The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (P.L. 346, 78th Congress), referred to as the “GI Bill of Rights,” offered a variety of supports to returning veterans, including money to pursue higher education and purchase homes. Members of the American Legion had drafted the bill, and President Franklin Roosevelt and many persons in Congress embraced it. The supporters of this legislation wished to demonstrate their gratitude to the 16 million servicemen and servicewomen who were making wartime sacrifices.
However, they also hoped to prevent domestic and economic problems similar to those that had followed World War I. During that earlier war, the departure of young males from the homeland labor force had created employment opportunities for women, African Americans, older citizens, and persons with disabilities. Later, some returning veterans were unable to regain employment. Understandably, they were disgruntled. Those postwar civilian employees who had secured jobs but who were forced to relinquish them were equally disgruntled. President Wilson, who was preoccupied with efforts to persuade Americans to enter the League of Nations, seemed to pay little attention to these problems.
The severity of the postwar problems became evident after racial and labor riots disturbed the summer of 1919. Because of the destruction, bloodshed, and death associated with this period, journalists referred to it as “the red summer.” The national insecurity and suffering were accentuated by a flu pandemic that infected one out of every four Americans. The American fatalities from the pandemic were ten times greater than the 115,000 soldiers who had died in World War I battles. The state of the nation deteriorated further during the Great Depression. In 1932, more than 30,000 former servicemen journeyed to Washington and lobbied the federal government for financial help. They requested the early award of the bonuses that they had been promised. The march of this “bonus army” culminated in violent clashes with the police and the militia. The American public was horrified as it read about the burning of the makeshift village in which the marchers had set up camp. Even more dismaying, they viewed reports and photos of veterans who had been beaten and killed.
Wishing to reduce the conditions that could lead to domestic unrest after World War II, the advocates of the GI Bill of Rights ensured that it would help discharged soldiers secure unemployment stipends, medical care, and loans with which to purchase homes or businesses. They also offered financial support for the veterans to attend vocational schools or colleges. Some people had questioned whether this bill’s budget could support the services that it promised. Their skepticism was appropriate. Before subsequent GI Bills were enacted in 1952 and 1966, critics underscored the fiscal miscalculations of the early sponsors. For example, the proponents of the original 1944 bill had estimated that several hundred thousand people would take advantage of the educational benefits. However, more than one million veterans used the GI Bill to pay for higher education during the three-year period that followed the war. By 1952, more than two million veterans had drawn stipends to attend colleges or universities. Another six million veterans had used their stipends for various types of vocational training. Within seven years of the war’s conclusion, the total federal expenses for the GI Bill of Rights had amounted to more than $10 billion.
The unprecedented influx of students swelled postwar enrollments at colleges and universities. In response to the surge, college administrators erected classroom buildings, laboratories, and dormitories. To keep costs down, they frequently employed the prefabricated structures that the wartime army had developed. As additional cost-saving measures, they began to offer classes during evenings and summers. They placed special emphasis on classes in engineering, mathematics, technology, and the sciences. These fields, which had risen in importance during World War II, continued to be national priorities during the politically tense postwar years.
College administrators recognized that their student bodies had not only increased but become more diverse. Those students who were using the GI Bill of Rights to attend college included older students, mid-career students, female students, students from the economically lower classes, and students from racial minorities. Although many of the 1.2 million African Americans who had served in the war took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights, most of those who attended college lived in the North rather than the less-prosperous and racially segregated South. Many of these students were the first persons in their families ever to attend an institution of higher education. Their eventual successes changed the prevailing assumptions about the type of students who could benefit from college.
The cost of the GI Bill of Rights greatly exceeded the preliminary estimates of its sponsors. Nonetheless, this legislation was lauded because it enabled the discharged servicemen who attended college to fuel the nation’s robust postwar economic progress. By 1950, the nation’s gross national product had increased by 50 percent from the level at which it had been a decade earlier. The gross national product increased by more than 100 percent during the subsequent decade. Although multiple conditions contributed to this economic growth, the preparation of university-educated workers was a critical factor. Without the financial support of the GI Bill, significantly fewer workers would have been able to enroll in the universities. After they had graduated, university-educated veterans had a decisive influence on the economy. They had an equally profound impact on culture and politics.
1. Giordano, G. (2004). Wartime education: How World War II changed American education. New York: Peter Lang.
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