Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation

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The G. Bill fueled not only the development of the middle class: it also revitalized American democracy.

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Americans who came of age during World War II joined fraternal groups and neighborhood and community organizations and took part in politics at rates that made the postwar era the twentieth century''s civic "golden age. Mettler probes how this landmark law produced such a civic renaissance. Most fundamentally, she discovers, it communicated to veterans that government was for and about people like them, and they responded in turn. In our current age of rising inequality and declining civic engagement, Soldiers to Citizens offers critical lessons about how public programs can make a difference.

About The Author. She is the author of the prize-winning Dividing Citizens. Title: Soldiers to Citizens: The G. Select Parent Grandparent Teacher Kid at heart. Age of the child I gave this to:. Hours of Play:. Tell Us Where You Are:. Preview Your Review. Thank you. Nostalgia among Democrats for a time when government action was both popular and far-reaching was understandable during the mids; after all, Clinton delivered his speech just months after government-bashing conservative Republicans swept to power in the congressional elections. And after five years of the second President Bush, the enduring allure of the G.

Bill is equally understandable. The G. Bill has entered the pantheon of progressive legislation, and despite skeptics—such as historian Lizabeth Cohen and political scientist Ira Katznelson, who stress the ways in which most women and blacks were excluded from its programs—the bill continues to fascinate. Both shed light on the resilience of the G. Bill in the progressive imagination and its impact on American society, but in so doing raise the question of whether anything like it could be achieved today.

Their positive experience with a life-changing government program spurred them to become unusually civically active.

Going beyond the usual focus on the purely economic impact of public policies, Mettler ingeniously demonstrates that good government also fosters good citizens. Humes, an award-winning journalist, makes even more sweeping claims, crediting the G. Bill to build their careers and families.

Today's vets get shortchanged on GI Bill

Yet Humes also traces the ripple effects of the bill through all of American postwar life: the permanent expansion of colleges and universities spurred by the sudden arrival of millions of serious-minded and high-performing G. Bill students; the mushrooming of suburbs filled with young families owning homes purchased with G.

Bill-backed mortgages; even the impact of higher-educated professionals on the development of U. Every aspect of vibrant postwar America, it seems, was at least indirectly touched by the surge of opportunity, human energy, and growth unleashed by this huge set of government benefits. Bill and its implicit compact with returning soldiers as a model in crafting a wide spectrum of proposals, for everything from post-high school national service to tuition waivers for medical students willing to work in rural and depressed regions of the country.

In other words, the way the G.

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Bill was both typical and unusual within the broad sweep of U. Like so many other effective social programs—from public schools, to pensions for Union veterans of the Civil War, to early-twentieth-century programs for mothers and children, to Social Security and Medicare today—the G. Bill included Americans of varying economic status in the same sets of benefits, and it stressed that citizens were getting public help in return for positive contributions to the nation through military service.

Mettle and Honor: The Greatest Generation - Program -

Inclusive programs like the G. But unlike most other U. Bill focused its largesse on young adults at just the moment when they were building lives for their families. At their height around , Civil War pensions were, in effect, old-age pensions, among the most generous in the world at the time.

Today, Social Security and Medicare offer generous public supports to retirees, supports that are absent for many working-aged adults and their families.

Research Starters: The GI Bill | The National WWII Museum | New Orleans

Bill is a noteworthy exception to this rule. Given our propensity to spend on the aged while pushing the young to fend for themselves, how did a program as large as the G. Bill emerge in the first place? As a predicate to answering that question, it is important to recognize how different the politics behind the G. Bill was from what happens in contemporary social policymaking. When social programs are debated today, they are usually pushed by policy experts and then blocked, or narrowly tailored into law, in the mark-up sessions of congressional committees.

Partisan ideologues push for or against government programs, and it is rare for a broad bipartisan coalition to prevail. Even huge associations like the American Association of Retired Persons AARP , which claim many millions of mailing-list adherents, are really professionally run advocacy groups with multi-million-dollar lobbying budgets. By contrast, the G. Bill was written and propelled by a nationwide voluntary association—the American Legion—that outmaneuvered both liberals and conservatives to marry generous social provisions to patriotic appeals. Conventional wisdom today has it that because millions served in the U.

True, the United States has a long history of remarkable generosity toward veterans and survivors of its major wars. But, where benefits for able-bodied veterans have been concerned, they have usually been granted long after the war in question was over—not until the veterans had become elderly or else had accumulated sufficient political clout at home to tap significantly into the federal Treasury.


Peak portions of federal spending on veterans came some 40 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, 28 years after the end of the Civil War, and a decade and a half after the end of World War I. Pace Bill Clinton, the G. Rather, during the years running up to the G. Today, we forget that in the years leading up to World War II, there was little support for any extension of veteran benefits. World War I benefits were deliberately designed to feature aid and training for the disabled, along with government-subsidized life insurance. Later, veterans would react to the economic crisis of the Depression by agitating for early full payment of the bonus certificates.

Indeed, public repulsion with the poor treatment of the Bonus Marchers on Washington still shaped perceptions of how to treat World War II veterans a decade and a half later. During the s, Democratic President Roosevelt was even more reluctant than his Republican predecessors to accept more expenditures on veterans. However, once the New Deal was overtaken by the mobilization for war, Roosevelt had the political acumen to adjust his stance, and he acknowledged that steps would need to be taken to compensate for the disruptions in education and employment.

As plans for postwar demobilization were developed, New Dealers still aimed to link benefits for veterans to an expanded and nationalized welfare state for all Americans, featuring universal social insurance and guarantees of full employment. In alliance with educators from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and other leading U.

The result would have been elitist and centrally managed educational grants, had such ideas survived in Congress. Make no mistake: The congressional conservatives were not the driving force behind this legislation—and, to some degree, neither was Roosevelt. That job was left to the American Legion, which first unveiled an omnibus proposal in January that included up to four years of educational benefits open to virtually all veterans, along with very generous low-interest loans for homes, farms, and businesses.