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How the GI Bill Became Law in Spite of Some Veterans’ Groups

World War II brought about a new deal for veterans

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, July/August 2014 | Volume 35, Number 4

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions dropped from the sky along the coast of Normandy. The dangerous night jump behind enemy lines represented the first phase of Operation OVERLORD, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ambitious and risky plan for the Allies to take France back from Nazi Germany. The 15,600 American paratroopers had one assignment: secure the beachhead between Sainte-Mère-Église and Carentan in advance of the 57,400 American troops scheduled to storm France’s beaches in a matter of hours. Once on the ground, the paratroopers used toy “crickets” to signal each other in the darkness and reassemble into units. The Americans weren’t alone. British and Canadian paratroopers were also on hand, preparing the way for 83,000 of their compatriots.

As the paratroopers moved through the night, billy-goating rocky formations and cutting through hedgerows in search of German defensive positions, the initial Allied invasion force made its way across the English Channel. Slicing through choppy waters, the assault convoys approached the fifty-mile stretch of coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre. The five landing spots on the beach had been given fanciful names during the planning process. The Americans were responsible for “Utah” and “Omaha,” the stretch closest to Cherbourg, while Britain tackled “Gold” and “Sword,” and Canada wrestled “Juno.”

Just after 5:30 a.m., the Germans, realizing that something was afoot, started firing their coastal batteries. Fifteen minutes later, as scheduled, the Allied fleet unleashed a wall of fire, bombarding German positions. As shells flew overhead, generating a deafening cloud of sound, American troops emerged from their transport carriers, forcing stiff legs down the ramps, into the water, and right into the Wehrmacht’s line of fire. The lucky ones found shelter under cliffs or behind the seawalls. The not-so-lucky ones bled into the sand and sea.

As OVERLORD—or D-Day as it is more commonly known—got underway on that overcast Tuesday morning, another offensive was drawing to a close in Washington, D.C. For the previous six months, a battle had been waged in Congress and in the press over what kind of compensation the men and women who served in World War II should receive. At issue was the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights.

By the time of the D-Day invasion, more than 11.6 million men and women were in uniform. They had put their lives, jobs, and families on hold to serve their country at home and in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Some would not return, but the majority would survive their service and look to reclaim their lives as civilians. What did the nation owe its veterans?

Not Another Bonus Army

President Franklin D. Roosevelt broached the subject of how veterans would be compensated during one of his fireside chats on July 28, 1943. After Roosevelt spoke to the American people about the progress being made in Europe—where “the criminal, corrupt Fascist regime in Italy is going to pieces”—he told listeners that he and his advisers had been “laying plans for the return to civilian life of our gallant men and women in the armed services.” He made a distinction between the sacrifices made by those on the home front and those in uniform, arguing that veterans would be “entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.”

“They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line, or on a corner selling apples,” said the president. “We must, this time, have plans ready—instead of waiting to do a hasty, inefficient, and ill-considered job at the last moment.” By invoking the image of the breadline or selling apples on a corner to escape the shame of panhandling, Roosevelt reminded listeners of two unflattering images of World War I veterans. It was also a sly reference to the debacle known as the “Bonus Army.”

When World War I broke out, politicians scaled back veterans’ benefits to avoid massive obligations like those imposed by Civil War pensions. Under the War Risk Insurance Act of 1917, veterans with disabilities and dependents of the dead would be provided with “compensation.” Unlike the Civil War pensions, veterans would not receive assistance to cope with the infirmities of old age or injuries sustained off the battlefield. The word “pension” was nowhere to be found, and no provisions were made for men who served and returned unscathed. In the years following the war, a groundswell developed calling for World War I veterans to receive “universal adjusted service compensation.” Veterans argued that they had lost income—both from giving up jobs and from the low wages paid soldiers—while serving their country and should be compensated. Critics of the plan called it a “bonus,” a name that stuck.

In 1924, Congress, drunk on the era of prosperity and budget surpluses, authorized the bonuses. A veteran who served more than sixty days could receive $1 for each day on duty stateside and $1.25 for each day on duty overseas. The maximum amount was capped at $500 for those who served stateside and $625 for those who served overseas. But there was a catch: The bonus came in the form a certificate payable in 1945 or upon the recipient’s death. The program was estimated to cost the government approximately $4 billion, but the payments would be deferred.

