On June 22, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill, was signed into law. This landmark bill both played a massive role in improving the lives of the white working class and also strongly reflected the racial bias at the heart of the United States, deepening inequality.
As World War II was coming toward a conclusion, the government had several concerns as to how its end would impact both the economy and the millions of soldiers who had served in the war. There were great fears that the only thing keeping the U.S. from returning to the Great Depression was the continuance of the war. Moreover, the benefits granted to veterans of World War I had proven to be a complete disaster when Herbert Hoover would not sign the Bonus Act to pay them out when the veterans really needed them during the Depression and then Douglas MacArthur burned their camp.
So doing some for veterans had broad-based support. Roosevelt had initially a kind of limited plan that would have applied mostly to the top academic performers, paying up to four years of college for those who scored high on a test and a year of funding for training for poor soldiers. But military supporters wanted something more broad. Warren Atherton, the head of the American Legion and a California Republican insider, and Ernest McFarland, a Democratic senator from Arizona, were behind the bill. McFarland, a close friend of Harry Truman and a future Senate Majority Leader, was a power player and this helped. Neither Atherton nor McFarland were really thinking much about this in terms of broadening the New Deal. Edith Nouse Rogers, a Republican congresswoman from Massachusetts, led the charge in the House. She was no New Dealer either.
But in this age of a growing federal government taking greater control over the economy, the G.I. Bill was a significant advancement in the welfare state. By no means were all veterans of World War II working class people, but the large majority of people who took advantage of the G.I. Bill were working people.
The G.I. Bill did two major things for veterans. It provided funds for education. That part is well known. It did not have to be a four-year college either. Other forms of education, such as industrial training, also were covered. This opened the doors of higher education to a lot of working-class men, and a much smaller number of women. There was also an unemployment benefit included in this of $20 a week for up to 52 weeks, but this was barely touched since the postwar jobs market was so robust. It also provided government-guaranteed mortgages with low-interest, zero-down loans. There were better terms for new construction than the old housing. What this did, along with Federal Housing Administration loans to non-veterans, the Interstate Highway Act, and other federal programs, is to empty whites out of the cities. This was especially of the European immigrants and their children who left the cities in droves for new homes in the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them.
For these workers, many of which were also union members in the factories rebuilding Europe and Japan, along with the U.S., after World War II, the G.I. Bill contributed materially to their relative economic prosperity. Workers began to own their homes. And then they owned second homes, often little hunting cabins on lakes around Detroit or in upstate New York. They used their new economic power to take vacations and buy new cars. Unlike the popular political and media myths, these workers did not become “the middle class.” They were still workers. But they were workers with vastly more spending power than their parents, even if their consumption was really rather tame compared to their children.
For a very long time, the G.I. Bill was held up in almost heroic terms as the kind of program that benefited all Americans and helped bring the nation together. But as is more readily acknowledged now, this myth existed, like so much of American history, by erasing Black people from the story. Of course, all soldiers were supposed to qualify for the G.I. Bill. Like much of New Deal-era legislation, it was a federal program with local administrators. That meant, and really everyone knew this at the time, that Black soldiers would not get the same benefits as whites. In fact, this was intentional. It was insisted upon by the odious Mississippi senator John Rankin, who basically only cared about upholding segregation. He knew that at least in the South, this would prevent any Black advancement. In fact, the unemployment provisions of the bill had to be saved from Rankin by rounding up a recalcitrant congressman and flying him back to Washington, as Rankin had just enough votes to block this because he didn’t want Black veterans to get that $20 a week.
In the South, this often meant overt discrimination, but it was just as impactful in the North. With redlining and then other less official programs after World War II, Black veterans were simply denied access to white neighborhoods and denied access to the home loans to build new housing in inner city neighborhoods. With few integrated colleges, the impoverished HBCUs had to take as many students as they could, but they turned away most, simply unable to accommodate them. The Veterans Administration openly discouraged Black veterans from applying for college, trying to drive them into trade schools. The Black working class did rise in economic power too during the postwar years, but at rates much lower than the white working class. The discrimination inherent within the G.I. Bill was a major reason why. It was the same with the job training programs. For instance, there were electrician training programs in Indianapolis for both white and Black veterans, but they were segregated and there wasn’t actually any equipment for the black programs. When Black veterans got to move into a Chicago public housing development, whites rioted and threw rocks at them. In the end, like the rest of American history, the government discrimination in fact just replicated that in the rest of white society. The problem of racism is white people generally, not just the government and its policies.
Officially, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act expired in 1956, but other similar acts have been passed to continue the program, although often in diminished terms, to the present. However, whereas slightly less than half of World War II veterans used these benefits, nearly three-quarters of Vietnam veterans did.
This is the 359th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.