- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

OVER HERE: HOW THE G.I. BILL TRANSFORMED THE AMERICAN DREAM

By Edward Humes

Harcourt, $26, 311 pages

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

When I got out of the U.S. Army in 1969 and enrolled in graduate school on what was called, however laughingly, the G.I. Bill, I received, if I remember correctly, a monthly stipend of $95. I received this princely sum because I was married and had a child; single persons and those without dependents received less.

I open with that fact not to express self-pity (though I know I expressed it at the time), but to highlight a tart irony at the center of Edward Humes’ “Over Here”: The World War II veterans who benefited handsomely from the G.I Bill of their war became, Mr. Humes writes, “the principal political supporters for opposing the extension of G.I. Bill benefits to a broader segment of American society” — including veterans of future wars.

And benefit handsomely they did: Twenty-some years before me, for instance, veterans attending higher education received free tuition to any institution of higher education and an allowance for books, in addition to a monthly stipend ($120 if married with children). What is more to the point of Mr. Humes’ book, their country benefited handsomely, too.

The G.I. Bill of Rights — or, to give it its official name, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — was, the author says, “the most far-reaching and egalitarian Big Government social program in the history of the nation.” It began with a simple question: Now what? What to do with the flood of 16 million returning servicemen (the relative trickle of returning servicewomen was scarcely considered).

Mr. Humes, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of several other books (“School of Dreams,” “Mississippi Mud”), covers all relevant aspects of the act’s gestation and subsequent influence through the stories of a dozen veterans, famous and not, who benefited from it. Several plans for veterans had been floated, limited in scope and focusing on educational and training opportunities rather than cash payments.

In the vision of President Franklin Roosevelt, however, the G.I. Bill was to have been but one part of a grander scheme, one that would reinvent America rather than return it to the status quo antebellum, a “Second Bill of Rights” giving every American the right to a rewarding job, a living wage, education, a decent home, health care and a pension.

It did not come to that, of course, but if the United States was not reinvented, it definitely was massively transformed. Through the G.I. Bill signed two weeks after D-Day, a nation of renters became a nation of homeowners, university-level education changed from an elite bastion to a middle-class expectation, and suburbia was born. All that — and more — was multiplied countless times over, creating “an unintended juggernaut,” the long reach of whose impact is “still resonating today.”

In the five years after the war, eight million veterans used educational benefits, 60,000 of them becoming physicians. Nearly five million bought homes on the G.I. Bill. By the end of 1950, four houses were being built nationwide every minute, a phenomenal rate that has never been matched.

Indeed, the most unprecedented aspect of the program, and the one with the largest impact, Mr. Humes says, was the home loan, which created new communities (think Levittown) and doomed others. He compares its revolutionary transforming power to that of the Homestead Act of 1862 (also, interestingly, devised in the midst of a great war).

It all boiled down to the government transferring wealth to veterans. In a time of growing anti-communism, it was, in effect, socialism fighting the threat of socialism.

It wasn’t perfect. Most notably, women and black veterans were short-changed in the way the program was locally administered.

Nor is Mr. Humes’ book perfect. He seems unable to resist preaching on topics (Vietnam, health care, the depredations of Dubya) that are, at best, tangentially related to his main task of building his case for not only the magnificence of the G.I. Bill, but for the idea that something like it could, and should, be attempted today.

Also, a couple of the individual veterans’ biographies could have been usefully trimmed. Movie director Arthur Penn’s G.I. Bill experiences and opinions are interesting, but we really do not need detailed analyses of “Bonnie and Clyde” and other Penn films.

Over and over grateful beneficiaries sing the bill’s praises. Two of them are a classic Democratic liberal, George McGovern, and a classic Republican conservative, Bob Dole, both former senators and presidential nominees of their parties. What Mr. Humes has done especially well is to capture their and other veterans’ quiet amazement at the “accidental greatness” of the G.I. Bill.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.


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