When the Great Depression hit, many veterans found themselves without jobs and standing on breadlines. Why couldn’t the government pay their bonus now when these veterans needed it? The American Legion, an organization formed by World War I veterans, pleaded their case in the halls of Congress and in the press. In 1931, Congress passed a bill, against President Herbert Hoover’s objections, allowing veterans to take out loans against their bonuses. For many, this wasn’t enough and the drumbeat for the bonuses to be paid in cash continued. In the spring and early summer of 1932, twenty thousand veterans from across the country converged on Washington, demanding their bonuses then, not later. Calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” or “Bonus Army,” they set up camp on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and built temporary shacks along the Anacostia River.

When another bill authorizing immediate payment of bonuses failed to pass Congress in July, many veterans decided to return home. Several thousand, however, vowed to remain in Washington until they received their bonuses. After weeks of protests and simmering violence, the Metropolitan Police attempted to oust the veterans from the National Mall, sparking a riot that left two dead. When city officials appealed to the White House for help, Hoover authorized the U.S. Army to step in.

Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, decked out in his full-dress uniform, personally commanded a force of sabre-wielding cavalrymen and bayonet-bearing infantrymen against the veterans. Six midget tanks were also deployed. Instead of herding the marchers back into their campsite along the Anacostia River, as instructed, MacArthur exceeded his orders. He authorized the use of tear gas against the veterans and burned their shacks to the ground. Eisenhower, who was then serving as one of MacArthur’s aides, was enraged at his superior’s actions. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there,” he would later claim.

Already perceived as heartless toward the suffering of the Great Depression, the “Battle of Anacostia Flats” helped seal Hoover’s fate in the 1932 election. Much to their dismay, veterans quickly learned that the White House’s new occupant, Roosevelt, didn’t favor awarding bonuses either. When they staged a second demonstration in May 1933, the president responded not with force, but with his wife, sending First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to meet with the marchers. The veterans were also offered lodging at a campsite in Virginia and three meals a day. When the New Deal created the Civilian Conservation Corps, 25,000 spots were allocated for unemployed veterans, with the marchers in Washington receiving priority. In 1936, World War I veterans finally received their bonuses—even though Roosevelt vetoed the bill.

Cognizant of the messy legacy of previous benefit programs, Roosevelt decided to try a new approach. In a fireside chat, he proposed that service members be given mustering-out pay, unemployment insurance, education assistance, and expanded access to hospital care. Disabled veterans would receive pensions as before. “[T]he members of the armed forces have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and they are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems,” said the president.

Roosevelt’s proposal offered a radical new way to think about veterans’ benefits. While wanting to acknowledge veterans’ service, the president also sought to reintegrate millions of troops into the economy. Mustering-out pay and unemployment insurance would sustain veterans as they looked for work, while education and training offered the means to a better life. Anyone who served honorably would receive assistance, not just the disabled or families of the deceased. To Roosevelt’s mind, veterans would succeed when they were part of the larger whole—the economy and the nation—and not treated as an isolated group. It was the same kind of thinking that had shaped the New Deal.

Three months later, on October 27, 1943, Roosevelt turned his idea into a concrete proposal, formally asking Congress to enact legislation that would finance one year of educational or vocational training for all who served in World War II. Those deemed to have academic potential would be eligible for support for four years. “For many, what they desire most in the way of employment will require special training and further education,” wrote Roosevelt. “As a part of a general program for the benefit of the members of our armed services, I believe that the Nation is morally obligated to provide this training and education and the necessary financial assistance by which they can be secured.”

Roosevelt envisioned long-term benefits for the country. “The money invested in this training and schooling program will reap rich dividends in higher productivity, more intelligent leadership, and greater human happiness. We must replenish our supply of persons qualified to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the postwar world. We have taught our youth how to wage war; we must also teach them how to live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice, and decency.”

The American Legion Goes to War

On December 15, 1943, Harry Colmery sat down at the desk in his Mayflower Hotel suite, flipped some “Alfred Landon for President” stationery over to the blank side, and began writing the outline of a bill to provide assistance to veterans. The stationery was a memento from the 1936 Republican Convention, where Colmery served as a delegate. Four years later, he was the national chairman of the Willkie War Veterans National Committee. Aside from party politics, Colmery’s great love was the American Legion. A flight instructor and pursuit pilot during World War I, Colmery helped organize one of the first Legion chapters in Utah, before serving as the Legion’s national commander.

