Editor - The following guest editorial by the national commander of
The American Legion is offered for your consideration. Photos of
National Commander Dellinger are available at www.legion.org.
Greatest Legislation for the Greatest Generation
By Daniel M. Dellinger
Seventy years ago this month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed
what many historians and economists consider the greatest social
legislation ever passed by the United States Congress. As popular as the
GI Bill remains today, the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act
of 1944 was by no means a slam dunk.
"Everything that glitters is not necessarily gold," leaders of four
major veterans' organizations wrote in an open letter opposing the
measure just months earlier. Even Roosevelt was initially opposed,
telling an American Legion convention in 1933 that "no person because he
wore a uniform must thereafter be placed in a special class of
beneficiaries over and above other citizens." Of course, World War II
clearly changed Roosevelt's thinking. Moreover, veterans did not want to
be placed in a "special class;" they just wanted a shot at the American
dream that they fought so hard to defend.
While the GI Bill was indeed expensive, critics wrongly focused on cost
while ignoring the great return. To be sure, the $14.5 illion total
spent for education and $20 per week for 52 weeks of unemployment pay
were no pittance, but it paled in comparison to the higher tax revenue
gained from an educated working class and a housing boom resulting from
millions of homeowners. When the initial GI Bill period ended in 1956,
7.8 million out of 15.4 million veterans had enrolled in an education or
training program. In 1955, the Veterans Administration backed one-third
of housing starts. Levittown and many other communities owed their very
existence to the affordable mortgages made possible by the GI Bill. It
has been estimated that the GI Bill returned $7 to the economy for every
$1 of cost.
Drafted on stationery at Washington's Mayflower Hotel by Harry Colmery,
a World War I veteran and past national commander of The American
Legion, the provisions of the GI Bill reflected the input of a committee
of prominent Legionnaires, including the organization's then-National
Commander Warren Atherton and former Illinois Gov. John Stelle. It also
benefited from the strong support of newspaper titan William Randolph
Hearst, who believed that the previous generation of World War I
veterans were not adequately compensated.
Plenty of drama followed, including the dispatch and holding of an
Eastern Airlines flight to Georgia to secure the vote of a pivotal
The cultural ramifications of the GI Bill of Rights would shape the
nation that America is today. The new benefit was color-blind, enabling
African American and women veterans to pursue higher education years
before Rosa Parks made her brave stand on a bus. Beneficiaries of the GI
Bill included future presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; Sen.
John Glenn, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Chief Justice William
Rehnquist, actor Paul Newman, singer Johnny Cash and Americans in every
occupational field. University presidents, business leaders, doctors and
scientists who made it possible for the United States to win the race to
the moon proved repeatedly that America was wise to invest in their
And while America thrived in the decades following World War II, it
avoided the pre-war unemployment rates that marked the Great Depression.
Most importantly, the 16 million returning World War II veterans came
home to options.
I am proud that my organization, The American Legion, lobbied hard for
educational benefits to assist later generations of veterans. In fact,
former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards said that the Post- 9/11 GI Bill would not
have happened without The American Legion. And while Roosevelt's signing
of the original Servicemen's Readjustment Act on June 22, 1944, remains
one of the finest moments in American history, The American Legion will
continue to see that all future GI Bills are worthy of their name.
Daniel M. Dellinger is the national commander of the 2.4 million
member American Legion, www.legion.org.
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