Can America ever repeat the success of the G.I. Bill?
Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation By Suzanne Mettler • Oxford University Press • 2005 • 280 pages • $30
On April 12, 1995, President Bill Clinton rose to the lectern in Warm Springs, Georgia, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton said that his great Democratic predecessor “taught us again and again that our government could be an instrument of democratic destiny.” Surprisingly, Clinton spoke only briefly about such New Deal landmarks as Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Instead, he reserved his most expansive comments for the G.I. Bill of 1944 and its role in realizing what he called Roosevelt’s “most enduring legacy”: a post-World War II “generation prepared to meet the future.”
The “G.I. Bill of Rights,” as it was popularly known, offered 16 million veterans of World War II grants to pay for college or vocational training, allowances to support families, and loans to aid in the purchase of homes, farms, and businesses. It embodied “the essence of America’s social compact,” Clinton said, because “those people that served, they had been responsible, and they were entitled to opportunity.” By some estimates, about half of all American families in the 1950s and 1960s were helped one way or another by this remarkable bill.
Nostalgia among Democrats for a time when government action was both popular and far-reaching was understandable during the mid-1990s; after all, Clinton delivered his speech just months after government-bashing conservative Republicans swept to power in the 1994 congressional elections. And after five years of the second President Bush, the enduring allure of the G.I. Bill is equally understandable. The G.I. Bill has entered the pantheon of progressive legislation, and despite skeptics–such as historian Lizabeth Cohen and political scientist Ira Katznelson, who stress the ways in which most women and blacks were excluded from its programs–the bill continues to fascinate. Add to the list of admirers two recent books: Suzanne Mettler’s Soldiers to Citizens and Edward Humes’s Over Here. Both shed light on the resilience of the G.I. Bill in the progressive imagination and its impact on American society, but in so doing raise the question of whether anything like it could be achieved today.
Like Clinton, Mettler, a political scientist at Syracuse University, credits the G.I. Bill with the “making of the greatest generation.” Millions who used the education benefits got a leg up in the postwar economy, Mettler shows, as opportunities to go to college–even elite institutions–became available to those who otherwise could have never afforded it. Even more important, she argues, is how the bill encouraged the postwar generation’s high rates of civic engagement; the beneficiaries Mettler interviewed were more likely than other educated veterans of their era to become active citizens: volunteers in their communities, regular voters, and the “joiners” who sustained and led civic and professional associations. Their positive experience with a life-changing government program spurred them to become unusually civically active. Going beyond the usual focus on the purely economic impact of public policies, Mettler ingeniously demonstrates that good government also fosters good citizens.
Humes, an award-winning journalist, makes even more sweeping claims, crediting the G.I. Bill with transforming the American dream, “altering both the aspirations and the expectations of all Americans, veterans and non-veterans alike.” While Mettler nails down her case with careful statistics and systematically analyzed interviews, Humes has constructed his book around human-interest stories, recounting the wartime and postwar experiences of men and women who used various parts of the G.I. Bill to build their careers and families. Yet Humes also traces the ripple effects of the bill through all of American postwar life: the permanent expansion of colleges and universities spurred by the sudden arrival of millions of serious-minded and high-performing G.I. Bill students; the mushrooming of suburbs filled with young families owning homes purchased with G.I. Bill-backed mortgages; even the impact of higher-educated professionals on the development of U.S. medicine. Every aspect of vibrant postwar America, it seems, was at least indirectly touched by the surge of opportunity, human energy, and growth unleashed by this huge set of government benefits.
So perhaps it is no surprise that today’s liberals, on the defensive for a generation against conservative efforts to dismantle the New Deal order, would look back fondly on a massive public program that embodied so much of what they feel the government can and should do for its citizens. And it’s no coincidence that many progressives in turn see the G.I. Bill and its implicit compact with returning soldiers as a model in crafting a wide spectrum of proposals, for everything from post-high school national service to tuition waivers for medical students willing to work in rural and depressed regions of the country.
But today’s progressives must be careful not to overlook the inspired sense of collective faith and purpose enjoyed by the generation that experienced World War II, and they should also be aware of the often ironic details of the bill’s genesis: the particular coalitions that supported it, the various iterations it went through, and the opposition that almost blocked it. In other words, the way the G.I. Bill came about should give us pause, and stimulate our political imaginations, as we look to repeat the bill’s remarkable achievements.
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