It could be argued that present-day America, as a military and economic power, can trace its origins to a single turn — a wrong turn.
On the morning of June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo. The archduke and his wife had narrowly escaped an earlier attempt on their lives but decided to continue with their official business that afternoon. Unfortunately, their motorcade took a wrong turn, placing them within meters of one of the assigned assassins, Gavrilo Princip. Unlike his colleagues earlier, Princip succeeded in assassinating the archduke.
The assassination of the archduke was the spark that ignited the Great War in Europe, already predestined by the existing political and economic climate. But the Treaty of Versailles, a result of the Great War in its aftermath, contributed to a climate that enabled the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany.
It was Hitler’s megalomania and President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to it that pulled America out of the Great Depression. It transformed America into the military and economic power that it is today, placing FDR in the presidential pantheon of greatness. It also gave Roosevelt his greatest legislative achievement — the G.I. Bill of Rights.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill) was enacted 75 years ago. Former American Legion National Commander and Republican National Chairman Harry W. Colmery proposed extending benefits to all World War II veterans. Colmery’s proposal served as the bill’s initial draft.
The bill went to Congress in January 1944, even as war continued in Europe and the Pacific. Roosevelt signed the legislation on June 22, 1944.
The G.I. Bill established hospitals for veterans and made low-interest mortgages available. It also covered tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools. Not only is the G.I. Bill the gold standard for supporting returning soldiers, it solidified middle-class status in America.
Beyond acknowledging the valor of returning veterans, the G.I. Bill had pragmatic motivations. It was designed to prevent an influx of soldiers returning to an economy unable to support them.
Congress passed the Bonus Act of 1924, which promised World War I veterans a bonus based on the number of days served. No efforts had been made to integrate returning vets into the economy that time. By 1932, during the Great Depression, some 20,000 frustrated veterans, called Bonus Marchers, descended on the nation’s capitol, demanding their bonus money.
Instead of yielding to their demands, President Herbert Hoover sent armed forces to disperse the veterans. A conflict in which U.S. involvement began with President Woodrow Wilson declaring, in 1917, the mission to “make the world safe for democracy,” by 1932, was pitting soldiers against veterans. Tragically, it wasn’t until 1945 that veterans of the Great War received the bonuses promised to them in 1924.
The rate of return on the government’s investment in surviving World War II soldiers is incalculable. But the implementation of the G.I. Bill was hamstrung by the same social ills that plagued the nation at large.
Returning African Americans soldiers didn’t realize the benefits in the same manner as their white counterparts. The South, with its Jim Crow laws, possessed little interest in placing blacks on a footing that could usher them into the middle class.
Blacks in the South were limited to black colleges, restricting them to a pool of roughly 100 public and private institutions. This made the demand for higher education incongruent with the supply.
In the North and South, the G.I. Bill was unable to prevent redlining and predatory lending practices. The incentives provided by the G.I. Bill for low-cost mortgages did not prohibit banks from denying loans to qualified blacks. Those blacks that received mortgages were largely segregated to areas where property values were slower to increase, stagnating long-term wealth accumulation.
But the shortcomings in the appropriation do not disqualify the G.I. Bill from being, in my view, America’s greatest piece of domestic legislation. Between 1945 and 1956, 8 million returning veterans went to college. According to Wellesley College economic professor David Fetter, between 1940 and 1960, the rate of home ownership increased from 44 to 62 percent, as younger individuals became homeowners at unprecedented rates. The G.I. Bill propelled Americans to new heights of education, fueling the economic prosperity and middle class status that personified American life post World War II.
Our contemporary use of the phrase, “I support the troops,” is more slogan that lived commitment. But 75 years ago, it was not only an obligation to avoid the errors made in 1924; it was also a foundational pillar that fostered America’s long-term economic viability.
And just think, it all started with a wrong turn.