In the early 1940s, America’s young had gone off to war - many from farms and ranches and from small towns
the names of which few of their fellow inductees had heard. Some went directly from high school; most lucky enough to be employed had humble jobs -- gas station attendants, store clerks, farmers, miners, laborers, soda jerks. Most surely held little expectation of moving beyond the status of their parents, especially since war had struck an America still mired in a grinding ordeal of economic depression marked by an unemployment rate that once soared to 25%.
That age group has become known, in recent years, as “The Greatest Generation.” Yet they didn’t earn that designation strictly for war-time service: their demographic cohort changed the nation forever by pursuing post-war educations encouraged by a grateful and concerned government. What did the nation gain for the largesse given World War II veterans? The answer is in the statistics: what came to be called the GI Bill of Rights was a launching pad for, according to the author, fourteen Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court Justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants,17,000 journalists, 22,000 dentists, plus a million lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers, pilots and others in a variety of categories.
Within the numbers are, of course, individual ex-GIs and their stories. Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, focuses on about a dozen such, including Allan Howerton, who neatly
encapsulates a core point with an image of battlefield foxholes as, in effect, socio-economic levelers. This may be surprising to those familiar only with recent wars waged by volunteers, not draftees. “The draft,” Howerton says, “brought everybody from the most illiterate to the Ph.D. into the same foxhole for a common shared experience and purpose. Then the G.I. Bill made it possible for the survivors to accomplish good things for themselves, their families, and their country.”
Many Americans first heard about what was to become a complex of veterans’ benefits through a January 1944 speech broadcast to the nation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Plans were to be be drawn, he said, “to end poverty, democratize the economy, and guarantee full employment, housing, health care, education, and retirement income for all.” That was to include “a specific benefits package for veterans.” It was to be an effort, it seemed, both humane and deadly practical, for, he stressed, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
It’s no wonder that he and other national figures paled at a potentially
bleak scenario; as Humes says, “They knew that failure to have jobs and homes and hope awaiting those millions of battle-hardened veterans invited disaster.” It had happened following other wars, beginning with the Revolution. “In 1783, hundreds of impoverished, angry soldiers surrounded and occupied Independence Hall – then the nation’s capital – after promises of long-overdue pay and pensions were broken by the fledgling, cash-strapped government.” It had happened after World War I when “five million veterans . . . came home from the new technological horrors of mustard gas, machine guns, and aerial bombardment to find next to nothing awaiting them” in spite of the war having created an economic boom which greatly rewarded civilian workers.
This time, though, detailed plans were drawn for a deliberate and dramatic re-make of American society. That transformation would become highly visible in the 1950s with a flood-tide of freshly-minted members of a breathtakingly broadened middle class. These veterans and their families spilled into new communities across the land, their homes made affordable by low-cost federal loans for mortgages to be paid, along with other family living expenses, by earnings from middle-class occupations and professions.
With all massive public programs, no matter how well targeted, flaws and injustices are sure to surface, as they did with the establishing of G.I. benefits in a time when American society remained shamefully racist and sexist. Of those in uniform during the war, there were l6 million men and 350,000 women. For the latter, Humes says, “the G. I. Bill proved a much more mixed blessing than for men.” Then he quotes a woman vet, Josette Dermody: “We wanted to fight for our country. But we had to fight the woman haters while we were in. And then when we got home, we had to fight again for what was ours.”
Humes suggests that problems hobbling black veterans in claiming what was due them under the law grew from “the fact that its benefits were dispensed and used inside a society expressly designed to cheat, belittle, and oppress black Americans.” He relates the experience of Monte Posey, who insisted to a skeptical, disapproving Veterans Administration counselor that “I want a college education, not a trade. A four-year college education. With a degree.” The stand-off ended only when the line of vets behind Posey grew so long that the VA man relented and put him, the great-grandson of slaves, on-track to a degree.
In the 1960s, Bob Dylan (born 1941) wowed fans in his concert audiences with “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Yet by that decade, a dramatic and monumentally significant changin’ had been underway in America for years. Over Here is a useful and readable reminder of that.