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The G.I. Bill: A New Deal for Veterans

Author(s):Altschuler, Glenn C.
Blumin, Stuart M.
Reviewer(s):Olson, Keith W.

Published by EH.NET (October 2009)

Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, The G.I. Bill: A New Deal for Veterans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xi + 246 pp. $25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-518228-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Keith W. Olson, Department of History, University of Maryland.

The G. I. Bill has a marvelous image, including favorable, widespread recognition and rich antidotes. Scholars have found the G. I. Bill an attractive subject. This book is the third published during the past five years.

The authors, Glen C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, are professors of American Studies at Cornell University, Blumin now emeritus. They have written a straight-forward narrative with major strengths of clear prose, thorough research, and solid analysis. For understanding the G.I. Bill this is the place to start.

Following an introduction, the book consists of seven chapters. A brief ?Epilogue? describes the Korean (1952), Vietnam (1966), Montgomery (1985), and Iraq (2008) G.I. Bills. The model for all was the G.I. Bill Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law June 22, 1944. When George W. Bush signed the new legislation on June 30, 2008, he paid tribute to the original G.I. Bill and the ?historic legacy of ensuring bright futures for service members and families? (quoted on p. 212). Benefits to veterans had come full circle. During the Revolutionary War land grants and cash served as recruitment measures. An important purpose of the 2008 Act, in addition to reward, was inducement to enlist in the all-volunteer military.

In the first chapter Altschuler and Blumin survey veteran benefits from the American Revolution through World War I. Chapter two and most of chapter three discuss the origins and the shaping of what became ?The Servicemen?s Readjustment Act of 1944,? a title the American Legion quickly changed to G.I. Bill. The discussion involves FDR, officers and staff of the American Legion, Congressmen, and Senators. In this instance the clich? proved true that success has many fathers. The last ten pages of chapter three recount the first eighteen months of the G.I. Bill in operation. Modest initial response characterized this period and led to amendments late in 1945 that increased benefits and scaled back some requirements. The surrender of Japan in August, 1945 resulted in massive demobilization. By New Year?s Day more than five million sailors, marines, and soldiers had returned to civilian life.

The next four years were the high tide of the G.I. Bill. Of the 15.7 million veterans, 12.4 million, or 78%, used one or more of the benefits. The response markedly exceeded expectations. Titles I and VI of the G.I. Bill covered procedure and administration. Title II covered education and training. Title IV dealt with employment and Title V with unemployment.

Chapters four and five of Altschuler and Blumin?s book detail the 2.2 million veterans who enrolled or re-enrolled in colleges and universities across the country. The impact on campuses and the performance of veterans is the best-known aspect of the G.I. Bill. At times, however, the discussion seems slightly contradictory. On page 96 the authors state that ?the G.I. Bill was, at best, a mixed blessing for women and African Americans.? On page 113 they write that the G.I. Bill had not ?explicitly outlawed discrimination in higher education based on gender, race, and ethnicity.? Later Altschuler and Blumin note that ?only a tiny number of women veterans would be ?entitled? to education and training subsidized by Uncle Sam? (p. 125). Only 2 percent of veterans were women and they enjoyed the same entitlement as male veterans. Discrimination toward blacks continued but the authors also point out that ?the G.I. Bill was the most egalitarian and generous initiative blacks had ever experienced? (p. 129). Before World War II black college enrollment stood at 1.0 percent; in 1950 it registered 3.6 percent. Polls early in 1950 revealed ?a marked decline in anti-Semitism and somewhat more favorable attitudes toward African Americans? (p. 47). Thanks to the veterans ?there would be no turning back of the democratization of higher education in the United States? (p. 147).

Chapter six, perhaps the book?s most important, discusses the 7.8 million who used education and training below the college level. More than a million made use of the unemployment provision while they waited for training or education to start, while they searched for a job, or while they tried to decide what to do next. The provision paid $20 weekly for up to a year. Compared to the 2.2 million who went to college, 3.5 million enrolled in for-profit and public schools. The on-the-job-training provisions drew 1.4 million in nonagricultural pursuits and 700,000 in on-the-farm training. When the Veterans Administration (VA) assessed the operation of the G.I. Bill, the 5,000 for-profit schools established since the enactment of the G. I. Bill accounted for the most abuses. Another component under Title II was the G.I. Bill loan program. During the first postwar decade almost 3,000,000 veterans obtained guaranteed loans for businesses and farms.

Chapter seven, ?Finding a Home,? describes the G.I. Bill?s second most popular program, home mortgages. Government-guaranteed loans date back to the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. In fact, the VA mortgage used the FHA as a model. Almost 4 million VA mortgages combined with the FHA and wartime savings, to increase owner-occupied dwellings to 60 percent of the population. The authors explain convincingly that the VA mortgages contributed to, but did not launch, the suburbanization that spread across post-war America.

In their introduction, Altschuler and Blumin state that their ?focus is on the larger story of the G.I. Bill and its role in the shaping of postwar America? (p. 7). To identify the forces that shaped postwar America is, at best, a difficult task. Their thoughtful book misses an important dimension when they omit any discussion of the role G.I. Bill veterans played in politics, especially Congress.

One area they could have examined, but did not, is the large tuition increases at private and public colleges and universities that became widespread from the early 1970s onward. Ironically a large percentage of the faculty and administrators responsible probably had enjoyed G.I. Bill education benefits. Higher tuition, of course, is a brake on opportunity to attend college.

Those who wrote The Servicemen?s Readjustment Act of 1944 did so to help ease veterans back into society, as the title of the Act makes obvious. Anxiety over unemployed, disgruntled veterans preceded altruism toward veterans. The American Legion and the veterans themselves transformed the Act into benefits from a grateful public. The magnitude of the G.I. Bill?s success proved monumental and somewhat of a surprise.

To have expected the G.I. Bill to outlaw ?discrimination in higher education based or gender, race, and ethnicity? (p. 125) is present-mindedness. William Levitt, the builder of Levittown, Long Island, was aware of discrimination and explained: ?we can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two? (quoted on 202). Adlai E. Stevenson II, the liberal Democrat who ran for president in 1952 and 1956, provided another example. In 1955 he presented the commencement address at the all-women?s Smith College. In his address he reminded the graduates that their life?s role was in the home as wife and mother.

Altschuler and Blumin integrated well primary sources and secondary accounts as well as two dissertations and an excellent master?s thesis. This broad research base made possible a satisfying book. To repeat, their book is the starting point to understand the G.I. Bill and its origins, operations, and impact.

Keith Olson is the author of The G.I. Bill, the Veterans, and the Colleges (1974).

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII