Some 60 years after the G.I. Bill’s passage, Pulitzer Prize–winner Humes (Mean Justice, 1999, etc.) takes a look at one of the most spectacularly successful pieces of legislation in US history.
FDR’s ambitious postwar plan for America, an extension of the New Deal, which sought to guarantee a job, housing, health care and education for all, would likely have proved politically impossible even had he lived. Instead, with painful memories of the WWI Bonus Army’s March on Washington still fresh, and after intense lobbying by the American Legion, Congress enacted a far more modest version intended solely to benefit the millions of returning WWII veterans. The G.I. Bill of Rights certainly did that, by offering vets unemployment compensation and job-placement services, low-interest mortgages requiring no down payment and four fully paid years of college or vocational training. The author effectively gets his arms around this vast, complex subject by centering each of his ten chapters on an individual or small group whose particular story illustrates the bill’s remarkable impact on American arts, science, business and politics. Its largesse benefited relatively few minorities and women, Humes demonstrates, though he also includes success stories like those of Monte Posey, a black vet whose G.I. Bill–funded education led to his employment with the EEOC, and Josette Dermody, whose gunnery-school naval service qualified her for a free education, leading to her career as a schoolteacher. The author is at his best explaining the bill’s unanticipated, transformative effect on American society. It fostered the rise of suburbia, the explosive growth of the university system and the huge expansion of the middle class, all of which reshaped the lives of vets and their boomer children. No run-of-the-mill, pork-barrel legislation has ever had that kind of impact.
Careful and colorful reporting renders this seldom-told part of the Greatest Generation’s story every bit as inspiring as those recounting its survival of the Depression and triumph in war.