FDR and the GI Bill

By Paul Sparrow, director FDR Library

On July 28th, 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a Fireside Chat to a nation immersed in the deadliest global war in human history that looked to the future. He was pleased to announce that the Italian dictator Mussolini had been arrested. He started his chat saying

 “Over a year and a half ago I said this to the Congress: “The militarists in Berlin, and Rome and Tokyo started this war, but the massed angered forces of common humanity will finish it. Today that prophecy is in the process of being fulfilled. The massed, angered forces of common humanity are on the march. They are going forward — on the Russian front, in the vast Pacific area, and into Europe — converging upon their ultimate objectives: Berlin and Tokyo.
I think the first crack in the Axis has come. The criminal, corrupt Fascist regime in Italy is going to pieces.”

But what makes this Fireside Chat so important is not the litany of Allied victories that FDR presents in detail. It is FDR’s vision of a post-war world, and the peace and economic opportunities to come. One of his top priorities is ensuring that the American men and women fighting overseas will be given every opportunity to succeed when they return. This is the first time he outlines his plan for what will become known as the GI Bill. He describes his vision this way:

Among many other things we are, today, laying plans for the return to civilian life of our gallant men and women in the armed services. They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line, or on a corner selling apples. We must, this time, have plans ready — instead of waiting to do a hasty, inefficient, and ill-considered job at the last moment.

… The least to which they are entitled, it seems to me, is something like this:
First (1.) Mustering-out pay to every member of the armed forces and merchant marine when he or she is honorably discharged, mustering-out pay large enough in each case to cover a reasonable period of time between his discharge and the finding of a new job.
Secondly (2.) In case no job is found after diligent search, then unemployment insurance if the individual registers with the United States Employment Service.
Third (3.) An opportunity for members of the armed services to get further education or trade training at the cost of the government.
Fourth (4.) Allowance of credit to all members of the armed forces, under unemployment compensation and Federal old-age and survivors’ insurance, for their period of service. For these purposes they ought to (should) be treated as if they had continued their employment in private industry.
Fifth (5.) Improved and liberalized provisions for hospitalization, for rehabilitation, for (and) medical care of disabled members of the armed forces and the merchant marine.
And finally (6.), sufficient pensions for disabled members of the armed forces.

This is a truly remarkable goal that FDR sets out, but it is based on painful lessons learned after World War I when returning soldiers were promised a bonus pension to be available in 1945. But as the depression drove veterans to desperation, they demanded their bonus be paid early. The “Bonus Army” marched on Washington and set up makeshift camps in 1932. President Hoover responded by sending in the troops to burn their tents and drive them out. It was terrible treatment for the hungry men who had risked their lives and served their county faithfully.

FDR did not want to see a repeat of that and so after this Fireside Chat he worked and negotiated with Congress to get the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 passed. There was much debate and controversy over the idea, but three men, Harry W. Colmery, Republican National Committee chairman, the democratic Senator from Arizona Ernest McFarland and the head of the American Legion, a republican from California Warren Atherton, are generally known as the “fathers of the G.I. Bill.”

Often overlooked is the work of Edith Nourse Rogers, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, and without doubt the “mother of the G.I. Bill.”

She was a tireless advocate for veterans and responsible for both the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). Her husband was a congressman during World War I and she served in the Red Cross. After the war President Harding appointed her to be the Inspector for New Veterans Hospitals. The VA Hospital in Bedford Massachusetts is named after her. First elected to congress in 1925 after her husband died, she served 35 years. In 1944 she worked with McFarland and other elected officials to draft the G.I. Bill and she was one of the Co-Sponsors. She is standing directly behind FDR in the photograph taken when he signed the bill in June 1944.  Almost all of the benefits FDR described in his July 1943 Fireside Chat were included in the final bill.

FDR Signs GI Bill
FDR signs the G.I. Bill in the Oval Office, with (l to r) Bennett “Champ” Clark, J. Hardin Peterson, John Rankin, Paul Cunningham, Edith N. Rogers, J.M. Sullivan, Walter George, John Stelle, Robert Wagner, (unknown), and Alben Barkley; June 22, 1944. NPx 64-269.

The G.I. Bill was one of the most impactful, and one of the last, pieces of New Deal legislation. By 1956, the G.I. Bill had helped 7.8 million veterans further their education, some 2.2 million to attend colleges or universities and an additional 5.6 million for some kind of training program. In addition, millions more were able to buy homes with low interest loans. However not all veterans benefited equally. African Americans who served in World War II were excluded from many of its benefits, many colleges did not accept black students, most banks would not approve loans for them, and only a small percentage were helped. While this problem was worst in the South where Jim Crow laws were still in effect, it was not much better in the North. In the New York and northern New Jersey suburbs 67,000 mortgages were insured by the G.I. Bill, but fewer than 100 were taken out by people of color.

Despite its flaws an estimated 50% of World War II veterans benefited in some way from the G.I. Bill. President Roosevelt succeeded in laying the foundation for a post-war economic boom that saw the greatest rise in prosperity and quality of life in America history. When the original G.I. Bill expired in 1956 new versions were passed in Congress and many millions of servicemen and women have benefited from it. This Veteran’s Day please express your support for all who have served, and remember what FDR did for them.