Colmery had been recruited by the Legion to serve on a special committee fighting for veterans’ benefits. The committee was chaired by John Stelle, the former governor of Illinois and a Roosevelt supporter, making it a bipartisan affair. Over the next three weeks, Colmery, Stelle, and other committee members met with experts, organizations, and lobbyists specializing in education, banking, and employment. They used these conversations to craft a bill that included everything on Roosevelt’s list—and more. They also wanted loans for homes, farms, and small businesses, an employment service for veterans, prompt settlement of disability claims, and the concentration of all veterans’ affairs into a properly staffed Veterans Administration. Mustering-out pay was dropped after Congress passed it in a separate bill.

The bill was officially titled the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act,” but Jack Cejnar, the Legion’s acting director of public relations knew they needed a snappier name to sell it and came up with the Bill of Rights concept. On January 8, 1944, the American Legion unveiled its proposal for a “Bill of Rights for G.I. Joe and Jane”—which was quickly shortened to the G.I. Bill of Rights. “The name was something close to genius. It was short, punchy, easily grasped. It told the whole story—and it became a fighting slogan from coast to coast,” writes R. B. Pitkin in American Legion Magazine. The name put senators and representatives in the position of having to vote for America’s brave G.I.s or against them.

By writing the G.I. Bill as an omnibus, the Legion prevented its components from being parceled out to different committees for consideration. A little backroom maneuvering by the Legion’s congressional allies led to it being assigned to veteran-friendly committees in both the House and Senate. In the House, the bill was cosponsored by John Rankin, a World War I veteran and Democrat from Mississippi, and Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts who had helped charter the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. Rogers would later be known as the “Angel of Walter Reed” for her work on behalf of disabled veterans. In the Senate, Bennett “Champ” Clark, a Democrat from Missouri who had been one of the founders of the Legion, championed the bill. Michigan’s Arthur Vandenberg, Arkansas’s Hattie Caraway, and Texas’s Tom Connally also signed on as sponsors. Although he had proposed many of the ideas in the G.I. Bill, Roosevelt opted to remain on the sidelines while Congress did its work.

The Legion poured its extensive resources into lobbying for the bill. “We didn’t organize the American Legion to be a savings bank to finance a last man’s club. The best way to use every dime in our treasury is in assistance to the veterans coming out of this war,” said Warren Atherton, the Legion’s national commander.

To gain public support, the Legion conducted a national publicity campaign. Two-minute movies, which featured battle scenes and an appeal for support, were shown in movie theaters. Four hundred radio spots, some of which featured disabled veterans, explained the program. Hearst newspapers touted the bill in articles and editorials. Other newspapers ran the Legion’s editorials in full, even providing readers with coupons they could cut out and send to their congressmen to show support. In Washington, the Legion assembled a war room, with a chart listing where each member stood on the bill. Its team walked the halls of Congress, talking up senators, representatives, and their staffs. If a member needed persuading, Legion chapters located in the member’s district inundated them with telegrams and letters.

The Legion expected resistance from some quarters. It did not expect its brother organizations—Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Disabled American Veterans, and the Regular Veterans Association—to oppose its approach. The group of four believed that veterans who suffered physical and psychological wounds because of their service should be the nation’s first responsibility. They worried that a massive expansion of benefits would make it harder for disabled veterans to obtain assistance. “Our opposition to this bill is based on our judgment that in the long run it would hurt the veterans’ cause. We regard it as a bad bill, a dangerous bill, and a politically inspired bill that we will fight as hard as we can,” said Millard Rice of Disabled American Veterans.

The group of four drafted their own bill, which called for a one-time “bonus” payment of up to $5,000 per soldier at an estimated cost of $25 to $30 billion. The staggering price tag ensured it would never be seriously considered and cleared the way for only one approach—the G.I. Bill of Rights—to be considered. Rice would continue to lambast the bill throughout the spring, warning that the Veterans Administration was in danger of becoming “a badly overloaded ‘administrative monstrosity.’”

