Memo: GI Bill
Prepared by: Melissa Ryerson
producer, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell
Summary: We now know the GI Bill as one of the great pieces of legislation of the 20th century, fueling an economic boom and the rise of the American middle class. However, in 1944, not everyone in had the vision to see the revolutionary effects the GI Bill would have. With the Great Depression and the Economy Act debacle fresh in their minds, some lawmakers and critics fretted over the broad education provisions as well as the generous unemployment compensation- the latter which left the GI Bill, despite having unanimous support in final passage (an outcome heavily influenced by the fact the vote was held during the Normandy invasion), within hours of being killed in conference committee by opponents of the final version.
It may also surprise modern audiences to learn that some of the most vocal critics of the expansive opportunities in the GI Bill were veterans’ organizations who feared both accusations of “Treasury raiding” that had been leveled at WWI veterans and also that the GI Bill’s broad benefit opportunities would come at the expense of benefits for disabled veterans.
“Relief,” “the dole” and “the rolls” in the 1940s are synonymous with what modern audiences understand as “welfare.” (Indeed, “the roll” refers to the welfare roll.) The 1940s words “relief,” “the dole,” and “the roll” morphed into “welfare” in the 1960s. Each of these words refers to the same provision of the Social Security Act of 1935. If Mr. O’Donnell had used the word “relief” instead of “welfare,” no one would have understood what he meant. The criticisms of people who would receive relief or be on the roll – i.e. “goldbrickers” or “loafers”- carry the same connotations, namely that government assistance would make them disinclined to work and become self-reliant.
Baltimore American editorial (entered into the Congressional Record- 4/24/44)
“In its present form, [Rep. Rankin] says, [the GI Bill] would encourage war veterans to loaf and impose on the Government.”
(House Committee hearing - 3/30/44)
Rep. Rankin (D-MS): “This bill will have a great tendency to encourage the gold-bricker to get on the roll and to discourage the hard-working, hard-fighting veteran to go back into the shop or the store and resume his normal activities.”
(House Committee hearing – 3/30/44)
Rep. Rankin (D-MS): “I see a tremendous inducement to certain elements not to try to get employment. It is going to be very easy, with all the inducements that all the agencies will have, to induce these people to get on Federal relief.”
(House Committee hearing- 3/30/44)
Rep. Rankin (D-MS): “I think that the way this bill is written… you will encourage the man who is inclined not to seek employment. You will probably have millions of them on the roll for a year.”
(House Committee Hearing - 3/31/44)
Harry Colmery, American Legion: “You [Rep. Rankin] are making a contrast between the indolent and the lazy man and the self-reliant man who has fought for his country... Because there are indolent and lazy people you, in effect, are willing to burn down the house in order to get the rats… Will you deny aid to the legitimate in need because there are a few fakers? Will you refuse to preserve the stability of our domestic economy because there are a few ‘no counts’? You seem to working about making the veteran shiftless, and unwilling to work and desirous of loafing and leaning on his Government for sustenance. Will you say that to the boy in need of a job without whose fighting you would not have any Government on which to lean and depend to preserve your freedom and your rights?”
(House Committee hearing - 3/31/44)
Rep. Scrivner (R-KS): “There are some persons in some groups who do not seem to have quite the same attitude toward men who serve in uniform, as many of us have? There are some persons and groups, who, for instance, feel that merely because a man wears a uniform he should not have anything special in the way of benefits over and above any other citizen…there is not any special governmental assistance due them as a class because they did serve… this [bill] would be pointed to as a precedent, and then the same philosophy would be used, and it would be said, ‘All right. We have done it for these men in uniform, and they are not entitled to it any more than anybody else, and therefore let us give these same benefits to everybody else.’”
(House Committee hearing – 2/24/44)
Rep. Rankin (D-MS): “The bane of the British Empire has been the dole system. Now [we] are penalizing an industrious man who goes back into the shop and goes to work; [we] are penalizing him and compensating the man who delays hunting a job.”
