Today, the Veterans History Project launches a new online exhibit to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a piece of legislation that forever altered the American veteran experience: the GI Bill.
In June 1944, Army Corporal John Kuhlman was in training at Fort Crook, Nebraska, and focusing on his eventual transfer overseas. While he anxiously considered his impending deployment, lawmakers in Washington were thinking about the end of Kuhlman’s career—or, rather, on the eventual return from war of millions of servicemen and women just like Kuhlman.
What would these veterans face, after giving up years of their lives in service to their country, only to return to find themselves unemployed? What would the country itself face, particularly economically? Veterans of the “Great War” had dealt with numerous challenges in the decades after their homecoming, spurring a “Bonus Army” to march on Washington to demand delivery of a promised monetary bonus. In the early summer of 1944, just weeks after the invasion of Normandy, the federal government looked ahead to the eventual end of the war and addressed the question: could the government design a program to spare returning veterans, and the country as a whole, the hardships of a previous generation?
The solution was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, signed into law on June 22, 1944. Known colloquially as the “GI Bill of Rights,” or “GI Bill,” the legislation laid out a set of provisions intended to ease returning servicemen and women into civilian life: unemployment benefits to pay the bills while they looked for a job, low-cost housing mortgages, low-interest business loans, and arguably most importantly, educational benefits. Veterans were offered tuition and living expenses to facilitate attendance of high school, college, or technical school.
The GI Bill transformed the American economy, the landscape of higher education, and the lives of countless veterans—those who served in later conflicts as well as in World War II. In this new online exhibit, we have included the stories of 15 veterans who utilized the GI Bill educational benefits after they returned from war, and whose narratives illustrate its impact on their post-service lives.
Reflecting in their oral history interviews on their use of GI Bill, many of these veterans express their deep gratitude for the legislation. As Navy veteran Charles Burrell asserted, ‘The GI Bill was a godsend.” This sentiment is a constant refrain among the veterans featured in the exhibit. Stanley Karnow, a World War II veteran who went on to attend Harvard and the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, claimed in his VHP oral history interview, “The GI Bill is one of the greatest inventions ever made.”
In contrast to the positive experience of white veterans with the legislation, following World War II, many African-American veterans had difficulty in utilizing GI Bill benefits due to their race. African-American veterans were often unable to secure mortgages and business loans as a result of discriminatory lending practices, and were denied entry to many colleges and universities. An aspiring architect and a veteran of the 92nd Infantry Division, Robert Madison was initially rejected from Western Reserve University because of the color of his skin. After he successfully petitioned the Dean of Admissions for entrance, he broke the color line as the first African-American student in the School of Architecture.
Despite these issues, the strength of the GI Bill has become a motivating factor in new recruits’ decision to join the military, particularly for those who enlisted during the Cold War era and peacetime veterans. Though she came from a military family and felt a duty to serve, it was the GI Bill, and the promise of being able to finance her education, that compelled Judy Reed Russell to enlist in the Air Force. As she explained in her oral history, “I thought I could finish college… and help my country at the same time.” For Michael Arndt, who enlisted in 1975, the Marine Corps offered a way out of a dead-end job and the possibility of a future college education (and the uniforms looked pretty spiffy, too). For some of these veterans, however, the experience of actually attending college brought challenges of its own. In his oral history interview, Iraq War veteran Harvey Zimmerman discussed how the life experience he gained through his military service made him feel older than his fellow students.
In researching veterans’ experiences with the GI Bill, I was surprised to discover the overwhelming diversity of career paths that veterans have pursued via the legislation’s educational benefits. Some of the veterans featured in the exhibit, like Kuhlman, picked up academic pursuits they’d had to abandon when they were drafted or enlisted. Others chose to pursue long held dreams, like Judy Reed Russell, who used the GI Bill to attend nursing school. Still others embarked on new paths, sometimes inspired by their service experiences. Interestingly, three of the spotlighted veterans pursued arts-related careers after their military service: Charles Burrell and Jonathan Newmark studied music, while William Arthur Ehren Tool got involved in ceramic arts.
Not only has the GI Bill provided returning veterans with an educational and economic boost, but in many cases, it also paved their way to becoming leaders in their fields. In curating this exhibit, I was struck by the notable accomplishments of the veterans who voiced great appreciation of the GI Bill in their oral history interviews. John Warner used the GI Bill twice, to attend college and then again for law school, and later served as Secretary of the Navy and a five-term Senator. Charles Burrell became the first African-American musician to play with a major U.S. symphony. Stanley Karnow found a career as an award-winning journalist.
But even for those veterans who did not achieve national recognition, the GI Bill helped them to carve out a path forward, one that might have proved otherwise impossible. From Fort Crook, John Kuhlman shipped out to Europe, where he served in England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. After he returned, he briefly tried to follow in his father’s footsteps as a wheat farmer. Deciding to go back to school, he began attending Washington State College and taking classes using the GI Bill, and eventually became a university professor. As he explains in his memoir,
I simply fell in love with the idea of a university—studying and learning, the lifestyle of the faculty and the enthusiasm of the students including many veterans… The Army and the GI Bill made it possible for me to be a college professor.”
Take a look at our new online exhibit to discover additional narratives like Kuhlman’s. For even more stories about the GI Bill, read through Lisa Taylor’s 2014 blog post, and watch this space for a guest blog post written by a current student veteran.