As the G.I. Bill made its way through the House and Senate committees, the unemployment assistance, education, and training provisions came under fire. Republicans worried the bill would lead to further expansion of the federal government. Much of the rhetoric echoed the debates over how to respond to the Great Depression, as members questioned whether these programs would encourage or discourage veterans from finding jobs. Colmery, who was no fan of the New Deal, bristled at the suggestion that veterans would turn into shiftless workers upon their return. The bill placed time limits on the benefits to prevent it from becoming an open-ended program like Social Security, the cornerstone of the New Deal.

On March 24, the Senate passed the G.I. Bill unanimously, but the House continued to debate the unemployment and education provisions for another two months. Rankin, chair of the House veterans committee, had evolved into one of its sharpest critics. An unrepentant segregationist, he worried that African-American veterans would use the benefits to avoid work and live off the government. Rankin also didn’t see the need to give African Americans the same benefits as whites.

By late April, Atherton publicly called out Rankin for delaying the bill. “If Mr. Rankin means that he wants to deny unemployment insurance to the men now carrying a bayonet for Uncle Sam, the veterans of the American Legion intend to fight him right down the line and to take the issue to every voter in the country.” When Rankin continued with his antics, the other members of the committee banded together to defy their chairman and move the bill forward. After a stormy debate, the House passed its version of the G.I. Bill on May 18. Unemployment insurance had survived, but veterans would only be eligible for twenty-six weeks, as opposed to fifty-two weeks under the Senate version.

A Wild Ride to the Finish

On June 7, one day after American troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, seven representatives and seven senators began the process of reconciling the bills passed by their respective chambers. They quickly agreed on loans for homes, farms, and businesses. Loans of up to $2,000 would be fixed at 4 percent interest to discourage loan sharks from profiting off veterans. Educational benefits had to be started within two years of being discharged from the service with a limit of four years of schooling or training. Veterans could receive up to $500 a year in tuition assistance, plus a stipend of $50 a month for single men and $75 a month for married men. It took another two days to reach a compromise on unemployment benefits. Jobless vets would receive $20 a week for up to fifty-two weeks after discharge.

One item remained: job placement. The Senate version specified that the U.S. Employment Service would help veterans find jobs. The House version called for the Veterans Administration to create a new employment service. The issue boiled down to whether to use an existing agency or to create a new one.

Here’s where it got tricky: If a majority of members from both chambers did not agree on a compromise, the bill would die. All of the senators were in favor of the Senate plan. Three representatives also favored the Senate plan. Rankin, Rogers, and Paul Cunningham of Iowa wanted the House plan. That left one vote in play, and it belonged to Representative John Gibson, a Democrat from Georgia. Suffering from a severe illness, Gibson had returned to his home in Douglas, Georgia, leaving his proxy vote with Rankin. Gibson was for the Senate plan. Rankin, however, refused to credit Gibson’s vote, declaring that all votes had to be cast in person.

When the conference committee adjourned on Friday night at around six o’clock, it was with the understanding that the final vote would be taken the next day at ten o’clock on Saturday morning.

The Legion had fourteen hours to track Gibson down and get him to Washington.

They attempted to call Gibson’s home, only to be told there was a five- to six-hour delay in placing a long distance call. Claiming it was an emergency, Stelle sweet-talked the operator into putting him through to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had endorsed the G.I. Bill. The night editor agreed to call Gibson’s home in Douglas, but he didn’t get an answer. When the Douglas telephone operator learned why they needed to contact Gibson, she vowed to find him “some way or another!” and started calling his friends. Another telephone operator whose husband had just landed at Normandy aided them as well. The Legion also had local radio stations announce that they were looking for Gibson, instructing listeners to call “operator 2” in Washington if they found him.

Shortly after eleven o’clock, the telephone operator in Douglas reported that she had Gibson on the line. He’d just returned home from a doctor’s appointment.

Now they had to get him to Washington.

They first tried to fly him out of Waycross Army Air Force Base, a short drive from Gibson’s home, but no planes were available. The next best option was an Eastern Airlines flight out of Jacksonville, Florida, that left at 2:20 a.m. Gibson was bundled into an Army car and driven the one hundred fifty miles south, with the Georgia and Florida state police clearing the way. Meanwhile, the Legion used its connections to roust the Eastern Airlines traffic manager from bed. He immediately agreed to have the flight held until Gibson arrived. His boss was none other than Eddie Rickenbacker, the top American flying ace from World War I and a Legion member.

Gibson arrived in Washington at 6:37 a.m. Shortly after ten, he broke the deadlock.

