The Positive Effects of the GI Bill
“The Positive Effects of the GI Bill.” 123HelpMe.com.
In 1944 the world was caught in one of the greatest wars of all time, World War II. The whole United States was mobilized to assist in the war effort. As history was being made overseas, as citizens learned to do without many amenities of life, and as families grieved over loved ones lost in the war, two students on BYU campus were beginning a history of their own. Chauncey and Bertha Riddle met in the summer of 1944 and seven months later were engaged to be married. Chauncey was eighteen and a half and Bertha nineteen as they knelt across the altar in the St. George temple five months after their engagement. Little did they know that in just the first years of marriage they would be involved with the effects of a significant historical event, the atomic bomb, as well as government legislation, the GI Bill, that would not only affect the course of their lives but also the course of the entire country.
Chauncey and Bertha honeymooned in the Grand Canyon late in the summer of 1945. Upon returning to Cedar City, they learned the news that “the United States [had] developed this wonderful bomb and [they’d] dropped it and it hopefully [would] shorten the war greatly.” The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 7, and the second on Nagasaki on August 9. The official surrender came on August 11, 1945, officially ending the bloody campaign in Japan. The climate in the country was not one of alarm, in reaction to the bomb, but of tired relief. Bertha reflected this attitude. “Those people of our generation saw how many of their friends had died in bloody combat with the Japanese so they were grateful to see it ended.” The atomic bomb seemed the long-awaited answer to concluding the war quickly.
The bomb was not without its controversies and consequences, however. Before it was dropped, Leo Szilard, leading scientist in the development of the bomb, “opposed it with all [his] power” (Truman 68). His close contact with the destructive weapon caused him and others to argue against its use. It didn’t take long after the end of the war for scholars to assess the atom bomb and its potential in future warfare. In the Yale Review, 1946, Bernard Brodie looked in depth at its future implications and influence on the security of all nations. He recognized that the world could not fully defend itself against such a weapon (Brodie). Within a year of its use, the political effects of the atom bomb were felt. Its immediate result, the end of the war, was almost wholly embraced. However, the climate of the country began to change. Americans sensed there was less security in the world, especially as the beginnings of the Cold War began to take shape in American politics and society. The atom bomb and the end of the war affected the Riddles in quite a different way.
Before marrying in July, Chauncey was drafted into the military. He had previously tried to enlist and was turned down because he was myopic, or had poor eyesight. “A few months later they called [him] back and gave [him] exactly the same test with exactly the same results and drafted [him].” Chauncey entered the army the day after the war ended. The atomic bomb’s influence on ending the war made it unnecessary for Chauncey to fight in combat. Instead, for one year he worked mostly as a clerk in Salt Lake City. His first responsibility for six months was to separate servicemen, or write out job descriptions of duties performed in the army so they could take their credentials to prospective employers. All the servicemen from Utah, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming came to be separated from the military at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake. Nationwide, 1,000 servicemen and women were discharged within a month after the war’s end. By 1946, only a fourth, three million from twelve million, were still in the service (Bennett 5). After six months Chauncey was transferred to company headquarters to work on personnel records. By years end he was discharged from the army and free to return to his education.
The Riddles now found however, that they were returning to BYU under very different circumstances. Chauncey had just one year remaining before completing his BA but many of his school expenses were now covered by a pivotal piece of legislation: the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill. Under the bill, those who had served in the armed forces on or after September 16, 1940 and before the end of the war whose education had been “impeded, delayed, interrupted or interfered with” were “eligible for and entitled to receive education or training.” Restrictions such as a necessary honorable discharge, a minimum of 90 days of service, and a maximum age requirement (related to the full education benefit), were the only barriers between millions of servicemen and a golden opportunity (Readjustment Act 288). Any veteran over the age limit for a full education was allowed to take a refresher course no matter his or her age or educational background (Manning 1003). Those who were under twenty-five years of age were allowed up to four years of schooling based on the amount of time spent in the service (Readjustment Act 288). These new students were given eight years after their discharge, or the end of the war, to take advantage of their benefits (Levitan and Zickler 42). For one year of service in the army, Chauncey now had assistance to help him complete his education.
One of the best benefits associated with the GI Bill was the money allotted to each GI. A “subsistence allowance” of $50 per month, $75 if there were dependents, was awarded on top of tuition up to $500 a year (Readjustment Act 289). Later, in 1948, the sum was raised to $75 a month (Levitan and Zickler 52). Veterans with a spouse received $105 and families received $120 (Bennett 243). The sum was small but the help was appreciated. “It wasn’t very much- fifty dollars or something to live on. But it was something.” There were plenty of veterans to help. Around 3.5 million servicemen and women were demobilized in one year (Donaldson 5). In 1945 1.6 million veterans entered the educational system and in the fall of 1946, 2.1 million were attending school. This made up 45% of students attending universities (Bennett 2). Many of these students would never have had the opportunity of going to school and receiving a higher education had it not been for the G.I. Bill’s assistance.
