It is no exaggeration to say that the G.I. Bill of Rights was the most successful social welfare program in American history. By 1956, under the G.I. Bill, the U.S. government had spent nearly $15 billion providing unemployment, education, training, and home loan benefits to more than half the 16 million veterans of World War II. Countless veterans recalled fondly how the bill gave them the chance to buy their first home, or to attend college or vocational school. The bill helped shape postwar America, and its effects are still being felt. Yes, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act—the G.I. Bill's formal name—constitutes a great American success story. The question is why.
For all the Bill's importance, historians have written relatively little about it. A few specialized books and articles are very good, but they do not supply a comprehensive history. There is thus reason to welcome the publication of Suzanne Mettler's Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation, and there is much to commend in her scholarship.
Soldiers to Citizens draws on a wide variety of literature, archival research, her own survey of over 1,800 surviving World War II veterans, and in-depth follow-up interviews with 28 of the survey participants. Mettler, a Syracuse University associate professor of political science, summarizes the origins and passage of the bill, noting the key role of veterans' groups as advocates of the 1944 law. Her discussion of the college benefits is solid, and she contributes new information on the thousands of trade school programs used by the vets, and on how African-Americans benefited from the bill.
Likewise, her work on the bill's effects is useful. She demonstrates that those who took advantage of the bill tended to attain higher levels of socioeconomic success in their lives. In turn, these beneficiaries became more engaged in civic organizations of all sorts, and became leaders throughout American society. Mettler shows that African-American recipients, who faced serious problems of discrimination, used their education benefits as a springboard into the postwar civil rights movement.
All of this has the makings of the most solid, wide-ranging history of the G.I. Bill to date. But a closer look reveals that Soldiers to Citizens isn't really a book about the G.I. Bill so much as a brief for welfare-state liberalism.
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Soldiers to Citizens is Mettler's attempt to use the G.I. Bill to marry the defense of big government with a call for a more active citizenship. Here is her logic: the bill offered benefits to a large and diverse portion of the male population. The distribution system was well-managed and efficient; and because the recipients had little trouble taking advantage of the benefits, they learned that government was a good thing. "This," she writes, "suggests that the way in which government implements social programs can have a direct effect on the kind of citizens it produces."
According to Mettler, the G.I. Bill produced citizens who had a greater respect for government and their role as citizens. They made more money, joined organizations, and participated in government. Not only that, but many got a college education, which "appeared to have prompted students toward political liberalism and away from political conservatism." When they went into government their policies reflected this liberal conversion, and "the major social policy achievements on the national level from the later 1950s through the early 1970s—such as aid for higher education and K-12 education, Medicare and Medicaid, and the War on Poverty—epitomized that spirit."
Then the golden era came to a sudden end. The 1970s saw an economic downturn and the rise of conservatism. Civic and political participation declined, and economic inequality returned. Until then, the G.I. Bill had been the answer to all questions, and the solution to all problems-well, nearly all problems. Women were left out, and as a result they did not become as engaged in civic groups as men. For Mettler, the great tragedy was that big government's golden age largely excluded blacks and women. Then, just as women and blacks began to gain equal rights under the law, Americans turned against government's redistributive designs. And America has suffered ever since.
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The large flaw in her argument arises from her misinterpretation of this salient distinction: although only half of all World War II veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill's education benefits, all of its recipients were military veterans.
It might come as a surprise that President Franklin Roosevelt initially opposed such "special benefits" for veterans. What he preferred was a broader need-based social welfare program along New Deal lines, based on the assumption that veterans who needed help would get it along with everyone else. But the American Legion and other advocates drummed up enough support so that FDR eventually acquiesced. As a result, the G.I. Bill became a singular New Deal welfare program—the only one predicated on merit, not need. Mettler notes that its beneficiaries expressed sincere gratitude for the bill and never dreamed of insisting that they were entitled to its benefits. They had, however, earned them, and they knew it. And how they had earned the benefits made all the difference in how they incorporated them into their postwar lives. It is here that Mettler's story falls apart.
For example, an essential starting point to her argument is that the G.I. Bill represented a big-government program that was perceived by the recipients as run fairly and efficiently. Leaving aside the unlikelihood that the recipients ever spent any time thinking about the mechanics of the distribution system, let alone what that system said about the efficacy of government social programs, there is the issue of who was doing the perceiving. It seems improbable that university students at any other time, even recipients of a free education, would be lauding a system that led to such overcrowding that they were forced to spend their college years sleeping barracks-style in temporary Quonset huts set up in the parking lot of the state university. But these recipients were not average university students; they were veterans used to spartan conditions, who brought a soldier's sense of maturity and responsibility to every aspect of their lives.
Hence veterans led the way in joining civic organizations, and these organizations in truth helped foster greater political participation. But the evidence that veterans joined because of the G.I. Bill is scarce. Indeed, the leading organizations that most former troops joined were for veterans, e.g., the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, and Disabled American Veterans. They joined because they missed the camaraderie of military service or because they wanted to have a political voice as veterans, not as recipients of the G.I. Bill.
Veterans, with money saved from the war and with access to G.I. Bill and other loans played a key role in suburbanization and suburban civic groups. But because Mettler's survey results show little difference in suburban homeowner rates between G.I. Bill users and non-users, she glosses over the important subject in a page and a half. Nor does she mention that none of the three presidents in her postwar golden era-Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon-took advantage of the G.I. Bill.
All the postwar trends Mettler describes among G.I. Bill recipients, from greater occupational flexibility and higher incomes to increased civic and political participation, were true to one degree or another for all World War II veterans. But she does not compare veterans with non-veterans, because that comparison would reveal the larger truth about the G.I. Bill. As important as it was, it did not produce better citizens. It was merely a tool by which some veterans applied more easily the lessons of citizenship they had learned during their military service in World War II. What mattered most, however, was not the G.I. Bill, but the military service.
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The sad thing is that Mettler knows all this. Sprinkled throughout the book are admissions that "veterans' responses to the G.I. Bill would be tempered by how they experienced their time in the armed forces"; that 95% of the respondents to her survey called military service a turning point in their life and a strong plurality called it the most important turning point; and that "though I asked only a few questions about military service, veterans often volunteered much more information about that time in their lives." She admits in her preface, "I began to realize how essential it was to understand this part of their stories, which constituted the very basis through which they had become seen as deserving of and eligible for the G.I. Bill." Although she writes a short chapter on military service, in the rest of her book she ignores the overwhelming importance of that service.
The problem with Soldiers to Citizens is that the historical evidence does not match the author's ideological predilections. It is clear, even from this flawed book, that nothing taught citizenship quite so well as serving in the World War II military. But looking for proof that big-government social programs can make good citizens, Mettler found exactly that—and along the way sacrificed a good history upon the altar of advocacy.