|REMEMBERING THE GI BILL|
July 4, 2000
The education and housing benefits World War II veterans received from the GI Bill transformed society. After a background report, Jim Lehrer leads a discussion about the bill's legacy with a panel of historians.
JIM LEHRER: Now, some further perspective on the GI Bill from NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson; joining them tonight Historian Stephen Ambrose, who's written extensively on World War II. His last book was Citizen Soldiers: the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany.
|A bill that "made modern America"|
|Steve Ambrose, how important was the GI Bill to this country
right after the war?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Listen, that GI Bill was the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress, and it made modern America. The educational establishment boomed and then boomed and them boomed. The suburbs, starting with Levittown and others, were paid by GIs borrowing on their GI Bill at a very low interest rate. Thousands and thousands of small businesses were started in this country and are still there thanks to the loans from the GI Bill. It transformed our country.
JIM LEHRER: Transformed our country, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, no question. I agree with everything Steve said, including the passion with which he said it. I think few laws have had so much effect on so many people. It meant that blue collar workers, a whole generation of blue collar workers were enabled to go to college, become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and that their children would grow up in a middle class family. It meant, as Stephen said, that people had homes, instead of being renters in the city, so that they could bring up their children in a home that they had owned.
I mean, think about it. In 1940, the average GI was 26 years old and had an average of one year of high school as his only education, and now, suddenly, the college doors were open. I mean, it's so amazing to realize that the university presidents thought it was a terrible idea at first. The president of Harvard said it would create "unqualified people, the most unqualified of this generation" coming into college. The president of the University of Chicago feared we'd be creating educational hobos, but as the piece earlier showed, these were mature, responsible people, the best of their generation in college. It shows what happens when you give people who don't have a chance an extraordinary opportunity.
JIM LEHRER: "Extraordinary." "amazing." Haynes, those words do jump to mind, don't you think?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. And what they said is right; it did transform the country. It made a difference. Steve Ambrose got his graduate degree in Wisconsin. I was on the GI Bill after Korea, and I got a scaled down version, but that's how I got my graduate degree.
JIM LEHRER: I bought my first house on the GI Bill.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. There you are. I mean, the idea of this - it is so incredible to look back on that - the idea that in 1940 - in the class of '40, as Doris would say, five years after the war, World War II, ended, twice as many Americans graduated from college. That's just the college part. I mean, as Steve was saying about the suburbs, there were 13 million homes built in the 50's, 11 million outside of there with GI loans. I mean, it just - it did transform the country.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, was the transformation intentional, or was it an accidental end result of the GI Bill?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, so much of it was accidental, and, you know, we historians, all of us, we love to see a situation where a leader wants something done and then 50 years later it's exactly as he or she wanted, and the amazing thing is that Roosevelt didn't really spend much time on this. He signed this bill two weeks after D-Day. He had spent much less thought on this than he did on most of the New Deal, but if you look at the effect of this, this had much greater impact on bringing Americans into the middle class than everything Roosevelt had tried to do over eight years in the 1930's, and there were all sorts of other unexpected consequences. One was the fact that Americans did move to the suburbs, a good thing in many ways because a lot of people owned houses that they never could have before the war. They used to be renters; they were owners after World War II. But also, houses and then later the interstate highway system caused the cities to decay, so the result of this one bill that didn't even get very much attention - I look back at the newspapers - it really was below the fold on many major newspapers in June of 1944 - had this enormous impact on America, mainly good, but in some ways problematical.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read the record the same way, or that what they were really aiming to do was to reward the veterans, not to change American society, but it just happened?
|From soldiers to dedicated students|
|STEPHEN AMBROSE: Oh, yes, that's absolutely right, and let's
remember, this does go back to the Revolutionary War. Revolutionary War
soldiers got land bonuses after the war was over, and America has always
tried to do something for its veterans after the Civil War. It didn't
do very well after World War I, which is why the Bonus March had to take
place. But the GI Bill was designed to help veterans, not to transform
America. No one had that idea in mind. But I'll tell you. Millions of
GIs who never, never dreamed that they might be able to go to college
suddenly had the opportunity, and these guys went, and they became - there's
a teacher in this country who isn't aware of this - the best students
we've ever had. God, they worked so hard, and they - all of them - came
back to America feeling I just wasted the best years of my life. I know
how to man a machine gun; I know how to fire a mortar; but I can't make
a living out of this.
And now they had college opened up to them, and these guys went on a make of 21 hours a semester, 24 hours a semester, and they worked. They just wanted to get that education. I lived in a small college town in Wisconsin, and the houses all around us were divided up into little rooms where the GIs could stay. We had a basketball court in our backyard, and these guys would come over and we'd play - I was 10 years old - we would play basketball together - shirt and skins - damned near every one of them had a scar. And the only recreation they ever took was we'd do an hour of basketball and then it was right back to the books for them, and they're the students that every teacher in this country would just kill to have.
JIM LEHRER: But, Steve, what drove them to go to school? They didn't think about going to college when they went into the army. What happened in the army that - to cause them to take advantage of the GI Bill when they got out?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: They matured. They came to see the benefits that are available if you go out and get yourself educated and then if you work at it, and they brought to going to college a sense of responsibility and a sense of "I want to get ahead."
One of the things that the army or the navy or the air force or the coast guard or the marines have done for them was - they could see - you do your job, you do it well, you're going to get promoted. And if you do that job well, you're going to get promoted again, and pretty soon you're going to be in officer's candidate school. And then you're going to get a battlefield commission and then you're going to go from lieutenant to captain and captain to major and so on. They saw it with their own eyes. They experienced with their own bodies the joys of moving ahead.
