Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

by Edward Humes

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Overview

Extraordinary stories of ordinary men and women whose lives were changed forever by landmark legislation—and how they went on to change the country.
 
Inspiring war stories are familiar. But what about after-the-war stories? From a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Over Here is the Greatest Generation’s after-the-war story—vivid portraits of how the original G.I. Bill empowered an entire generation and reinvented the nation. The G.I. Bill opened college education to the masses, transformed America from a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners, and enabled an era of prosperity never before seen in the world. Doctors, teachers, engineers, researchers, and Nobel Prize winners who had never considered college an option rewrote the American Dream thanks to this most visionary legislation.
 
“Vivid . . . Deeply moving, alive with the thrill of people from modest backgrounds discovering that the opportunities available to them were far greater than anything they had dreamed of.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“Poignant . . . The human dramas scattered throughout the narrative are irresistible.” —The Denver Post
 
“Fascinating . . . The book’s statistics are eye-opening, but it’s the numerous personal vignettes that bring this account to life. . . . At its best, these passages are reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s Depression-era and World War II oral histories.” —The Plain Dealer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626812574
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 03/09/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 652,774
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Edward Humes is a veteran journalist, contributing to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, and has written numerous books including Baby E. R. and the bestselling Mississippi Mud, Mean Justice, and No Matter How Loud I Shout. A graduate of Hampshire College and a Pulitzer Prize winner, he lives in Southern California with his family.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Greatest Regeneration: 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 could 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, multiplied 16 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.

The "total warfare" mobilization that the United States had managed in the first year of the war, public-private partnership at its best, was nothing short of an economic miracle, literally pulling the country out of twelve years of depression, massive joblessness and crippled industries. In place of a staggered, humbled nation with a puny armed forces, disillusioned populace, and hobbled markets stood a new America of full employment, record-high wages, thriving research communities, burgeoning corporate profits, and a massive military — in short, a superpower on the rise. War had done what Roosevelt's heartfelt, humanitarian New Deal had never quite managed to accomplish: It ended every vestige of the Great Depression. And it sparked, ironically, an optimism in the face of adversity that had been missing for a very long time from the national psyche. Americans at war had never been better off — except those who had been sent off to do the actual fighting.

But this superpower was a one-trick pony — a war machine, an America that had stopped manufacturing cars, washing machines, and refrigerators in favor of bombs, tanks, and planes; that rationed its gasoline, its vegetables, its nylons, and its electricity; that had the government running manufacturing plants more efficiently and honestly than private enterprise; and that introduced bikinis, tight skirts, and vestless men's suits, not as fashion statements, but as a means of conserving cloth and energy ("patriotic chic," one department store magnate quipped). So the end of war would not be simply about discharged soldiers. Ideally there should be a plan for bringing the civilians "home" as well — for recreating a peacetime society.

Everything would change once those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines stepped off the troop ships and once again became civilians. They would stride down the gangplanks to flood the market for jobs and homes and futures — men and women filled with questions, ambition, angst, and need. They had been yanked from their workplaces, homes, and families, many of them fresh out of high school, then forced to endure hardship, peril, and unspeakable violence, committed against them, committed by them. Without a plan in place for those millions of returning men and women, the nation's economy, culture, even its democracy could fall apart, with many an eager demagogue waiting in the wings to capitalize on a supremely vulnerable national moment.

So it had been in Germany after World War I, the crippled Weimar Republic crumbling as Hitler's Third Reich rose to fill the vacuum with its powerful, heady cocktail of hatred, pride, and purpose — a chain of events that, early on, might have been altered at relatively little cost had not the world chosen to avert its gaze from demigods and death camps. Now the price of stopping evil was called World War II.

Yet this was a perilous time for the president and Congress to openly discuss the aftermath of World War II. An Allied victory seemed imaginable, even likely, by January 1944, owing primarily to immense German losses to the Red Army — bought at the unthinkable cost of 27 million Russians dead by the end of the war, a sacrifice nearly seventy times greater than that of the United States. Yet triumph still remained far from certain two long years after the shocking wake-up call of Pearl Harbor thrust America into a conflict the public, until then, had overwhelmingly wished to avoid. As Roosevelt delivered his tenth State of the Union address, American forces were only just massing for a surprise amphibious assault on the beaches of Anzio, a crucial first step in taking Italy. The Pacific War was at its bloodiest stage, the lines advancing island by island, airstrip by airstrip, with another six months to go before a sustained bombing campaign against the Japanese homeland could even be contemplated. The Normandy Invasion, meanwhile, and the subsequent year-long drive toward Berlin, still lay six uncertain months in the future. If any of these bold moves were to falter, the war effort would be set back many months, perhaps years. Perhaps entirely. Talk of winning the peace would be pointless if the United Nations, as the Allies were then known, lost the war.

Even so, the risks of raising the subject of postwar planning early on paled in comparison with the dangers of ignoring it. Most Americans expected high unemployment, political upheaval, and, in all likelihood, renewed recession or depression once peace arrived and demobilization began. The New Republic's TRB column warned that the country would face an epic economic disaster, "a Pearl Harbor of peace, not of war." Roosevelt knew, as did the American Legion, that preparing for that moment was not merely a matter of rewarding the G.I.s, of doing the right and good thing. They knew that failure to have jobs and homes and hope awaiting those millions of battle-hardened veterans invited disaster. Poor, jobless, and disgruntled veterans of the last world war had formed the core of initial support for the Nazi movement, the fascist movement, the Bolshevik Revolution — and similar veterans' woes had led to unrest and fear of revolt throughout American history as well.

Even politicians as enlightened as the Founding Fathers had to learn the hard way that training a large group of men to kill, then stiffing them once the combat ends, is a dangerous game: In 1783, hundreds of impoverished, angry soldiers surrounded and occupied Philadelphia's Independence Hall — then the nation's capital — after promises of long-overdue back pay and pensions were broken by the fledgling, cash-strapped government. While the Continental Congress met inside, the jeering troops poked their rifles and bayonets through the windows of the very room where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, menacing the likes of John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. The rulers of the new nation finally fled, humiliated but unharmed — which explains why the Constitution was signed in New York, and why original plans to place a permanent capital in Philadelphia were abandoned in favor of the new, safe "federal town" of Washington, DC.

Forty-nine years would pass before Congress finally paid its debts to Revolutionary War veterans — an empty gesture, as most had died by then. Fewer than 3,000 of the nearly quarter-million Revolutionary War veterans ever received a penny promised them.

After initially suffering a similarly mean fate, veterans of the Civil War fared better — two million soldiers (with two million votes) were a force to be reckoned with, as several ousted congressmen and an ex-president soon learned. But the overgenerous pension plan finally approved by a cowed Congress quickly became mired in fraud, graft, and patronage, until it absorbed a larger portion of the federal budget — 40 percent — than any other single expense. The scandals that followed led to considerable public disdain for veterans, and the Civil War pension program ended up scrapped at century's end.

As a result, the five million veterans of World War I came home from the new technological horrors of mustard gas, machines guns, and aerial bombardment to find next to nothing awaiting them. The wounded and disabled received care, and families of the war-dead received pensions — that much has always been granted America's veterans, dating back to the Pilgrims at Plymouth and their battles with the Pequot Indians. But the first million doughboys still on their feet went home with nothing more than their medals and uniforms. They received no consideration for their lost income, lost jobs, and genuine financial sacrifices, and the belated mustering-out pay authorized by Congress for the last waves of soldiers discharged — sixty dollars and train fare home — seemed more insult than help.

(Continues…)


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Copyright © 2006 Edward Humes.
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Table of Contents

PROLOGUE Troop Movement Unlike Any Other,
CHAPTER 1 The Greatest Regeneration: The Accidental Remaking of America,
CHAPTER 2 Cold Wars, Hot Rockets, a New American Dream,
CHAPTER 3 Investing in the Future: Bill Thomas and the Rise of Suburbia,
CHAPTER 4 Bill and Vivian Kingsley: G.I. Tech,
CHAPTER 5 Out of the Blue: Medical Miracles,
CHAPTER 6 Nixon and Kennedy, Bonnie and Clyde: The G.I. Bill and the Arts,
CHAPTER 7 Gunnery Mates and Other Invisible Veterans: Women and the G.I. Bill that Wasn't,
CHAPTER 8 Monte Posey's War: Race and the G.I. Bill,
CHAPTER 9 What's inside? Leaders and the G.I. Bill,
EPILOGUE Kilroy's Not Here: The Future and the G.I. Bill,
A NOTE ON SOURCES,

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