A special exhibit now at the Museum salutes legislation President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law on June 22, 1944. The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Salute to the GI Bill exhibit includes the bill itself, a pen Roosevelt used to sign it, and the typewritten text of the speech he delivered to mark the law’s creation. Other artifacts, multimedia displays, and text panels explore the bill's creation and lasting impact on American society.
The following essay about the GI Bill by Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, first appeared in V-Mail, the Museum’s quarterly newsletter for Members:
June 1944 was a month of great military advancement for the United States and her Allies in the war: the liberation of Rome, the dramatic Overlord landings in Normandy, the vital offensive on Saipan in the Pacific, and the Soviet launch of the massive Bagration offensive all took place in that month. As the Allies exerted greater pressure against the Axis powers, anticipation grew that the end of the war might be approaching.
However, the date of June 22, 1944, was not only significant for the launch of the massive Soviet attack along the Eastern Front. It was also the date of legislation that would have a far ranging impact on the lives of American servicemembers when they returned home to peace: the GI Bill of Rights.
To the citizen soldiers expending their lives and blood in the midst of the fighting, survival was their primary daily consideration. But top leaders in the American government and military now had to consider what sort of country the citizen soldiers would return to, shape a postwar national program that would give their sacrifices meaning, and make their futures prosperous.
Who was the average citizen soldier? First, he was young, averaging 26 years of age in 1944 and with a long life ahead of him if he survived (sailors and marines tended to be slightly younger). Physically the average GI was five feet eight and weighed 144 pounds, more robust than his Doughboy predecessor but modest in today’s terms. Records for 18 million examinations conducted by the US military showed neuropsychiatric reasons (including homosexuality) disqualified two million men from military service. Four million were rejected for physical or educational problems (ranging for eyesight and dental issues to illiteracy). To meet manpower needs, the military took to providing eyeglasses, dentists, and remedial education to help some qualify for service. If the average citizen soldier possessed knowledge of history, he knew that his average age meant he had been born in the year the Great War ended in 1918. But only 40 percent of white draftees had finished high school; the figure was less than 20 percent for African American draftees.
By the war’s conclusion, nearly 16 million men and a half million women would provide military service for their country. Where would the opportunities to create better lives for themselves come from for these men and women who had seen, experienced, and sacrificed so much during the war years?
Introduced in early 1944 and passed unanimously by Congress, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was signed into law on June 22 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Commonly nicknamed the GI Bill of Rights, it was a scaled back but eminently practical part of the universal vision FDR laid out in his Economic Bill of Rights speech in January 1944.
Part of the motivation behind the legislation was based on fears that the economy could not absorb large numbers of demobilized soldiers at the war’s end, and that something similar to the 1932 Bonus March might again result. Conceived as a means to control the flow of veterans back into the labor market, the GI Bill of Rights offered veterans (no combat experience required) opportunities to acquire university, vocational, and high school educations (and included housing and medical benefits while in school). Low-interest loans to begin businesses were available to those who did not wish to go back to school. There was also an unemployment-insurance program for up to a year.
But in 1944 there were signs that the social changes wrought by the war had created a completely different American environment. The economy soared to unprecedented heights. Harvard economist Alvin Hansen wrote that year in The Nation, “We have suddenly realized this enormous advance in productive capacity. We did not know we had it in 1940.” Passed in an energized economy, the GI Bill of Rights added fuel for a vast increase in human capital and wealth creation by offering returning veterans the financial means to create better postwar lives for themselves and their families. Eight million veterans took advantage of it in the decade after the war’s end, and through greater workforce productivity it lit a tremendous economic expansion that lasted for decades after the war.
But with all that in the future, perhaps the GI Bill’s greatest legacy was the subtle humanistic values it promoted in the moment of June 1944. At a time when men and women risked all to defeat totalitarian futures, the GI Bill of Rights gave individuals the right to determine for themselves the best career paths and life pursuits to achieve their own happiness. For American citizen soldiers, the promise of a better future through freedom could be glimpsed from this national promise that awaited them when they came back home.