LIKE so many other pieces of New Deal legislation, the GI Bill is often taken for granted today. People forget that college education and home ownership were once perquisites of the wealthy, just as they forget that there was a time when someone who lost a job was quite literally in danger of starving and the elderly were consistently among the poorest members of society. But while Social Security and unemployment insurance still provide benefits to millions of Americans, the GI Bill of Rights made its greatest impact on a single generation, that which served in the military during World War II. It's one of those ironies of history that the New Deal legislation with the narrowest scope may well have had the broadest impact.
Ironies abound in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes' vivid account of the GI Bill's largely unintended results. The American Legion lobbyists who crafted it in 1944, Humes notes, hoped "to put things back to where they were before the war." Their plan for a modest package of government-subsidized loans, tuition assistance and unemployment benefits stood in stark contrast to President Roosevelt's expansive vision of aid to veterans as "part of a larger strategy to lift up all Americans" with comprehensive social programs paid for by taxing the "unreasonable" profits of corporations and individuals. Although FDR's "Second Bill of Rights" died with him, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (as it was officially known) that he did sign came very close to fulfilling his dream of cradle-to-grave security -- only not for everyone.
Veterans alone got a hand up from the government, mostly because Congress expected another depression like the one that followed World War I and wanted to avoid the grim social and political consequences of dumping millions of returning soldiers into a contracting economy. But the post-World War II economy didn't contract; it expanded, stoked by the fear of communism that kept the military budget growing long after hostilities in Europe and Asia had ended. Humes profiles Bob Booth, who helped develop the B-52 bomber and the Polaris submarine-launched missile, one of countless veterans who got high-paying jobs at companies such as Boeing and Lockheed thanks to their government-financed engineering degrees. Getting those degrees kept them from flooding the labor market during the transitional years of the late 1940s.
Employing the same lively narrative techniques that made such books as "School of Dreams" so readable, Humes illuminates various aspects of the GI Bill through individual veterans' experiences. Booth's story enables the author to highlight the Cold War's decisive role in the postwar economic boom and to wonder wistfully what might have happened if the talent funneled via the GI Bill into the defense industry "had been channeled instead into inventing new sources of energy, new medical treatments, new educational reforms." Actually, the chapter focused on Richard Koch, a bombardier who went on to medical school and pioneered new treatments for developmentally disabled children, demonstrates that the more than 60,000 GI Bill-educated doctors had a huge impact on postwar medicine. Though well-argued and intelligent, "Over Here" isn't always faultlessly consistent; instead, Humes' rich tapestry captures the complexity and contradictions of American society in the midst of dramatic change.
This is particularly evident in his assessment of the GI Bill's two most important benefits: tuition assistance and guaranteed mortgages. The vast expansion of home ownership in the United States was "launched, underwritten, and paid for by the G.I. Bill," Humes reminds us, and he brings that to life in the words of vet Bill Thomas, who in 1950, at age 26, phoned his bride-to-be to proudly tell her he'd bought a house under construction in the brand-new Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood: "no down payment, just 4 percent interest, only sixty-four dollars a month." Before the GI Bill, a typical mortgage required a 50% down payment and repayment in full within a fairly short period. Now, developers could make huge profits risk-free by selling new homes to veterans with access to federally guaranteed mortgages. The economy of scale created by 5 million veterans buying houses in the decade after the war encouraged more favorable mortgage terms for nonveterans as well; America became a nation where most homes are occupied by owners, not renters.