GI Bill a force for change, a model for Clinton

June 22, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

The GI Bill, one of the century's most powerful legislative forces of social change, turns 50 today, still on the books and altering American lives even as a new generation of political leaders tries to capitalize on its success.

Signed into law June 22, 1944, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the GI Bill transformed the United States during the tenuous post-World War II era, paying for the education of 7.8 million soldiers returning to civilian life. It opened up opportunities, providing professional careers to a generation born to working parents. And it reshaped American life, swelling the ranks of the middle class, expanding university campuses and making college education a goal for the masses as well as the elite.

The nation invested $7 billion in the GI Bill's educational programs from 1945 until 1952, but the return in productivity among those who used the bill's educational benefits pumped at least $35 billion -- and perhaps as much as $84 billion -- into the economy, according to an analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

"It was one of the great transforming events of the last 50 years," said Columbia University social historian Kenneth T. Jackson. "It opened up the doors of opportunity for an entire generation."

President Clinton has described the GI Bill as his favorite government program, the defining example of the mode of broad-based social initiatives he favors. Mr. Clinton invokes the GI Bill repeatedly as he lobbies for his social agenda and used it as a prototype for his National Service Program, passed last year by Congress.

"The GI Bill's popularity has a lot to do with the gratitude of the American people for the service of the men and women who went to war, and this president has done an enormous amount to put the issue of service back on the front burner," said William Galston, Mr. Clinton's deputy assistant for domestic policy and one of the idea men behind the president's National Service program.

Yet despite the GI Bill's lingering popularity, there is little consensus over whether it can -- or should -- serve as a model for peace time legislation. Historians describe the GI Bill as a creature of its time, succeeding in an era when the nation's middle class and its businesses already were poised for expansion.

GI Bills were passed during the Korean and Vietnam wars, but used by successively smaller waves of students. Former GIs now can receive up to $5,000 a year in tuition -- a far cry from the 1944 bill, which paid all tuition and a $75 monthly stipend at any school in the country.

Through the early 1950s, many of the nation's college campuses swelled with a generation of GI students who took advantage of the bill's benefits. Quonset huts sprouted up around Memphis State University, homes for the families of young GIs. Veterans studied in warehouses at the University of Illinois' temporary pier on Lake Michigan.

"Hundreds of thousands of working-class kids had access to college for the first time," said Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos. "They in turn have passed on those attitudes to their kids."

The bill grew out of a bitter two-decade battle over pensions that veterans of World War I's American Expeditionary Force insisted they were promised by the country's political leaders.

World War I veterans marched on Washington in 1932 seeking their economic due. Dispersed by Army regulars during a bloody clash on the banks of the Potomac, many remained embittered by their treatment. Vowing they would not allow a repeat of those events, veterans groups began lobbying after 1942 for a benefits package for those returning from service in World War II.

At the same time, Roosevelt administration officials began post-war planning, fearing that if the American economy was forced to absorb millions of returning soldiers all at once, the nation would plunge back into a financial Depression -- as almost occurred after World War I.

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