Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin: 'A New Deal for Veterans'

Roundup: Historians' Take

The original, Post-World War II GI Bill has been both idealized as evidence of America as land of opportunity, and criticized for primarily benefiting white men while perpetuating racial and gender discrimination. So write Glenn C. Altschuler, a professor of American studies and dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University, and Stuart M. Blumin, professor emeritus of American history at Cornell, in their new book, The GI Bill: A New Deal For Veterans (Oxford). Altschuler and Blumin argue, instead, for a need to "gain a more dispassionate understanding of the bill's role in the shaping of postwar America" -- even up to the present day, as then-President Bush cited the legacy of the original GI Bill in the 2008 signing of a new, Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Q. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which goes into effect in August, is often described as being in the spirit of the original, World War II GI Bill. What are the merits of the analogy, and where, if anywhere, does it fall short?

A. The 2008 GI Bill is based on one part of the original bill passed in 1944, and was impelled by the same sense that veterans both needed and deserved a much better deal from the federal government. But the differences outweigh these similarities. The original GI Bill was drafted as a temporary measure to ease the transition to civilian life of millions of World War II veterans, many of whom had been conscripts, and to help the American economy make the transition from total war to peace without slipping back into the depression that preceded the war. The new bill is an ongoing adjustment to the package of benefits made available to much smaller numbers of veterans of our current professional military, and was enacted with little if any reference to the state of the American economy (note that it became law before last fall’s financial meltdown). The details of the two bills are also very different. The 1944 bill was far more comprehensive, providing veterans with programs of support for higher education and sub-college training, a year’s worth of unemployment and self-employment benefits, job counseling and placement, and government guarantees for loans for the purchase of homes, businesses, and farms. The 2008 bill focuses only on higher education, and provides benefits that are far less generous than those in the original bill. It pays college tuitions, but only to the level of the most expensive public university in a veteran’s state. The 1944 GI Bill paid full tuitions at every public and private institution in the land.

Q. You note that the original GI Bill is too readily idealized and argue, instead, “that the GI Bill should not simply ... be admired in splendid isolation from either the circumstances of its passage – the institutions, the ideological and partisan conflicts, the hopes and fears of the late war years – or the critical criteria we normally bring to bear on other events in our nation’s past.” Are there any popular misconceptions or oversimplifications out there you’d like to correct, or better situate in their historical contexts?

A. Yes. In one or two important ways, the effects of the GI Bill have been exaggerated by authors and others who are perhaps too eager to celebrate the bill’s contributions to post-war American life. It has been claimed, for example, that the VA mortgage, created by Title III of the GI Bill, was primarily if not wholly responsible for the vast expansion of suburbs after the war, and for a dramatic shift towards home ownership among American families. In reality, the VA mortgage financed only about one in six housing starts in the decade following the war, and the largest part of the shift toward home ownership occurred during the war, before the GI Bill was passed. The VA mortgage was very significant, but it did not create either the suburbs or a society of home owners. The GI Bill’s boost to college attendance was also quite significant, but the sudden swelling of enrollments owed a good deal to the postponement of college attendance for two, three, or four years by millions of young men and women who first had a war to win. Many of the veteran applicants who showed up after the war -- indeed, probably a majority -- would have attended college even if there had been no GI Bill. And apart from the effects of these important programs, Americans have been a little too quick to celebrate the bipartisan, non-ideological Congressional consensus that produced so wise a measure. The GI Bill was passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House, but this was mainly because conservatives and liberals saw the bill very differently. Conservatives hoped that this temporary measure, confined entirely to veterans, would help foreclose any return to more general New Deal-like domestic programs. Liberals hoped it would be just the opposite, a foot in the door for domestic policy expansion....

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