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

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The GI Bill: Legacy of the Doughboys—Part II, Hammering Out the Bill

The Legion had some dramatic moments after ignoring advice that it chop up its GI Bill into more manageable chunks, rather than continue to press for a complete benefits package. In March, at the request of five smaller veterans' organizations, several congressmen introduced an adjusted compensation bill in lieu of the GI Bill of Rights. With this division in veterans' ranks threatening to confuse the nation over which path to pursue, the Legion rallied its members to make their wishes known. Behind-the-scenes negotiations brought the VFW into line behind the Legion bill. The Legion worked diligently to organize a grass-roots campaign and prepared promotional materials for its 12,000 posts to use in rallying local support. Posts received suggested radio interviews, press releases, and letters and telegrams for congressmen, as well as short trailer films for legionnaires to take to the local movie theater. The earlier decision of the Hearst newspaper chain to support the bill as a way to highlight the shortcomings of the Roosevelt administration's social welfare programs also helped influence public opinion in favor of the proposal. Inside the Legion command center in Washington, members mounted a huge wall chart to portray the results of their daily canvas of Congress and the work of the 149 House members who belonged to the Legion. On 10 May, in a well-publicized ceremony on the steps of the Capitol, Legion officials delivered petitions bearing a million signatures to the House leadership.

The Final Bill and Signatures

Congressman John Rankin (D-Miss.), a legionnaire, who chaired the House World War Veterans' Legislation Committee, provided the most gripping, nail-biting moments. The Senate passed an omnibus bill on 24 March, but the House version remained mired in Rankin's committee until 3 May. In April, the Mississippi congressman focused his objections on the bill's unemployment provisions. In public hearings, he recalled the "goldbrickers" he had known during World War I who would have relished a chance to loaf at government expense. Privately, Legion officials noted that, in executive sessions, Rankin was "using the line that it will result in too high remuneration without work for Negro veterans in the South." Rankin also wondered aloud whether adjusted compensation better served former farmers from the South and West who had no intention of attending college. Throughout this period, the Legion worked hard writing compromise drafts to appease Rankin. The draft of the bill finally reported out of Rankin's committee on 3 May limited educational and employment benefits and raised the maximum loan amount. The version that passed the House 387-0 on 18 May sharpened these modifications.

In the joint Senate-House Conference Committee created to hammer out differences between the two omnibus bills, compromise came quickly on education and loan benefits. Deadlock soon developed, however, over a relatively minor issue: whether or not the VA should have supervisory or administrative responsibility over the Veterans' Employment Service. With the final conference committee vote set for the morning of 10 June 1944, Rankin refused to cast the proxy vote of an absent member in favor of supervisory responsibility. Legion officials raced to track down Congressman John S. Gibson, a Democrat who had returned to Georgia. Those enlisted in the search included a telephone operator, who rang his house every fifteen minutes, a local radio station, which put out a news alert for Gibson to call home, and the state police, who went on the lookout for his car. Returning home late in the evening after spending the day hunting, Gibson agreed to take an army flight back to Washington from nearby Waycross air base. This plan fell through when the only available plane succumbed to mechanical problems, but the officer in charge provided a car to a commercial air field in Jacksonville, Florida. After boarding a 2:20 A.M. flight to Washington, Gibson arrived in time to cast the key vote. In the final version of the bill, a board chaired by the administrator of Veterans' Affairs was established to monitor veterans' job placement by the U.S. Employment Service.

The housing loan and unemployment compensation provisions of the GI Bill clearly owed a debt to New Deal innovations such as the long-term, low-interest mortgages first offered in 1933 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the unemployment compensation provisions of the 1935 Social Security Act, and the creation of the 1933 Veterans' Employment Service within the U.S. Employment Service. The largesse of the New Deal years also made the proposal seem less like special class legislation (the main objection FDR had to paying the bonus early), and more like a subset of the general social welfare assistance now available to Americans classified as deserving poor. The public and government intended simply to enfold veterans in the system of entitlements available to a broad cross-section of Americans. Dixon Wecter, in his path breaking study of veterans in 1944, spoke for the majority of Americans when he refused to see GI Bill-granted access to national health care as special class legislation. Wecter argued that the "broader ideas of social responsibility which have sprung with the New Deal" made national health insurance inevitable, "which means that [soon] the ex-soldier as civilian will share a universal protection." Although influential commentators like Wecter denied veterans the right to special entitlements, the notion of them as a specially disabled group had stuck. "The fact that selective service has become the basis for recruiting our armed forces—that a man's losses in time, opportunity, or health while in the service are no longer voluntary but risks exacted by the State-has fostered a greater sense of Federal responsibility in his retraining and reemployment," Wecter wrote. Foreshadowing the debate that would swirl around affirmative action programs in the late twentieth century, the question centered on whether veterans' benefits restored equality by rectifying past injustices or whether they bestowed advantages and created a specially entitled class. The public had sanctioned adjustment compensation as the former in the 1920s and rejected the bonus as the latter after the Bonus March. Commentators like Wecter soothed Americans with the idea that the majority of the benefits provided by the GI Bill simply leveled the playing field that the selective service system had made uneven, and that the remainder would soon be extended to non-veterans. In reality, the legislation created the most privileged generation in American history.

