The GI Bill: America’s Promise to the Citizen-Soldier

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Leonard Lauder

Today’s post was inspired by an anniversary: the signing of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (or G.I. Bill) by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this day in 1944. Witnessing the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe and Japanese militarism in Asia, FDR became convinced that America needed to become an “arsenal of democracy.” Consequently, as war clouds loomed in the other hemisphere, the president stepped back from New Deal reforms aimed at addressing the domestic economic ills of the Great Depression and began combating isolationist sentiment and advocating for an interventionist foreign policy. As victory in Europe became more likely in 1944, the president took action to ensure that the mistakes of the First World War were not repeated.

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Washington Bonus March [mural study] / by Lewis Rubenstein

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Arguably, the Democratic challenger had been swept into office in the 1932 elections by the unpopularity of incumbent President Herbert Hoover’s inaction in the face of the Depression, but also by his shabby treatment of First World War vets. Some tens of thousands of veterans and their families—many of them having lost their homes to foreclosure—had descended on Washington, D.C. to lobby for passage of a “bonus” bill in Congress that would have compensated them for wages lost while serving their country overseas.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Following the defeat of the bill in the Senate, President Hoover ordered General MacArthur to use the army to forcibly evict the demonstrators.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

MacArthur deployed bayoneted infantry, cavalry, tanks, and tear gas to disperse the protesters, and then crossed the river and burned down the veterans’ shantytown—all within view of the nation’s capitol.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The heavy-handed action also ensured that President Herbert Hoover’s bid for reelection also went up in smoke.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

To head off another Bonus March in 1933, President Roosevelt offered Civilian Conservation Corps jobs to the veterans. Hundreds taking up that offer died two years later, when a devastating hurricane struck the Florida Keys before they could be evacuated.

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Photograph by author

Concerned by the cost to government coffers, Roosevelt opposed an immediate veterans’ compensation bill in 1935, though Congress overrode his veto and passed the Bonus bill the following year. As war-tensions mounted in the late 1930s, however, Roosevelt recognized that ramped-up production of war material alone would not sufficiently safeguard American interests and defend democratic allies abroad. As Fascists and Nazis relied on armies of brainwashed automatons, Roosevelt considered the citizen-soldier to be essential to the future of democracy. Once America entered the world war in December, 1941, the U.S. government spent considerable time and energy not merely propagandizing but educating the American soldier.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Steve Heller

Toward that end, the Roosevelt Administration sponsored documentary films like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight.

It also published a series of GI round table pamphlets that were designed not to tell the enlisted men what to believe, but rather to encourage thoughtful debate about our enemies and allies, about their war aims and ours, and about the world that the G.I.s would help shape in the aftermath of victory.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

By signing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (or G.I. Bill) into law in 1944, Roosevelt promised veterans post-war access to unemployment compensation, vocational and higher-education tuition waivers, and low-interest loans for business and home ownership. Millions of servicemen and their dependents benefited from the G.I. Bill. Over the next fifty years, approximately 20 million took advantage of the educational opportunities afforded by the law, while another 14 million veterans used loans to purchase houses in the suburbs.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Sheryl Gold, in memory of Burnett Roth

~ by "The Chief" on June 22, 2017.

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