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Can America ever repeat the success of the G.I. Bill?

By Theda Skocpol

Tagged EntitlementsGI Bill

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream By Edward Humes • Harcourt • 2006 • 336
pages • $26

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.

The G.I. Bill was both typical and unusual within the broad sweep of U.S. history. Like so many other effective social programs–from public schools, to pensions for Union veterans of the Civil War, to early-twentieth-century programs for mothers and children, to Social Security and Medicare today–the G.I. Bill included Americans of varying economic status in the same sets of benefits, and it stressed that citizens were getting public help in return for positive contributions to the nation through military service. Inclusive programs like the G.I. Bill may ameliorate poverty, but they are not “poverty programs”–and that is why they are so avidly embraced by Americans. Clinton was right to say that America’s social contract calls for public help to go most readily not to the poor alone, but to those who contribute and play by the rules.

But unlike most other U.S. social programs, the G.I. Bill focused its largesse on young adults at just the moment when they were building lives for their families. Usually, we spend money on the elderly, who have earned the nation’s support after a lifetime of work. At their height around 1900, Civil War pensions were, in effect, old-age pensions, among the most generous in the world at the time. Today, Social Security and Medicare offer generous public supports to retirees, supports that are absent for many working-aged adults and their families. America’s welfare state, in other words, is heavily tilted toward the aged. The G.I. Bill is a noteworthy exception to this rule.

Given our propensity to spend on the aged while pushing the young to fend for themselves, how did a program as large as the G.I. Bill emerge in the first place? As a predicate to answering that question, it is important to recognize how different the politics behind the G.I. Bill was from what happens in contemporary social policymaking. When social programs are debated today, they are usually pushed by policy experts and then blocked, or narrowly tailored into law, in the mark-up sessions of congressional committees. Partisan ideologues push for or against government programs, and it is rare for a broad bipartisan coalition to prevail. When interest groups and voluntary associations get involved, moreover, they usually buttonhole congressional staffers and run media campaigns that belie their “grassroots” image. Even huge associations like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which claim many millions of mailing-list adherents, are really professionally run advocacy groups with multi-million-dollar lobbying budgets.

By contrast, the G.I. Bill was written and propelled by a nationwide voluntary association–the American Legion–that outmaneuvered both liberals and conservatives to marry generous social provisions to patriotic appeals. Conventional wisdom today has it that because millions served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, politicians at the time recognized that they “had to” receive generous social benefits from a grateful nation. But this isn’t the whole story. True, the United States has a long history of remarkable generosity toward veterans and survivors of its major wars. But, where benefits for able-bodied veterans have been concerned, they have usually been granted long after the war in question was over–not until the veterans had become elderly or else had accumulated sufficient political clout at home to tap significantly into the federal Treasury. Peak portions of federal spending on veterans came some 40 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, 28 years after the end of the Civil War, and a decade and a half after the end of World War I.

Pace Bill Clinton, the G.I. Bill was not in any simple sense Roosevelt’s proposal; indeed, if anything, he inherited his generation’s distrust of generosity to military veterans. Rather, during the years running up to the G.I. Bill’s enactment, a peculiar mixture of liberal and conservative preferences emerged to shape the landmark veterans’ program. Today, we forget that in the years leading up to World War II, there was little support for any extension of veteran benefits. Because pensions for Union veterans of the Civil War had become so generous and costly by the early twentieth century, fiscally-cautious elites and reformist professionals became obsessed with heading off further “raids” on the federal Treasury by World War I veterans. World War I benefits were deliberately designed to feature aid and training for the disabled, along with government-subsidized life insurance. When the frustrated war veterans demanded more, Congress had to override a (second) Republican presidential veto in 1924 to enact a grant of promissory certificates for “adjusted compensation,” or a “bonus” payment to able-bodied veterans. Later, veterans would react to the economic crisis of the Depression by agitating for early full payment of the bonus certificates. Indeed, public repulsion with the poor treatment of the Bonus Marchers on Washington still shaped perceptions of how to treat World War II veterans a decade and a half later.

During the 1930s, Democratic President Roosevelt was even more reluctant than his Republican predecessors to accept more expenditures on veterans. Appearing before the American Legion national convention in 1933, Roosevelt dauntlessly stressed building general social provisions rather than providing “special” aid to able-bodied veterans. While “the Government has a responsibility for and toward those who have suffered injury or contracted disease while serving in its defense,” Roosevelt declared to the assembled Legionnaires, “no person, because he wore a uniform, must thereafter be placed in a special class of beneficiaries over and above other citizens.”

However, once the New Deal was overtaken by the mobilization for war, Roosevelt had the political acumen to adjust his stance, and he acknowledged that steps would need to be taken to compensate for the disruptions in education and employment. Yet the bill’s development, even then, went through multiple iterations. As plans for postwar demobilization were developed, New Dealers still aimed to link benefits for veterans to an expanded and nationalized welfare state for all Americans, featuring universal social insurance and guarantees of full employment. And, even as it sought to incorporate veterans’ assistance within a larger welfare-state framework, the Roosevelt Administration did not initially propose such broad educational benefits as those eventually embodied in the G.I. Bill. In alliance with educators from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and other leading U.S. universities, Roosevelt called for a general veterans’ educational benefit limited to one year, with only a minority of veterans selected for further university training. The result would have been elitist and centrally managed educational grants, had such ideas survived in Congress. But congressional conservatives took a different tack after Republican gains in the 1942 elections, supporting targeted veterans’ benefits as a way to shortcut the construction of a postwar welfare state.

Make no mistake: The congressional conservatives were not the driving force behind this legislation–and, to some degree, neither was Roosevelt. That job was left to the American Legion, which first unveiled an omnibus proposal in January 1944 that included up to four years of educational benefits open to virtually all veterans, along with very generous low-interest loans for homes, farms, and businesses. Then, the Legion quickly mobilized its membership (a truly grassroots network rarely seen today, centered in halls and small-town chapters around the country) to push its bill through Congress.

How ironic is it that this organization sponsored one of the most generous social programs in U.S. history? Led by businessmen, professionals, and other middle-class men, and inspired by what may seem a parochial understanding of patriotism, the Legion of the 1920s and 1930s was virulently opposed to leftists, civil libertarians, and labor unions–often passing information on all three to the FBI. Although officially nonpartisan, the Legion regularly operated in partnership with Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress.

But the American Legion was also a grassroots, voluntary civic organization that engaged popular loyalties in towns and cities across the land. Particularly when the needs and aspirations of veterans were at stake, it espoused a populist version of conservatism rather than a fiscally stingy one, denouncing greedy businessmen and tightfisted Republicans with the same fury that it did leftists and unionists. What is more, having decided in 1942 to open its membership to veterans of World War II as well as World War I (partly to replenish its dwindling ranks), the Legion became very attentive to the needs of young adults and families, and became a lobbying force.

To be sure, the Legion faced a tough task in passing the G.I. Bill: Arch-conservative John Rankin of Mississippi, for example, the chairman of the crucial House Veterans Affairs Committee, favored quick payments of severance bonuses and limited educational grants. Rankin was reluctant to send millions of G.I.s to become “overeducated and undertrained” by studying with “Red” professors in “certain colleges and universities.” Determined to spread opportunity as widely as possible, however, the American Legion refused to bow to its usual allies. Instead, Legion posts throughout the land bombarded their congressmen with letters and telegrams, mounted a national petition drive that garnered a million signatures, and targeted crucial committee chairs for special scrutiny and pressure. Their success over men like Rankin is an unsung moment in the history of American grassroots activism.

Melded together in Congress–that crucial institutional arbiter of all U.S. policy–an unusual blend of populist conservatism and New Deal liberalism brought about the G.I. Bill. For once, the U.S. federal government was drawn toward investing significantly in young breadwinners and their families. The usual mold of federal social provision was broken, and the result was one of the best-loved and most successful social programs ever sponsored by the U.S. federal government.

Transformative as it was for a time, the G.I. Bill eventually lost its power. The “bucks quite literally stopped with the Greatest Generation,” as Humes colorfully puts it. The proportion of Americans who served in the military has dwindled to about 1 percent today. And American wars also have become less popular and more contentious, as seen with the reaction to those in Vietnam and Iraq. It should not come as a surprise, then, that as the military lost its place at the center of American society, so too did veterans’ benefits lose traction in Congress, decreasing with each new conflict.

The dwindling of G.I. Bill-type benefits, in turn, left a gaping hole in American social policy after the 1970s, just as inequalities and insecurities grew for young middle-class families. By the 1980s, American social policy had become, once again, mainly about delivering generous supports to the retired elderly and meager hand-outs to few of the very poor. And this has happened just as America’s young adults increasingly need the sort of help that the G.I. Bill once offered. Education has become more important for getting ahead, families are facing new stresses as wages stagnate and women enter the labor force, and income inequalities are growing. But because veterans are now a tiny fraction of the population and because military ventures are no longer self-evidently good, we cannot just repeat the G.I. Bill approach to expanding opportunity for veterans as a way of fostering widespread social progress and economic growth.

Is there another way to harness government to expand opportunity and make growth more inclusive? At the start of his presidency, Clinton established AmeriCorps, a program in which students who performed community service would receive post-secondary educational aid. Since then, progressive politicians and pundits have proposed taking a further step and reinventing the G.I. Bill as a national service program for contemporary youth, a proposal that Humes and Mettler both endorse. In such a plan, ideally, all American young people would be required to serve the nation for a year or two after high school; some would serve in the military, but most would do civilian service of one kind or another. In return, they would earn grants to finance further education and perhaps access to family benefits and loans to buy homes or build businesses.

The trick in achieving more than a token version of national service will be to sell it politically to the upper-middle classes, who will no doubt resist sending their offspring into a required program. But if service were not mandatory for all, it would fail to express and reinforce a shared national identity. In an era of rising income inequalities and growing ethnic diversity, America needs that more than ever. Writing such a program into law would not be easy, either: Where would we find the equivalent of the populist vision and mobilization provided by the American Legion of the 1940s when, today, our political and civic landscape is shaped by narrow, professionally managed advocacy groups pushing narrow causes? Where will we find the broadly shared sense of national purpose and the capacity for broad, bipartisan mobilization that we need to forge a new social compact through government service in return for generous and inclusive social benefits? These are the dilemmas we face.

Anyone who studies the history of the G.I. Bill can easily reach a pessimistic conclusion about the possibilities for recapitulating its best features. In some ways, this remarkable bill was a departure from usual patterns in U.S. social policy, because it enabled the federal government to make massive tax-financed investments in young adults and families. We might conclude that only a global war made this possible, yet we must fervently hope that such an event will never happen again. But such a reading would be overly pessimistic. The G.I. Bill does fit the mold of many successful American social policies: It encompassed both more and less privileged citizens, and it joined benefits with service, citizenship rewards with citizenship responsibilities.

Americans who believe that the federal government can be “an agent of democratic destiny” must articulate a clear vision about the challenges the country needs to address today, from global warming to homeland security and rising economic inequality–and how they are shared by us all. Only then will it be possible to capture the spirit of the G.I. Bill, devise bold new ways to marry benefits and service, entitlements and responsibilities, as well as create opportunity and strong citizenship.

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Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and Director of the Scholars Strategy Network. Her current research focuses on reorganizations on the right and left in U.S. national and cross-state politics.

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