G.I. Bill and the transformation of America, The

G.I. Bill and the transformation of America, The

Wilson, Reginald

To understand the impact of the G.I. Bill, one must understand the parameters of American society in 1940 before the war. From the time of his inauguration in 1934, President Roosevelt had attempted to pull the country from the throes of its worst economic depression, and the economy had proved stubbornly intransigent. Many veterans of World War I stood on street corners and sold apples or slept under the bridges of our cities. Women stood in long lines to get surplus food, and babies cried out in starvation.

Not only were economic times hard, but the United States was a severely racially segregated society as well. The American worker was strictly separated into black and white, both North and South, and was paid on separate pay scales, with the lower pay going to the black worker. Educationally, blacks and whites were segregated as well, with 85 percent of blacks who went to college attending the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Not only were blacks segregated, but for both blacks and whites college was a rare experience. Only 10 percent of Americans before the war attended college. It was primarily a luxury of the upper middle classes unless one was fortunate enough to get a scholarship or could work one’s way through college. Moreover, not only were blacks restricted, but Jews and Catholics were limited by quotas in their admittance to the most prestigious universities. As a result, the middle class was quite small and for the most part consisted of white male Protestants; women likewise had few opportunities and were confined mostly to women’s colleges.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home?

This was the status of American society at the time of World War II — poor, segregated, and with limited opportunities for women. In the halls of Congress the legislators were debating what to do with the returning servicemen barely seven months after America’s entry into the war. With the specter of the fate of the servicemen of World War I hanging over their heads, the members of Congress responded favorably to Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish’s admonition that veterans “would not come home and sell apples as they did after the last war….I believe we would have chaotic and revolutionary conditions in America.” There was, of course, opposition. The presidents of the nation’s premier educational institutions were concerned about the flooding of America’s colleges by veterans. University of Chicago President, Robert M. Hutchins, for example, entitled his article in the magazine Collier’s, “The Threat to American Education” and labeled the G.I. Bill “unworkable.”

Yet, education benefits for veterans had its champions as well. Ironically, rank segregationists had a more profound impact on African Americans’ access to education and poor white empowerment to choose the education they wanted. Congressman John Rankin from Mississippi, for example, pushed hard for the benefits to go to the individual veteran rather than to the collegiate institution, which would have restricted admittance to those it felt “worthy” to succeed. Moreover, this allowed the “negro” institutions and several small institutions to prosper.

The Impact of the G.I. Bill

To illustrate the profound impact of the G.I. Bill one needs only recite the stark statistics: two years before the war approximately 160,000 U.S. citizens were in college. By 1950, the figure had risen to nearly 500,000. In 1942, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college enrollments.

Yet these stark statistics tell only half the story. The extent of the profound changes had only begun. The HBCUs benefited from the enlargement of the colleges through the parallel Lanham Act (1946) that stabilized the marginal colleges and strengthened the others. Twenty-five research universities existed before the war and 125 afterwards. Before the war, 10 percent of students attended college, and the G.I. Bill led to 51 percent of students being able to attend. Seven million veterans took advantage of education and training, with 2.2 million of them attending college.

The restrictions against Jews and Catholics were quietly dropped, and thousands of blacks attended previously white universities and colleges. The provision of subsidized housing allowed thousands of veterans to buy houses and flock to the suburbs. The “52-20” provision of the bill (a $20 a week subsidy for 52 weeks for veterans who were out of work) enabled blacks for the first time to make the same wages as whites in the South. Indeed, thousands of blacks and whites were thrust into the middle class, and their children did not wonder whether they would go to college, but where they would go.

That profound change in American social and economic relations was brought about by the revolution of the G.I. Bill in its impact on the American people. The men and women who had fought in the war were transformed by the Act from poor working-class citizens to middle-class citizens, from citizens who worked with their hands to professionals who worked with their minds, from renters to homeowners.

To be sure, the G.I. Bill did not wipe out all inequities. The bill did not eradicate the discrimination and prejudice that permeated American life. But it did enable blacks to move into the middle class and thousands of whites to rise.

The important story of the revolution that was wrought in American life by the G.I. Bill was, unfortunately, lost on the succeeding generation. The profound nature of the change is taken for granted, and the transformation is assumed as having always been. Subsequent Congresses have not been so generous in making allowances for veterans, and succeeding G.I. Bills have not been so all-encompassing. The Congress, in fact, nearly defeated the Montgomery G.I. Bill when it was first proposed in 1984. But the proponents prevailed, and at least the concept of educational reward for military service still remains. yet it is a mere skeleton of its original self, and the concept of a revolutionary change such as was enacted with the original G.I. Bill is lost, unfortunately, perhaps forever.

Reginald Wilson is a senior scholar at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1995

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