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The G.I. Bill and America’s Social Revolution

By offering veterans free college educations, the landmark 1944 legislation offered unprecedented upward mobility for many—but not all

Jenna Weissman Joselit
May 25, 2018
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
War veterans taking notes during a classroom lecture at crowded University of Iowa, where some 6,000 vets, constituting 60 percent of the student population, were enrolled with financial help from the G.I. Bill of Rights.Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
War veterans taking notes during a classroom lecture at crowded University of Iowa, where some 6,000 vets, constituting 60 percent of the student population, were enrolled with financial help from the G.I. Bill of Rights.Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Every family has a set of stories that play, continuously, like a loop, or, better yet, that function like a prompt: a gentle caution, a corrective, a signpost. When I was growing up, my father’s collegiate experiences at Cornell assumed that role. It didn’t take much for him to regale my three siblings and me with wondrous, fish-out-of-water tales of how he, Irving “Itz” Weissman, a Jewish boy from Schenck Avenue in Brooklyn, found himself “far above Cayuga’s waters.”

He would tell, and tell again, of subsisting on a dreary diet of cottage cheese; of making ends meet by working in a dining hall; of inordinately lengthy bus trips back home to visit his sweetheart and future wife; of listening in awe to Professor Milton Konvitz as he held forth eloquently on industrial labor relations; and, most incongruously of all, of having come to Cornell in the first place to study botany.

Botany? People, not plants, was Irving Weissman’s métier; the civic square, not the soil, his milieu; a packet of yellow foolscap rather than seeds his most steady companion. My father, you see, became a lawyer. It was impossible for us kids to envision him doing anything else, much less mucking about a field somewhere. Farmer Weissman?! The very idea had us in stitches.

But “Itz” was in earnest. The study of botany was his way of re-adjusting his sights after having served in the Navy where, stationed aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, he experienced firsthand the horrors of D-Day. Enrolling in Cornell’s fabled “ag school” was the equivalent of a magic carpet that would transport him from one world to another, much greener one. Did my father have any notion of what he would do with a degree in botany? Probably not. More of a balm than a career objective, it was as far afield from his past experiences as he could get.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned: This loyal son of Brooklyn and farmer manqué flunked the very first botany course he ever took, prompting him immediately to seek a pursuit better suited to his talents. Labor relations would be his next port of call, followed, in turn, by the law.

While grit, determination, flexibility, and good luck all had a hand in my father’s good fortune, none of these elements would have amounted to a hill of beans were it not for the G.I. Bill, or, to use its formal designation, the Selective Service Readjustment Act of 1944. Designed to effect a smooth transition from wartime service to civilian life, this far-reaching piece of federal legislation was conceived initially as a “safety net,” an exercise in demobilization. It brought about a social revolution. By providing veterans with a tuition-free college education as well as a low-cost home mortgage, it enlarged the ranks of the American middle class, accelerated the process of suburbanization, and made good on the promise of upward mobility, placing rising expectations well within reach.

The eagerness with which young ex-servicemen like my father availed themselves of the “best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,” especially of the government-sponsored opportunity to attend college—and often a prestigious, faraway one, to boot—took the nation by surprise, generating a flood of articles in news outlets as varied as the New York Times, Life magazine, Time, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal. In the fall of 1947, colleges and universities around the country were poised to encounter the “greatest enrollment in the history of higher education,” or so reported the Times, noting an “unprecedented rush to campus.” Holding its breath, the nation was keen to learn how the presence of more than a million veterans might affect the nature of the American collegiate experience. Would G.I. Joe get along with Joe College?

Some contemporary observers focused on the dilution of the “rah-rah stuff” and its corresponding hijinks, noting how “it’s books, books all the time.” Others paid attention to something much more serious: the changing composition of the nation’s collegiate population. Before the war, the college-bound were drawn almost entirely from white, elite circles; what’s more, cleverly designed quota systems made sure to keep the Jews at bay. After the war, the potential pool of applicants was now more diverse—racially, ethnically, and religiously—than ever before. The number of Jewish undergraduates, especially at prestigious colleges such as Harvard and Yale, inched steadily upward. While long-entrenched selective admissions policies did not disappear overnight, the G.I. Bill “struck a blow at exclusion,” write historians Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin in their richly textured study, The G.I. Bill: A New Deal for Veterans.

Not everyone thought that a good thing. One Harvard economist wondered if perhaps the G.I. Bill carried the “principle of democratization too far.” His colleague at Lehigh took things a step further, pointing out that many of the recent applicants to his institution would be better off as hod carriers rather than undergrads. Meanwhile, at Cornell, its president, Edmund Ezra Day, reassured an anxious alumnus that the presence of Jews on campus would not be so large as to “make it unpleasant for first-class gentile students.”

Comments like these and the discriminatory attitudes and practices to which they gave voice have led a number of scholars of late to claim that the G.I. Bill was not what it was cracked up to be. In reality, argue Ira Katznelson, the author of When Affirmative Action Was White, and Lizabeth Cohen, the author of A Consumers’ Republic, its impact was not nearly as far-reaching, inclusive, and transformative as memory would have it.

The G.I. Bill, they claim, marshalling reams of historical evidence, fell short. Although likened to a “Bill of Rights for G.I. Joe and G.I. Jane,” and “America’s first colorblind social legislation,” it didn’t fully deliver on its promise. Women, for one thing, got the short end of the stick, pushed aside in the admissions process to make room for their male relatives. They “may well become the chief casualty of the postwar educational boom,” observed the Times.

More dramatically still, the full force of the G.I. Bill was blunted in the South where local administrators saw to it that African-Americans were consistently denied mortgages and encouraged to take up a trade—and an “old timey” one, at that—in lieu of going to college. Black veterans determined to acquire a higher education were routinely directed toward historically black colleges with meager resources rather than to first-rate institutions, either regionally or up North. Given these widespread discriminatory practices, concluded Our Negro Veterans, a 1947 study of how they fared in postwar America, it was “as though the G.I. Bill had been earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’”

Yet another example of the structural inequities that define modern America, the “exclusion of so many black Americans from the bounty of public policy,” as Katznelson puts it, complicates our appreciation of the G.I. Bill. For those Americans like my father who were able to reap its benefits, it represented a “happy omen for the future.” Others were not nearly as fortunate.


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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.