Our Views: GI Bill helped millions

Americans seem suspicious of big government programs right now, but the latest issue of Humanities magazine highlights a national initiative that Democrats and Republicans alike have celebrated as an effective use of taxpayer dollars.

In “A New Deal for Veterans: How the GI Bill Was Passed,” writer Meredith Hindley walks readers through the origins of a federal program that rewarded soldiers, sailors and airmen returning from World War II — and also did much to boost America’s economy.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is trying to use the power of storytelling to make more Americans aware of the sacrifices of those who have served in America’s armed forces. That’s an especially worthy goal at a time when such a small percentage of today’s citizens have served in the military.

The article on the GI Bill in Humanities, the national magazine of the NEH, is a good way to complement the work that the agency is doing in educating Americans about military experiences. Hindley’s story, available online at www.neh.gov/ humanities, is a potent reminder that the GI Bill, so often taken for granted as a key benefit for veterans, wasn’t inevitable. President Franklin D. Roosevelt championed the bill as a way to avoid the problems encountered by those who had returned from previous American wars.

Veterans of World War I, for example, received pensions that were vulnerable to the whims of Congress, a reality that led to political crisis in 1932, when jobless veterans had especially urgent need of the money that financial bonuses for their service might provide. President Herbert Hoover’s ham-handed response to that crisis had helped propel Roosevelt into office.

In 1943, with World War II still raging, Roosevelt started to think about how the thousands of veterans who would be coming home might be integrated back into society. “They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line or a corner selling apples,” FDR told citizens in a radio fireside chat. “We must, this time, have plans ready — instead of waiting to do a hasty, inefficient and ill-considered job at the last moment.”

“To Roosevelt’s mind,” writes Hindley, “veterans would succeed when they were part of the larger whole — the economy and the nation — and not treated as an isolated group.”

Signed into law on June 22, 1944, the GI Bill authorized funding for job training and college for American vets. Those benefits helped build the workforce and economy that made the United States the envy of the world. Subsequent generations of veterans also have benefited from the GI Bill.

The prevailing lesson of the GI Bill is that affordable education and job training help not only the direct recipients, but the broader national economy. It’s a lesson, sadly, that too many of today’s leaders forget.