Chauncey especially benefited from the GI tuition money two years after graduating from BYU. After graduation in the spring of ’47, Chauncey and Bertha moved to Nevada where Chauncey worked as a taxi driver and a tour guide for his father. His father was the owner of Yellow Cabs of Nevada and Chauncey was the assistant manager. After two years working with his father’s businesses, Chauncey decided to further his education at Columbia University in New York. In 1945 Columbia had stated that it was open to veterans, when many other colleges were wary of the sudden influx, on the assumption that these veterans were entering school with the same education goals as every other student (Columbia 214). Chauncey would have to prove himself capable of excelling at the demanding university. At the time, political scientists believed that most veterans would go into vocational courses and register less in academic courses (Manning 1003). However, veterans were free to go into whatever field they wished. Chauncey chose to study philosophy in hopes of teaching at a university. Columbia’s high tuition was no longer a barrier. “When [he] got back to Columbia where the tuition was very high [the GI Bill] paid that too. [He] couldn’t have gone there without that.” Many other GI’s, it seemed, followed a similar path since 52% of veterans choose often more expensive and difficult private institutions (Bennett 19).
The Riddles were still starting out though, and they did not have the money to live in New York. While the GI Bill covered limited expenses, the income was not sufficient to support the whole family in New York City. Consequently for a school year Chauncey lived in New York and went to school while Bertha stayed part time with her parents and part time with his. Without the GI Bill, many men would have ended up working straight out of the service. However, because of the assistance from the government, a high percentage was able to pursue higher education. While this became a positive force for the future, it created many hardships. “[The Riddle’s] third child was born while Chauncey was at Columbia and [Bertha] was still in Nevada and that little boy died which was a very difficult experience.” Chauncey returned from Columbia to attend the funeral and spend Christmas holiday with his little family, but after Christmas he returned to Columbia to continue his studies and make up missed final exams. Once again the couple was separated for four months.
A full quarter of the students in higher educational institutions were still veterans at this time. That number had fallen from 49.2% in 1947, but Veterans were still a major force in the nation’s schools and the colleges were still trying to meet the extra demands placed on them. Students were placed in packed dorms, fraternities, sororities, boarding houses, ex-army barracks, and three trailer camps (Douglas 112). Housing, food, money, and teachers were all in short supply (Walters). “[BYU] jumped from 700 to five thousand a year and it kept on growing.” This was a typical scenario of U.S. colleges at the time. The huge influx of millions of veterans helped prevent strains on the job market but the strain on schools was tremendous. Many students were forced to accept substandard living conditions from universities that could not house them. However, the schools finally began to catch up to the growth and house more of their students.
Housing was a concern for those in and out of school. Predicting the desires of many young men to get a new start, the GI Bill provided housing subsidies for veterans. The immediate demand for housing was curbed by the large number of students not ready to invest in their own homes (Bennett 15). However, the bill provided guaranteed loans up to $2,000, and many veterans took advantage of the government’s offer (Readjustment Act 291). Housing starts in 1944 numbered around 136,000. They were increased to 325,000 in 1945, but jumped drastically to 1,015,000 in 1946 (Bennett 15). The sharp increase in demand was larger than the market’s capacity to fill the need. However, “the GI Bill created and filled the suburbs” (24). The housing industry began to reach proportions equal to the car industry, mainly due to a man named William J. Levitt (24). His entrepreneurial ideas about building quick, sturdy houses provided a way to keep pace with demand. Levitt’s company began building over 30 houses in a day. While they were all alike they were efficient and filled the need and even had trees, parks and playgrounds (Douglas 148). The economy responded to the needs of the veterans as it continued to expand.
However, in other ways the economy was slow to respond to postwar demands. Newsweek reported in 1946 the great frustration Americans had due to continued shortages of mainly household goods (Goods: Sorry). It was not surprising that the economy hadn’t fully switched back to peacetime production from the war machine it had been for the last four to five years. From 1940 to 1945, factories produced 300,000 aircraft, almost 75,000 naval ships, over 40 billion rounds of ammunition, and over 2,000,000 trucks. While war products never exceeded 40% of the gross national product, war production was a major force in American economics (Douglas 5). Citizens were not only worried about empty store shelves but rising prices. Worries about inflation came in response to a 22% price hike from June of 1946 to December of 1948. Even though wages also went up and unemployment stayed below 41/2%, Americans worried over rising costs on basic goods (Bennett 14). There was also initial concern that there would be another recession similar to the one that followed the First World War. However, the GI Bill “painlessly reabsorbed 12 million veterans into the economy” (14) thus preventing many of the previous generation’s problems. Seven point eight million veterans went to school and the rest, if they were unemployed, collected benefits of $20 a week and generally were working within a short period of time (14).
