August 22, 1995 Ira Pilgrim

The G.I. Bill of Rights

The G.I. Bill may be the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam.

Edwin Kiester Jr., 1944

After high school I was drafted into the army, where I spent 3 years of my life, two of them in Europe.When I returned, I took advantage of what was called the G.I. Bill and went to college at the University of California at Berkeley. I count those as the most important years of my life. They changed my future from what would probably have been as a lab technician, to that of a research biologist and teacher. I was one of 2.2 million veterans whose lives changed profoundly for the better, thanks to that bill. I have always been deeply grateful to my country for this wonderful gift of an education. Yet, it was only this year that I found out what went into the making and passing of that G.I. Bill, and how it narrowly squeaked through a congressional committee by a single vote.

Remembering the problems with the large number of veterans returning from World War I and the violent Bonus March of the 1930s, the president and congress wanted to do something to prevent its re-occurrence.

In 1933, in the depth of the great depression, 25,000 poverty stricken, unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand the promised bonuses of $500 each, that were authorized by congress, but were not due to be paid until 1945. They and their wives and children camped out in parks and any other place that was available. President Hoover called out the army, commanded by Douglas MacArthur, and ably assisted by majors Dwight David Eisenhower and George S. Patton. Using tanks and tear gas, heavily armed soldiers dispersed the demonstrators. There were more than 100 casualties of that incident.

Congress wanted to prevent that resentment that veterans felt, following World War I. The G.I. Bill offered $20 a week of unemployment insurance for a year, insured housing loans, and tuition, books and $50 a month for single, and $75 a month for married veterans. Depending on time served, it offered up to 48 months of education.

Most of the pundits thought that few would take advantage of it. How wrong they were. Little did they dream how many men would jump at the chance to get a higher education and what a tremendous asset it would provide the country in the form of a highly skilled work force. There was an immense amount of talent just waiting for the opportunity -and hardly anyone was aware of it.

How did the GI Bill get to be? When World War II was coming to an end, a number of educators and organizations concerned with education wanted something like it, but their political clout was virtually zilch. Then the American Legion got interested and threw all of its heavy political muscle behind it. The House and Senate passed two different bills. In the conference committee, a compromise bill was arrived at, but it was opposed by the powerful John Rankin of Mississippi. Rankin was what was to be called a "Dixiecrat;" a Democrat who voted with the Republicans and opposed, with filibuster, any effort to end racial segregation. Georgia congressman John Gibson, who favored the measure and was going on vacation, gave Rankin his proxy to vote for it. Rankin refused to honor his wishes, and it looked as if the GI Bill was dead. A group of legionaires tried to locate Gibson, who was vacationing at a lodge without a telephone. When they finally located him, they got him to the Jacksonville airport by using a police escort traveling at 90mph, and flew him to Washington in time to cast the deciding vote. The rest is history.

The vets made an immense change in schools. Despite predictions that it would be a boondoggle, the vets mostly turned out to be serious students, much to the chagrin of the kids who usually occupied the colleges and universities. The best of the professors found them to be the best students they had ever had, and the worse ones had to put up with students who just wouldn't buy their pedantry.

In short, the veterans turned out to be the best group of students the universities have ever had, and the vast majority went on to productive careers that might otherwise have been denied to them.

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