JIM LEHRER: And, Doris, to use the word transforming society, I mean, the legacy of what happened to those World War II vets continues to this day, does it not, in our society?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, without question, it's the generation that really built the whole decades that followed after that. You know, just following on what Steve said, most of the people who went into the GI - into the soldier's war - had not left their counties; they hadn't traveled much in the United States. So suddenly they are in this war; they're all over the world; they see things they have never seen before. So possibilities open to them, and I think that's partly what led to that changing attitude toward their educational possibilities I'm going to take advantage of as well. The other thing that's so interesting to remember is that during this debate it was opened up as a possibility that the war workers at home would be eligible, as well, for the GI Bill of Rights, and think of what that would have meant. Women - 60 percent of the jobs in the shipyards and the airplane factories held by women - instead of those women going home and being thrown out of work and then becoming a generation that really didn't move forward until the next generation, think of the social revolution that might have prevailed.
|A gateway to the middle class|
JIM LEHRER: You know, Haynes, it's staggering to think also what if there had been no GI Bill?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Really, this word "transforming" that he used, Steven used, that's what it did. I mean, the country - we were a class country; we're not supposed to be, this democracy -- equality, "up from the bottom," "make it on your own," "Horatio Alger," all of that -- but this made it possible to go to college, and that wasn't the case of most Americans. They actually had the opportunity. And the irony of this, we're talking about, this was the biggest government grant, in effect, it was the government, federal government. Today people hate the government. This was once there was no debate about it. There's no controversy about it. There's no ideological argument about it.
JIM LEHRER: Why is that, Michael? Why is there no argument? Why does everybody - whether you're from the very far right or the very far left or Republican or Democrat and everything else in-between, everybody loves the GI Bill.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because it succeeded so well - that's the first thing. And the other thing -
JIM LEHRER: Not everybody wanted society transformed, did they?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, absolutely. At the time that the bill was debated in Congress it passed only by a very slim margin, and, in fact, a lot of -- particularly Republicans -- said let's not pass this thing because a big part of the GI Bill was to give returning vets $20 a week for 52 weeks. They felt that would encourage sloth; that people would not try to get jobs. They thought that this would extend the welfare state, rather than do the opposite. But the other thing I think really endures as a part of America's philosophy is this linked the idea of service to education. You serve the country; the government pays you back by allowing you educational opportunities you otherwise wouldn't have had, and that in turn helps to approve this society. That's something that goes al the way back to the time of he Revolution, and I think it's one reason why we think of it so fondly.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And, Steve, do you agree that this country that we live in today was changed by the GI Bill? I mean, there are things -
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Absolutely. Listen, Haynes and I went to the University of Wisconsin, and I was a little bit later than he was because I'm a little bit younger than he was (laughter), but just think what it did in Madison or in Cambridge or in East Lansing or in Berkeley. The American educational establishment of today, which is the envy of the world, was made by the GI Bill and those veterans who came back brought about this enormous expansion and jobs for professors and jobs for technicians and jobs in the laboratories and students going to school learning and then going out into the world and applying what they have learned, the beginning of modern America.
Listen, these GIs -- and that includes the marines and the navy and the air force of course - these GIs made modern America, and they did it because the government had enough sense to say we're going to educate these guys. We're not going to be stingy as we were after Word War II; we're going to give these guys an opportunity, and they could go to Harvard. They could go to Stanford. They could go to the University of Chicago. They could go, as Art Buchwald did, to the Sorbonne in Paris and get 50 bucks a month if they weren't married, 75 if they were. Later on, that figure was moved up, and they could and study and work and improve themselves, and the institutions that served them, that grew out of this - like the state teacher's colleges in Wisconsin -- or like Harvard and all the others in between - they all benefited from it.
|The rise of the suburbs|
|JIM LEHRER: And, Doris, there's also the housing thing.
I mean, it revolutionized the way people live in this country, to this
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, most of those people were living in cities, often on the wrong side of the tracks, and then they got a chance to own their own home. I mean, I can remember every single father on my block love that little tiny patch of grass that they mowed every Saturday because it was their own home for the first time that they had ever experienced that, but I think there's also the deeper promise. All those promises that brought people to our shores from the very beginning, that in this country there was opportunity to extend yourself to the limits of your ability. Education provided that opportunity for millions of people, made the promise of America real from the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave them a little patch of land, now to that home that they could own and the education to allow them to be what they could be. It's a great moment, and I'm so glad we're able to remember it like this.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I hate to be a downer. One thing that it didn't work so well at was helping black Americans. Many black Americans who got GI benefits could not get into some of these towns - Levittown on Long Island was segregated. You couldn't buy a house if you were black. Many colleges -
JIM LEHRER: The federal government - the GI Bill law did not resolve that.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. Would give you the money and would give you the money to go to a school, but oftentimes colleges were segregated too. It took civil rights legislation and the Supreme Court in the 50s and 60s to really make the GI Bill do what it ultimately was able to do.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What would you add to the housing things, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think the nature of the country and the way we live today, the highways, the cars, the suburban element of it is - that's what America is now. We are no longer in the central cities of our country, and the idea - what Michael is talking about, civil rights, that came later. We focused on civil rights and women's rights - tremendous changes there, but this one came first. And then the integration of the armed forces and then the civil rights, and they all kind of together, I think, really made the difference.
JIM LEHRER: Well, it's stunning - and you have all said it - how one piece of legislation could have such an effect and once you start thinking about it, those effects grow and grow and grow. And thank you all four very much.