(House Committee hearing - 1/17/44)
Frank Haley, Military Order of the Purple Heart: “We believe that a man, having had his education interrupted and being fortunate in returning home safe and sound with a whole skin all in one piece can, if he in reality desires, further pursue an interrupted educational program in college. He can still find ways and means to secure such an education, as many young men have done and are now doing on their own, without a $50 monthly grant by the Government.”
(House Committee hearing - 1/18/44)
Omar Ketchum, Veterans of Foreign Wars: “Now, there are some who believe every person, regardless of age, has the right to some sort of educational assistance by the Federal Government, but we seriously doubt whether a man who is in his late twenties or up in his thirties, who has passed beyond the normal school years for education, that the mere fact that he served in the armed forces he should come back and be educated by the Federal Government and neglected it himself, as to whether they have that sort of obligation.”
(Floor statement – Congressional Record 1944 cit. 4671)
Rep. Wright (D-PA) in response to critics: “I do not think you are going to find very many veterans who are going to loaf in order to get $20 a week… I doubt you will find very many Americans anywhere who are going to loaf for 52 weeks deliberately in order to get $20 a week, when they could make more money working in industry.”
(Floor statement – Congressional Record 5/17/44)
Rep. Miller (R-CT): “This will be turned into a general education bill to give free education to every citizen, man or woman, who made any contribution to this war, and that would include every American citizen practically from 18 to 88… [should] a man who had been out of school for 15 years, had earned his own livelihood in the meantime, supported his family… go back to school for 3 or 4 years just because the opportunity were available. Many would take advantage of it, particularly if we have much unemployment.”
The Final Vote
(This account comes from the preeminent report of the legislating of the GI Bill, written by Hearst Reporter David Camelon, compiled and reprinted in the American Legion Magazine in 1949.)
The House version of the GI Bill only came to a vote (387-0) on May 18th because the House Veterans committee took the extraordinary action of overriding its Chairman. Camelon reports, “Finally the House veterans committee members simply overrode Chairman Rankin’s objections, something committees seldom do. He apparently had been willing to sacrifice the whole bill rather than grant the new veterans unemployment benefits.”
Camelon quotes Omar Ketchum, the LD for the Veterans of Foreign Wars who testified many times at the committee hearings on the GI Bill, as saying after the unanimous House vote on May 18th, “You aren’t still talking GI Bill of Rights, are you? That’s dead and forgotten!”
Chairman Rankin almost killed the bill again in the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the GI Bill. Camelon reports: “The opposition to 52-20 [unemployment provision], which having passed the House, was a dead issue in the conference. Mr. Rankin, a bitter foe of 52-20, led the new opposition in the conference. As House chairman, he refused to cast the proxy vote of absent Rep. John Gibson of Georgia that would tip the scales… There were seven Senators and seven Representatives on the conference committee. Under the rules a bill would die if a majority of the representatives of each house did not agree. The seven senators were in accord. But the House group was evenly divided- three voting to accept the Senate version, three opposing it. The seventh member of the House group was Gibson, at home in Georgia, recovering from acute illness. The deadlock lasted through Friday, and into Friday evening. As the conference broke up that evening, Rep. Pat Kearney of New York [said], “We’ve agreed to meet once more, at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. If we can’t reach an agreement then, the conferees will vote to report back to each house that they are unable to agree. The bill will be lost.”
What followed was a dramatic hunt to find Rep. Gibson who, once located, was shuttled by police escort to a Florida airport and flown to National Airport. Camelon reports, “Sharply at 10 o’clock, as the conference committee went into session, Gibson strode in.” Gibson broke the deadlock and the conference committee was able to report out for a final vote.
It’s worth noting the context of the unanimous final vote, which was taken during the invasion of Normandy, but also after a relentless dual-pronged campaign by the Hearst newspapers and the American Legion to pressure members of Congress, by bombarding them with telegrams and with scathing editorials, into voting for the GI Bill. The final unanimous votes on June 12th & 13th do not discount the fact that bill was declared dead on June 9th.
The Saturday Evening Post, 1950: “The education and training section of the GI Bill became, in reality, a relief act or a bonus act… more than 15 million veterans [still] entitled to an average of 40 months of schooling at Government expense, including subsistence.”[i]
[i] Michael Bennett, When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America
All other sources original and available upon request.