The President Signs the GI Bill, 22 June 1944,
Two Weeks After D-Day

The GI Bill went further than any previous New Deal program by providing equal benefits without regard to class, race, gender, or (by 1945) age. The access to free medical care and bonus payments that had set World War I veterans apart paled in comparison to the way the GI Bill established the veteran as a unique social class in American society. State laws governing mortgages became irrelevant to 3.7 million working-class veterans, who needed no down payment to acquire a house in the new suburban subdivisions, and to thousands of others seeking a farm or a business. Federal Housing Administration restrictions that only approved loans for homes in areas with electricity and sewers did not apply to veterans. Female veterans had independent access to benefits for themselves and their children, unlike their civilian counterparts, whose social security benefits depended on whether or not their husbands lived at home. The law provided the same unemployment benefits for all veterans, regardless of what line of work they intended to pursue after the war. This provision overrode state and federal laws that denied unemployment compensation to agricultural and domestic workers, rules that effectively excluded many blacks and Hispanics from receiving jobless benefits. The GI Bill also set up a system of federally administered unemployment benefits at a standard rate of twenty dollars a week for veterans, in contrast to state rates for civilians that varied from two to twenty-two dollars weekly. Overall, 9 million veterans received unemployment benefits after the war, although the average of 17 weeks assistance fell far below the fifty-two weeks allowed. Only one exception existed to these efforts to ensure that all veterans had full use of these benefits to recover their financial losses: Congress refused to grant unemployment compensation to veterans who participated in strikes. Veterans did, however, gain the right to turn down a scab job without jeopardizing their unemployment rights. There would be no repeat of state employment bureaus sending ex-servicemen to break strikes as they had in 1919.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the GI Bill in 20th-century American history. For the first time, serving in the wartime military became a way to enter the middle class. The economic stability provided by the GI Bill in education, home ownership, and medical care came at the right historical moment in the life of both individuals and the nation. Until amended in 1945, the initial law required veterans who entered the service after age twenty-five to prove that the war had interrupted their education in order to receive more than a year of educational benefits. The original bill's creators correctly concluded that younger veterans had the best chance of using education to repair their civilian lives. Colmery warned that "many of the older group taken under selective service, leaving wife and children and sacrificing position and business[,] may have a more serious problem of readjustment than the younger ones. "The GI Bill's expansion of the VA's hospital system, coupled with easier access to government health care in the next few years, proved to be a more substantial way to help older veterans. Paradoxically, the men who had entered military service later in life had more health problems throughout their lives, even though they were less likely than younger recruits to have experienced combat in World War II.

University education helped younger veterans advance because this opportunity came along at the right personal and historical moment. Giving free college tuition to men who as a group averaged only a sixth grade education would have made little sense after World War I. The discovery of this educational deficit, coupled with stricter child labor laws, had encouraged a new domestic emphasis on education in the interwar years. By World War II, the average serviceman had completed the second year of high school. This veteran could readily see how military service had prevented him from finishing high school or attending a college or technical school. Approximately 80 percent of the 2.2 million veterans who received a GI Bill-sponsored college education were returning students, while 5.4 million took vocational job training courses. An education as an engineer, accountant, or even a plumber meant little, however, without a job after graduation. Defying all predictions forecasting a new Depression, educated World War II veterans benefited from and contributed to a postwar economic boom that kept the unemployment rate below 5 percent. The singularity of this historical moment is underscored by life-course research on the Vietnam War. Military service did not have the same positive effect on the socioeconomic status of Vietnam veterans. Substantial aid to college-bound students in the 1960s and 1970s and scaled-back veterans' benefits meant that military service once again became time lost for veterans rather than the path to increased occupational and educational opportunities.

As expected, the issue of adjusted compensation came up again after World War II, but the bonus concept had been discredited by its ineffectiveness as a relief measure and its earlier role in rallying veterans against the government, and little came of such proposals. The concept of compensating veterans for the hardships of living overseas and for the length of time they spent away from high-paying civilian wartime jobs remained relevant, however. The amount of mustering-out pay, for instance, differed for those serving at home and overseas, while education and unemployment benefits depended upon the length of one's service.

World War II Veterans Lining Up to Register at
the University of Minnesota

The only adjustment to wartime service pay came after returned soldiers learned that the army had paid officers for furlough days not taken when they left the service. Congress retroactively adjusted enlisted men's wartime wages to include unused furlough days by giving them a bond that matured in five years. Recognizing that a bond in lieu of cash left a sour taste in the mouths of those who remembered the Bonus March, Congress agreed in 1947 to let veterans redeem their bonds immediately. As a result of their fathers' hard work planning their homecoming, World War II veterans expressed overwhelming satisfaction with the help given to them by the federal government.

World War I veterans had made a long and difficult journey from 1917 to 1944 to establish the principle that total war gave soldiers and the state a mutual obligation to ensure each other a safe and prosperous future. Starting with adjusted compensation and ending with the GI Bill, World War I veterans forced the government to accept responsibility for redistributing profits and opportunities from advantaged civilians to disadvantaged veterans in the aftermath of total war. The executive branch found itself transformed forever by its experience in conscripting a mass national army to fight the Great War. World War I soldiers shaped critical policies and practices of the army and modern state, and created the piece of social welfare legislation that played a key role in generating the unprecedented prosperity Americans enjoyed in the second half of the twentieth century.

See yesterday's posting for Part I, WWI Lessons

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

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for illuminating one of the lesser acknowledged effects of “The War That Changed the World”, World War One - The transformational effect of the “Doughboy” generation on the implicit
    “compact” between the soldier and state, on social policy, particularly education and health care, on veteran advocacy, and on the fortunes of our nation during what would become “The American Century”.