The GI Bill’s solution to the Veteran’s rush on the economy had another great effect. Just after the war, labor problems broke out. What began as a Ford supplier strike in 1945 led to a GM, steel worker, soft coal worker, and railroad strike in subsequent months.
Without the GI Bill, if the veterans hadn’t been absorbed in getting on with their lives, drawing unemployment while applying for school, looking for a job, or starting a business or profession, the automobile, rail and coal strikes might well have had cataclysmic effects. Idle, without money or prospects, the veterans would have inevitably been drawn into the rail and coal strikes on one side or the other. (17)
Without the GI Bill to distract veterans, the country might have taken a completely different course with a great deal of confusion and disorder. Instead, the economy survived the influx in the workforce and even grew exponentially.
Families were greatly affected by the GI Bill. The Riddles were finally able to afford moving together to New York. They packed up their wood body station wagon and drove from Utah to New York City. Because GI housing was 25 miles away, the little family lived in the bell tower of an old chapel that had been purchased by the LDS church. Not only were they given the apartment but also a custodial job for the building. This provided extra income and the apartment’s convenient location made it east to get to meetings on time. They lived in their tiny apartment for two years with three children. Bertha never finished college but instead focused on raising her family. She took the children to Hudson River, Central and Riverside Parks as well as to the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She exposed her children to as many diverse experiences as she could. Because most museums were free, her limited budget was not strained yet the children were well entertained. Millions of women chose to return home to their families as soon as the veterans returned. Between 1945 and 1947, 2.5 million women quit their jobs (Bennett 13). However, from 1947 to 1952, the percent of working mothers was up 400% (Douglas 98). While Bertha chose to stay home with her children, many other women were choosing to enter the work force. Still, families boomed after the war. In 1948, one out of every five students was married as opposed to one out of every twenty one just nine years earlier (98). The birth rate went from 2,315 per 10,000 of the population in 1936 to 3,817 in 1947 (Bennett 24). Families all over the nation were growing and experiencing many challenges, similar to the Riddles, in making a start for themselves.
A great difficulty for many young couples was the strain of school demands on the family. While Bertha watched the children, Chauncey was still working toward his degree in Philosophy. Because he hadn’t studied philosophy at BYU, he had to catch up while he was learning his current class material. He also met up with fierce competition. The students were “90% Jewish, very hard workers and very bright. [He] had to stay up all night to keep up with them.” He would often study 12-14 hours a day. At the end of his schooling he was required to take comprehensive exams. There were two of them and each lasted two days for eight hours each. “[Chauncey] passed the first one and the second one everybody flunked. So [he] had to slow down and re-study everything and take it again. That time three passed- everybody else failed. [Students] only get two chances so it was a real weeding out.” Chauncey was lucky to be one of the three. He had finally completed his education largely due to assistance from the GI Bill.
While there was much praise of what the GI Bill was doing for veterans like Chauncey, there were also concerns and complaints related to the new legislation. American Magazine reported that veterans were running into red tape from administrators that were keeping them from receiving their full-entitled benefits (28). On the other hand, educators often worried about the effects of free education. William Randall of the University of Missouri speculated that GI’s would see education as a “reward for past services” rather than a reward for academic achievement (Randel 412). Most universities had reservations concerning the large influx of veterans but found the majority of GI’s were good students. The immense benefits to the country and to the veterans far outweighed the concerns voiced by various small groups of critics.
Little of what society is today is independent of the GI Bill’s effects. From education to economic security, the GI Bill laid the foundation for post war expansion. It also paved the way for social change. “The GI Bill was America’s first color-blind social legislation” (Bennett 26). It was a means whereby many future Civil Rights leaders were educated (26). John W. Manning could not have been more correct when he speculated in 1945 that “the veterans will be a factor to be considered in public life after the war. . . . Many of these will take advantage of the free education offered them under the GI Bill.” The education provided by the bill, that might not have been available otherwise, led to a more educated and independent generation of Americans who shaped postwar society and culture.
Six years after graduating from Columbia, Chauncey returned to earn his doctoral degree with a dissertation on Carl Pearson’s philosophy of science. Without the atomic bomb to end the war, Chauncey might have seen combat. Instead, his service amounted to enough work to pay his way through school at BYU and also Columbia. The GI Bill and its many provisions was a springboard to the Riddles’ lives. The nation’s history intertwined with their own to shape their future. The GI Bill was one of the greatest pieces of legislation to come out of the government because of its far-reaching positive effect on the country’s development. It was the proper solution to the close of a historic period of history.
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