier nor citizen. At the Fort Dix gate, a wild impulse seized him to reenlist, to return to the security of barracks and friends he trusted with his life, to orders and orderliness—to avoid that most awful question lurking out there in the open air: Now what?
“Never before or since,” he would later write, “have I felt as alone.”
That moment, the Now what? moment, multiplied16 million times over, could either presage a terrible crisis or present a unique opportunity. “These men will be a potent force for good or evil in the years to come,” predicted Harry Colmery, the former American Legion commander who had scrawled the first real version of the G.I. Bill on stationery from the Mayflower Hotel in the Nation’s Capital, and who had warned Congress not to repeat past mistakes with this new group of veterans. “They can make our country, or break it.”
Either way, America’s leaders seemed to realize by 1944 that they could not put off planning for that Now what? moment until the end of the war. If they waited for the day Allan Howerton glimpsed the Jersey coast, it would be far too late. The numbers of returning soldiers were just too great.
In the jaded early twenty-first century, the sum of 16 million hardly seems fantastical, given that the concept of a million—in home prices, small-town school budgets, weekly lottery winnings, 401k-plan targets—is now all but routine. But it was and is a huge mobilization of men and women unprecedented in our history and unimaginable today, as a much smaller military groans and strains to meet far more modest recruitment goals. To put this mobilization in perspective: Fly over contemporary Southern California, gaze down during the long, slow approach to LAX, observe the unbroken waves of urban sprawl, concentric circles of houses stretching in all directions mile after mile after mile, the endless grid of streets and freeways denuded of nature and filled with humanity and a flowing river of cars as far as the eye can see. Then imagine every man, woman, and child inside that concrete sea of homes and roads abruptly lifted away and marched off to war, and the inconceivable magnitude of harnessing 16 million souls to do anything snaps into sharp, incredible focus.
Then consider, as the president and Congress did in January 1944, what would happen when that mass of humanity abruptly returned home and found old careers, opportunities, relationships—everything—gone or changed or reinvented. The postwar plan, whatever it turned out to be, would hold immense power simply by virtue of this startling number: One out of every eight Americans would serve in the military by the end of the war.
Copyright © 2006 by Edward Humes
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Troop Movement Unlike Any Other
The Greatest Regeneration:
The Accidental Remaking of America
Cold Wars, Hot Rockets, a New American Dream
Investing in the Future:
Bill Thomas and the Rise of Suburbia
Bill and Vivian Kingsley:
Out of the Blue:
Nixon and Kennedy, Bonnie and Clyde:
The G.I. Bill and the Arts
Gunnery Mates and Other Invisible Veterans:
Women and the G.I. Bill that Wasn’t
Monte Posey’s War:
Race and the G.I. Bill
Leaders and the G.I. Bill
Kilroy’s Not Here:
The Future and the G.I. Bill
A NOTE ON SOURCES