On June 12, the Senate passed the compromise bill unanimously, sending it to the House. The next day, the House passed the bill 379–0 on a roll call vote.

When Harry Colmery picked up his mail from the front desk of the Mayflower Hotel on June 15, he found a Western Union telegram from Edwin Watson, Roosevelt’s secretary. “THE PESIDENT HOPES YOU CAN BE PRESENT IN HIS OFFICE WHEN HE SIGNS THE G I BILL 1130 AM THURSDAY JUNE TWENTY SECOND.” (The telegram operator had misspelled “president”.)

On the day of the signing, Colmery, Clark, Rankin, Rogers, other members of Congress, and the Legion’s leadership gathered around Roosevelt’s memento-strewn desk. Despite the sharp words and intrigue of the previous six months, they were all smiles as they watched Roosevelt use ten pens to sign the G.I. Bill into law. After making a stroke or two, the president shook the ink from the pen and handed it over his left shoulder as a keepsake. “With the signing of this bill a well-rounded program of special veterans’ benefits is nearly completed,” said Roosevelt. “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

An Educational Legacy

The war in Europe would last for another 11 months. The assault on Normandy provided the Allies with the foothold needed to challenge and defeat Nazi Germany in Western Europe. With the Soviets closing in from the east, and the Americans and British closing in from the west, Germany surrendered in early May 1945. With the fighting over in Europe, hundreds of thousands of G.I.s began streaming back to the United States, sailing from Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Portsmouth, and flying home out of Casablanca. More would follow Japan’s surrender in September, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By late 1945, more than five million men and women had been demobilized.

As they received their discharge papers and hung up their uniforms, veterans began claiming the benefits under the G.I. Bill. Rankin’s fear that G.I.s would become layabouts proved groundless, as the majority collected unemployment benefits for less than twenty weeks. The loan program for businesses faltered because of the strict criteria used to assess credit worthiness. By March 1946, fewer than three thousand loans had been approved. “Despite the good intentions of the GI Bill, character, educational background, ambition, and war record counted little or not at all. Those GIs who were without a credit history did not have much of a chance,” write Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin in The GI Bill: The New Deal for Veterans. Red tape also kept large numbers of veterans from using the G.I. Bill to buy houses. Once modified, however, the home loan provision enabled 2.4 million veterans to buy homes between 1944 and 1952.

As colleges and universities watched anxiously to see how G.I.s would fit in with their fellow students, critics continued to rail against the bill’s education provisions. “We may find the least capable among the war generation, instead of the most capable, flooding the facilities for advanced education in the United States,” warned James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard. Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, was even more blunt: “Colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles. And veterans . . . will find themselves educational hobos.”

The ensuing years, as David Kennedy notes in Freedom from Fear, would prove Conant and Hutchins wrong. “More than a million eager veterans attended the nation’s universities at Uncle Sam’s expense in the immediate postwar years. Within a decade some eight million had taken advantage of the bill’s educational programs. They were hardly hobos. On the contrary, they were highly motivated students who helped to transform American universities from sleepy citadels of privilege into vibrant educational centers.” The G.I. Bill, says Kennedy, “roared on after 1945 as a kind of afterburner to the engines of social change and upward mobility that the war had ignited, propelling an entire generation along an ascending curve of achievement and affluence that their parents could not have dreamed.”

In the seventy years since its passage, the G.I. Bill has been updated and altered to respond to changing conditions. In 1984, the law was redrafted to encompass only educational benefits and given a new name “Montgomery G.I. Bill” in honor of Mississippi Congressman Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery who helped orchestrate the changes. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which went into effect in 2009, applies to veterans who have served on or since September 11, 2001, and continues the tradition of providing assistance with tuition, fees, and living expenses for education and training.

About the Author

Meredith Hindley is senior writer for Humanities.

Funding Information

NEH has launched Standing Together, an initiative to promote understanding of the military experience and to support returning veterans. David M. Kennedy used two NEH-supported fellowships to write Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999). WETA used $750,000 to produce a documentary by Ken Burns about The Roosevelts, which airs this fall on PBS. It also received a $1,124,214 grant for The War, a documentary by Burns and Lynn Novick about World War II. Johns Hopkins University received $2.4 million in NEH support to edit and prepare twenty-one volumes of Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower.