Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The GI Bill: Legacy of the Doughboys—Part I, WWI Lessons

By Jennifer D. Keene

Why is World War I important in American history? Quite simply, the Great War generation played a critical role in constructing the modern U.S. Army, turning World War II soldiers into the most privileged veteran generation in American history, and determining what mass military service would mean for millions of American men throughout the 20th century . . .

Doughboys to Be: Reporting for Duty

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act (1944), commonly known as the GI Bill, is rightly celebrated for the renewal that unemployment, education, and housing loan benefits gave millions of World War II veterans. The law marked a poignant ending as well. The signing of the GI Bill two weeks after American troops landed on the Normandy beaches of France did not signal the end of their war. Instead, 1944 marked the symbolic exit of World War I veterans from the national political arena after more than 25 years in the public spotlight. The GI Bill is rarely remembered as the final legacy of World War I to the nation. Yet ignoring Great War veterans' authorship of the GI Bill results in an imperfect understanding of why the law took the form it did when it did. Line by line, the most comprehensive piece of social welfare legislation the United States has ever known, it illustrated in vivid detail the struggles World War I veterans had endured to give meaning to their social contract with the state. For the first and perhaps only time, wartime military service became a steppingstone to a better life. The final legacy of World War I created one of the most prosperous, advantaged generations in American history.

Once the United States had entered World War II, ensuring that history did not repeat itself became the primary objective both of the U.S. Army and of Great War veterans. To learn from its past experiences with conscripted civilians, the General Staff ordered a series of studies of the army's previous experience with black soldiers, courts-martial, relations between American and Allied soldiers, collecting soldiers' votes, desertions, and demobilization. Hoping to avoid the psychiatric breakdowns observed among shell-shocked soldiers during the Great War, the army at first tried to weed out (through induction center rejections or discharges) those who seemed predisposed to mental breakdowns. Eventually realizing that this practice created a way, so feared at the beginning of World War I, for malingerers to avoid military service, the army then reverted to the battlefield treatments used effectively 25 years earlier. Picking up where the Morale Division had left off in 1919, the soldiers' opinion studies undertaken by Samuel Stouffer and his colleagues in the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of the War Department provide some clues about how much influence civilian soldiers wielded within the new wartime army. The Stouffer studies were vastly more sophisticated than the rudimentary efforts of previous morale investigators, but their intent was the same. Hoping to perfect the collaboration between citizen-soldiers and the army, the Stouffer group provided commanders with detailed reports of soldiers' predilections, including discussions of how some army policies had inadvertently hurt morale. The Research Branch, for example, compiled an impressive amount of evidence that infantrymen felt their branch, which bore the brunt of actual fighting, had the lowest status of any combatant service branch. As a result, the chief of staff initiated a systematic campaign to improve the prestige of the infantry by raising their pay, awarding them distinctive medals, and publicizing the feats of infantrymen throughout the service. . .

Once again, the army hoped to secure veterans' postwar support for expanded defense funding, and this time, it used troop surveys to devise demobilization policies avoid to the mistakes made during World War I. The Research Branch surveyed 20,000 soldiers on the most equitable way to discharge wartime troops and discovered that they wanted the army to award points to each soldier that reflected his days in combat, time overseas, number of children, and length of service. This wartime research made it possible for President Roosevelt to claim that the point system was "based on the wishes of the soldiers themselves." The end of the Pacific war came sooner than expected, however, disrupting these carefully laid plans. The army was in the midst of preparing for a massive invasion of the Japanese islands when the dropping of two atomic bombs caused Japan to surrender. Scrambling to demobilize its wartime force quickly, the army soon abandoned the point system and instead released men when it no longer needed them. As in 1919, overseas soldiers were furious when their return home was delayed, and widespread protests broke out in the Pacific and Europe in 1946.

The smoldering resentment of officers' privileges and court-martial practices presented one final similarity between the two world wars. In 1946, the army and public conceded that the time for permanent reform had arrived. Many of the reforms instituted by the 1946 Doolittle Board echoed proposals made after World War I by Raymond Fosdick, chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities.

Combat Veterans Heading Home

In these ways, the lessons and precedents of World War I remained relevant in the military establishment. World War I veterans, however, had little interest in monitoring the influence conscripted soldiers had within the army, even though they had set the precedents that gave these soldiers their institutional power during World War II. Instead, World War I veterans focused on ensuring that the nation learned the appropriate lessons from the adjusted compensation debacle.

Public attention turned to the problem of welcoming veterans home as early as 1943, when Roosevelt used the end of a July fireside chat on the progress of the war to warn the country against "waiting to do a hasty, insufficient and ill-considered job at the last moment." Mail to the White House suggested a warm response to Roosevelt's general proposals for mustering-out pay, unemployment insurance, educational benefits, and adequate medical care. Seventy percent of those responding to a 1944 Gallup Poll even offered to pay extra taxes for these veterans' benefits. However, the head of the VA, General Frank Hines, warned the president against expecting the country to let him solve the problem alone. "We again hear the same talk of high wages at home while the men are fighting abroad," Hines cautioned. These statements raised Hines's suspicions that another bonus crusade was in the making. The president still opposed adjustment compensation, but he had not helped his case by acknowledging in his fireside chat that servicemen "have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice. . . than the rest of us."

The president, it turned out, had little to fear in choosing to remain neutral during the subsequent legislative debates over the GI Bill. Rather than seizing on his words to legitimate the principles they had long espoused, American Legion officials intended to repackage these concepts to make them politically viable. This wartime generation, Harry Colmery, the original author of the GI bill and a former Legion commander, stated, "should be aided in reaching that place, position, or status which they had normally expected to achieve, and probably would have achieved, had their war service not interrupted their careers." But a new vocabulary emerged to explain the GI Bill. "How well we all know that the words adjusted compensation and pension are dynamite to many people," noted one Legion official.

The American Legion's omnibus bill competed with 640 bills introduced in Congress to provide a solution to the veterans' problem. The freshness of the scars inflicted over the previous twenty years surfaced when veterans came to testify before congressional subcommittees. "You can remember that you and I came back as returning heroes. Nothing was too good for us. The streets were draped with flags and the people were cheering," Congressman Errett Scrivner (R-Kans.) recalled to Omar Ketchum, commander of the VFW. "That was the first day," Ketchum interjected. "Well, within the first month," Scrivner replied. "But it was not long after that that we were called every name under the sun." On the Senate side, American Legion Commander Warren Atherton spoke with confidence to the committee chair. "You, Senator [Bennett] Clark [D-Miss.]," he said, "having been the first national commander of the American Legion and knowing the conditions which prevailed for returning World War I veterans in 1917-18, realize the value of making this preparation."

Bonus Marchers Heading to Washington

No one present at these hearings disputed the need to plan properly this time around for the ex-servicemen's return to society. What they were guarding against, however, depended on how one interpreted the preceding2 4 years. For some advocates, the revolutionary potential evident in the soldiers' demonstrations of 1919 and the Bonus March necessitated keeping as many veterans as possible off the streets. The type of law Congress passed, Colmery told the Senate subcommittee holding hearings, would determine if this veteran generation would be a "force for good or evil in the years to come." Others, however, worried about a backlash if the benefits were too generous. The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) preferred to call the Legion's omnibus bill "the ominous bill." Chairman Millard Rice warned that "if the wrong approach is made toward the solution of the economic needs of millions of able-bodied veterans . . . then I fear that the ultimate result, some years from now, would be another Economy Act." "Ominous" also summed up the feelings of those who feared the return of the Depression's dark days. Educational benefits, they argued, might slow the reentry of veterans into the job market.

Tomorrow:   Part II, Hammering Out the Bill

Excerpted from: Doughboys, the Great War and the Remaking of America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Used with permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment