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"A hell of a gift, an opportunity." "Magnanimous." "One of the greatest advantages I ever experienced." These are the voices of World War II veterans, lavishing praise on their beloved G.I. Bill. Transcending boundaries of class and race, the Bill enabled a sizable portion of the hallowed "greatest generation" to gain vocational training or to attend college or graduate school at government expense. Its beneficiaries had grown up during the Depression, living in tenements and cold-water flats, on farms and in small towns across the nation, most of them expecting that they would one day work in the same kinds of jobs as their fathers. Then the G.I. Bill came along, and changed everything. They experienced its provisions as inclusive, fair, and tremendously effective in providing the deeply held American value of social opportunity, the chance to improve one's circumstances. They become chefs and custom builders, teachers and electricians, engineers and college professors. But the G.I. Bill fueled not only the development of the middle class: it also revitalized American democracy. Americans who came of age during World War II joined fraternal groups and neighborhood and community organizations and took part in politics at rates that made the postwar era the twentieth century's civic "golden age." Drawing on extensive interviews and surveys with hundreds of members of the "greatest generation," Suzanne Mettler finds that by treating veterans as first-class citizens and in granting advanced education, the Bill inspired them to become the active participants thanks to whom memberships in civic organizations soared and levels of political activity peaked. Mettler probes how this landmark law produced such a civic renaissance. Most fundamentally, she discovers, it communicated to veterans that government was for and about people like them, and they responded in turn. In our current age of rising inequality and declining civic engagement, Soldiers to Citizens offers critical lessons about how public programs can make a difference.
Year:
2005
Edition:
1St Edition
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Language:
english
Pages:
272
ISBN 10:
0195180976
ISBN 13:
9781429468992
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PDF, 2.15 MB
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Soldiers to Citizens:
The G.I. Bill and the Making
of the Greatest Generation

SUZANNE METTLER

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

S OLDIERS

TO

C ITIZENS

This page intentionally left blank

Soldiers to
Citizens
The G.I. Bill
and the Making of
the Greatest Generation

Kk
SUZANNE METTLER

2005

Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further
Oxford University’s objective of excellence
in research, scholarship, and education.
Oxford New York
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Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Mettler
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10016
www.oup.com
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mettler, Suzanne.
Soldiers to citizens : the G.I. bill and the making
of the greatest generation / Suzanne Mettler.
p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-518097-8
ISBN-10: 0-19-518097-6
1. World War, 1939–1945—Veterans—Education—United States.
2. Retired military personnel—Employment—United States—History—20th century.
3. World War, 1939–1945—Social aspects—United States.
4. Veterans—United States—Conduct of life—History—20th century.
5. Veterans—Political activity—United States—History—20th century.
6. United States—Social conditions—1945–
I. Title.
UB357.M475 2005
305.9'0697'097309045—dc22 2005004298

135798642
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

To my mother, Elinor Fox Mettler,
and to;  the memory of my father, John J. Mettler Jr.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal . . . It is for us the
living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they
who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced . . . that from
these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they gave the last full measure of devotion . . . that we here
highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this
nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that
government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not
perish from the earth.
—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Contents

Preface ix
Acknowledgments

xiii

Introduction
Civic Generation 1
Chapter 1
Creating the G.I. Bill 15
Chapter 2
Citizen Soldiers 24
Chaper 3
Beyond All Expectations 41
Chapter 4
Conveying Messages 59
Chapter 5
Fostering Social Opportunity 87
Chapter 6
Creating Active Citizens 106
Chapter 7
Making Democracy
vii

121

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K

Contents

Chapter 8
Mobilizing for Equal Rights

136

Chapter 9
Created with the Men in Mind
Chapter 10
The Unfinished Work 163
Appendices

177

Notes

193

Index

243

144

Preface

L

ittle did I know when I began the research for this book that it
would lead me into the scholarly adventure of a lifetime.
Broadly speaking, I am interested in how particular governing
arrangements affect citizens’ engagement in public life, and the implications for the vibrancy of democracy. I study American political development, investigating how public policies, once established, have influenced
citizens’ views about government and their participation in civic and political affairs.
In my first book, I examined this question by probing the extent to
which New Deal social and labor policies reached different groups of
citizens, and how their rules and procedures affected citizens’ relationship to government. My ability to understand citizens’ experiences was
limited, though, because appropriate sources of evidence simply did not
exist. The archival materials and government documents I mined told
me much about how political actors and institutions responded to citizens, but little about the reverse.
For my next project, therefore, I decided that I must find a way to
learn from citizens themselves about their experiences of a public program. It would make sense, I reasoned, to move somewhat forward in
time, so that in addition to using traditional, existing sources, I could
also learn from people who had been actual program beneficiaries. After
the sweeping policy innovations of the 1930s, the G.I. Bill marked America’s
next creation of a major public program. To my surprise, I found that this
popular law has received relatively little attention from scholars. Somewhat arbitrarily, then, I settled on the G.I. Bill as the subject of my study,
and I determined to focus on the impact of its most utilized component,
the education and training provisions, on World War II veterans.
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Preface

Although survey research came into vogue in the 1940s, and numerous surveys were conducted of veterans and of citizens generally
during that decade and in the years following, none of them combined
questions about G.I. Bill usage and civic and political activity. In order
to have the means to examine large patterns of program usage and its
effects, I decided that I would need to survey members of the World War
II generation myself. Also, to help me understand how individuals experienced the G.I. Bill’s benefits and perceived its effects in their own lives,
and conversely, why some individuals did not utilize the program, I would
conduct a much smaller number of personal, in-depth interviews with
veterans, both G.I. Bill users and nonusers.
I began to seek a systematic means of reaching members of the World
War II generation who could participate in the survey. Relatives, friends,
and colleagues put me in touch with their neighbors, uncles, and fathers
who belonged to veterans’ groups, and they in turn sent me to organizational leaders, several of whom offered me access to their groups’ mailing lists. I also contacted colleges and universities, requesting names and
addresses of alumni from the Class of 1949. After many months of such
searching and deliberating about which groups might best help generate a representative sample of veterans, and after developing a twelvepage mail survey booklet and testing it with a focus group of veterans in
Syracuse, I was ready to conduct the survey. I had become worried,
though, about how well this approach would work: survey experts warned
me that I would be lucky if 20 percent of the sample responded.
A lively team of graduate students aided me as we assembled the
first mailing to over two thousand individuals, stuffing and stamping
envelopes deep into the night for several days on end. Every survey was
accompanied by a personally addressed letter requesting the recipient’s
participation, and I signed every one by hand in the admittedly superstitious hope that it would somehow help generate a strong response.
Finally, I delivered several boxes full of envelopes to the post office, then
settled down to wait.
I didn’t have to wait long. Eleven days later, I found a huge stack of
return envelopes waiting for me, each one containing a completed survey. As well, I began to receive phone calls from veterans who wanted to
tell me firsthand what it had been like to serve in the infantry. One man,
after relating stories from the front lines, said, “It’s been over fifty years,
and I’ve never told anyone this before.” In subsequent days, hundreds
and hundreds of return envelopes flooded in. As we opened the mountains of envelopes, we found that several respondents not only had filled
out the lengthy survey, which featured over two hundred questions, but
also had sent additional materials: long letters telling me more about

Preface

k

xi

themselves, clippings from newspapers, and even photographs. After
three weeks, when the returns had dwindled, our survey team convened
again, to send a new mailing to nonrespondents, a process that we repeated a third and final time another month later. Ultimately, the survey
generated a stunning 74-percent response rate, and more than 10 percent of all respondents had done more than send in the survey, whether
by enclosing additional materials or contacting me by phone.
In the meantime, I conducted interviews with veterans in all regions
of the nation. Before each trip, I would send letters to veterans from the
survey lists who lived in the vicinity of wherever I was going, letting
them know that I was seeking to learn about veterans’ experiences of
public programs and involvement in public life after the war, and asking
them if they were willing to be interviewed. In each instance, the majority replied and agreed to participate, leaving me to make choices about
which offers to accept so that I would meet veterans from a variety of
different communities in a given area. I found my way to their apartment buildings, retirement communities, and homes in a wide array of
residential neighborhoods. Veterans and their families welcomed me
warmly and graciously. Before each interview began, I did not know
whether the individual had used the G.I. Bill’s education or training benefits. Long before getting to the questions about the program or even
military service, I asked each veteran to specify turning points—events,
occurrences, or relationships that had changed the subsequent course of
his or her life. Each person I interviewed thought carefully before responding. Some mentioned a person who had served as a mentor early
in life, or spoke of their spouse of some fifty years; others identified
military service or career opportunities. What struck me was that in response to such a personal and probing question, several also mentioned
the G.I. Bill, particularly its education and training provisions. Also,
though I asked only a few questions about military service, veterans often volunteered much more information about that time in their lives.
They pulled out discharge papers, photographs, and Bronze Stars and
other medals, and they related memories of training and wartime that
they have carried with them throughout their lives. I began to realize
how essential it was to understand this part of their stories, which constituted the very basis through which they had become seen as deserving of and eligible for the G.I. Bill. I had not previously had any particular
interest in military service, but the more I listened to the veterans, the
more respect I gained for what that had meant in their lives, the high
price of citizenship they had paid, and how deeply they seemed to care
about America.

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Preface

And that was just the beginning. The next rounds of surveys to additional groups of veterans, in subsequent years, also produced high response rates and brought me more letters and phone calls. The interviews
continued to introduce me to people whose voices now echo in my mind.
Several of the subjects, sad to say, have died in the years since I first met
them, and some have grown incapacitated, but others are flourishing,
and they check in with me from time to time to inquire about the progress
of the book and to wish me well. Compelling, too, has been the dynamic
process of analyzing these rich and different kinds of evidence. The process of discovery has been facilitated by a community of scholars who
have encouraged me and prodded me to delve further and to dig deeper
to make sense of what I have found. All told, from start to finish, my
work on this project has been a privilege and a joy.

Preface

k

xiii

Acknowledgments

T

o say that this book relied upon an army of support is hardly the
exaggeration it might seem. My gratitude goes, first of all, to each
of the veterans who allowed me to interview them, and the hundreds of veterans and nonveterans from the World War II generation
who took the time to respond to the survey. For their willingness to put
me in contact with their members, I am thankful to the associational
leaders of the 87th, 89th, and 92nd Infantry Divisions of the U.S. Army;
the 379th Bombardment Group and the 783rd Bomb Squadron, 465th
Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Force; and Women in Military Service for America, Inc. Veterans Jim Amor, Albert Burke, Shelby Clark,
Elmer Ebrecht, Donald Johnson, Jack Meyer, David Reeher, William Perry,
and Richard Werner provided essential assistance, as did Celeste Torian.
As well, officials at several institutions responded kindly to my requests
and allowed me to contact their Class of 1949 alumni: Boston College,
Brooklyn College, Morehouse College, Northwestern University, Pomona
College, Syracuse University, University of Georgia, University of Texas,
Vanderbilt University, Washington State University, and Wayne State
University.
I also gathered materials for this study from a variety of other sources.
Michael K. Brown at the University of California at Santa Cruz kindly
shared with me critical materials that he unearthed in his own research in
the National Archives. Major Darrell Driver at the U.S. Military Academy
at West Point responded to my numerous questions with extraordinarily
helpful replies. Joe Hovish at the American Legion National Headquarters
in Indianapolis offered welcome assistance. Theda Skocpol generously
shared with me her approach to classifying organizations, which made
possible the analysis in Chapter 7. Joseph Thompson, Undersecretary for
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Acknowledgments

Benefits, U.S. Veterans Administration, provided valuable documents. I
was aided as well by the staff at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde
Park, New York; the National Archives in both College Park, Maryland,
and Washington, D.C.; and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives,
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
By contrast to the relatively lonely work of library and archival research, a project involving surveys and interviews is a highly collaborative process. I shudder to think how I would have managed without the
wisdom, patience, and generosity of Eric Welch, who advised me on survey design and administration and eased my transition into quantitative
analysis. In the Maxwell School, my colleague Jeff Stonecash has been a
pillar of support throughout, always willing to hear out my challenges
and to offer vital advice. Rogan Kersh helped in myriad ways and offered
warm friendship. Others gave encouragement and key ideas, including
Kristi Andersen, Joe Cammarano, Madonna Harrington-Meyer, Peg
Hermann, Patricia Ingraham, Vernon Greene, Rosemary O’Leary, Grant
Reeher, Sally Selden, Tim Smeeding, and Doug Wolf. Several graduate students provided excellent research assistance: Dionne Bensonsmith, Joe
Blasdel, Mark Brewer, Premek Macha, Lanethea Mathews-Gardner, Andrew Milstein, Wagaki Mwangi, Lori Beth Way, Amy Widestrom, and
McGee Young. Rita Reicher and the team at Knowledge Systems and Research, Inc. performed the data entry with fine professionalism, and
Collette Fay carefully transcribed the interviews and created a marvelous
database.
I am enormously grateful to a wonderful community of scholars
who have given me an appropriate blend of encouragement and criticism throughout this project. For pointing the way through their own
scholarship, voicing incisive questions and comments, and offering warm
support, I am thankful to Andrea Campbell, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson,
Theda Skocpol, and Joe Soss. Over the years, I received helpful comments on earlier drafts of portions of the book from Nancy Burns,
Michael Dawson, Patricia Graham, Ira Katznelson, Phil Klinkner, Jerome
Legge, Robert Lieberman, Ann Chih Lin, Gretchen Ritter, Elaine Sharp,
Margaret Weir, and participants in seminars at Harvard University, the
University of Michigan, Syracuse University, the University of Wisconsin, and Yale University. Mark Brewer, Steve Teles, Rick Valelly, and an
anonymous reviewer each generously took the time to read the complete manuscript and offered invaluable advice for revisions. The book
also bears the influence of the marvelous group of political scientists
that made up the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, on which I had the privilege of serving. Eileen McDonagh has been
a steadfast friend and mentor, for whose support I am ever grateful.

Acknowledgments

k

xv

Institutional support enabled me to gain the time, resources, and
assistance necessary for this project. A postdoctoral fellowship from the
National Academy of Education proved vital to begin, and a grant from
the Spencer Foundation permitted me to continue. In the Maxwell School
at Syracuse University, the Center for Policy Research, Center for Demography and Economic of Aging, and the Dean’s Office each contributed financial support at key stages. Kelley Coleman and Bethany
Walawender in the Campbell Institute of Public Affairs came to my aid
on several occasions, as did Jacquie Meyer and Candy Brooks in the
Political Science Department, and the Maxwell ICT group.
A superb group of individuals enabled me to transform my manuscript into this book. My agent, Lisa Adams, lent expert advice and support. It has been a genuine privilege to work with Tim Bartlett, a
marvelously perceptive editor with a sense of vision and an ability to
push me the extra mile. My thanks, too, go to the entire team at Oxford
University Press, including Kate Hamill, Helen Mules, and Sue Warga,
for their expertise and care in producing the book.
Wayne Grove, the love of my life, has made it all possible and all
worthwhile. Early on, he—as a good economist—played devil’s advocate to my evolving research design plans; throughout the research process, he helped me weather the travails, indulged me in hundreds of
conversations about my findings, offered insights from his vast wealth
of knowledge, and shared in my growing excitement; and through the
seemingly endless writing process, when I kept promising that the book’s
completion lay just around the corner, his love, companionship, and
care sustained me. Our daughters, Sophie and Julia, fill our lives with
joy; they have patiently lived with this project, helped keep me on task,
and delighted me with their questions and recommendations. I am
blessed by the steadfast support of my fabulous siblings, Patrick, Jody,
Jeanne, Meg, and Sally, and each of their spouses and families, including
my nephew Joseph Bosnick, a Marine, who carries on the spirit of those
in this book. And while dear friends Lynn and Tim Borstelmann and
Steve Meyer and Eileen Strempel might have been puzzled by my fascination with “G.I. Joe,” they have filled my years of work on this project
with celebration.
My parents have exemplified all that is great about the greatest generation. My father, John J. Mettler Jr., grew up on a dairy farm in upstate
New York during the Depression and attended a one-room schoolhouse.
He was able to go to college thanks to the public, land-grant side of Cornell
University, where he enrolled in 1940 to pursue his dream of becoming a
veterinarian. After the war began, he and his classmates enlisted in the

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Army and completed their studies as part of the Army Specialized Training Program. From 1944 to 1947 he served in the Pacific, stationed on the
islands of Guam, Saipan, Oahu, and Chichi Jima. When he returned home,
he had one goal in mind, and contrary to what readers might expect, it
was not using the G.I. Bill, but something even more wonderful: marrying
my mother, Elinor Fox, whom he had known since childhood. She consented and left behind her budding career in New York City to move to
the rural area where he had grown up and where he began his veterinary
practice. Over the next decade and a half, they welcomed into the world
all six of us, our birth years spanning those of the baby boom generation.
We have been blessed all of our lives by their deep and steadfast love.
Besides us, they loved our community and cared deeply about public life. Each of their lives defined active citizenship. Both took turns
leading the PTA, and they became devoted members of their church. My
father grew involved in local politics, served on the zoning and planning
boards, helped with the 4-H Club, and took part in the VFW, American
Legion, and Lions Club, as well as belonging to the American Veterinary
Medical Association and related professional associations. My mother
steered into being the International Friendship Exchange, the local history society, a rails-to-trails association, and countless other events
and activities, and she started and ran the local newspaper, making it a
model of community journalism. Ever attentive to political happenings on a larger scale, both of them always cared passionately about
America, felt pride in its accomplishments, and yearned for it to embody more fully its best ideals.
Both of my parents lent their support to this project from the moment I first came up with the idea. They proceeded to instruct me on
such matters as draft classifications, military ranks, and myriad other
topics about World War II and the years following, and they pointed me
toward veterans who could help me gain access to mailing lists for the
survey. My father died four years ago, and we all miss him so. How I
wish he were here to see the book finished at last. My mother has continued to be an effervescent source of ideas, information, and encouragement as I have brought it to completion. This book is dedicated, with
tremendous love, admiration, and gratitude, to both of them.
Syracuse, New York

Suzanne Mettler
April 2005

S OLDIERS

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Introduction
Civic Generation

W

hen he was young, Luke LaPorta never imagined that he
would attend college, let alone obtain a doctorate. The son
of an Italian immigrant, LaPorta grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Queens, New York. During the Great Depression, his family,
like many during that time, struggled to get by, needing public assistance to make ends meet. Although he had been a good student in high
school, college seemed entirely out of the question. Nobody in his family or even in his neighborhood had gone: there wasn’t the money for it,
and it was not something that people like them could even consider.
Once LaPorta finished high school, World War II had begun, so he enlisted in the Navy and served aboard a minesweeper that patrolled the
Atlantic coast of the United States.
Upon his return from the war, LaPorta had an experience that would
profoundly change the course of his life. He accompanied friends from
the military on a campus visit to Syracuse University, though having no
intention of actually going himself. “It was a lark. We were going to have
a lot of fun.” While there, the school official who was assisting his friends
turned to LaPorta, asked him about his academic record, and then said,
“Why don’t you come to school here, too? You’ve got the G.I. Bill!” The
words struck LaPorta like a revelation, and he was thrilled and overwhelmed by the idea. He returned home to tell his parents, who shared
his excitement. His mother said, “Luke, you go! You can always work!”
One week before he was to depart for college, LaPorta’s father had an
accident and became unable to work. Although LaPorta felt he should
stay home and support his parents, they insisted that he seize the opportunity to pursue his education. So, he recalls, “I packed a bag—some
1

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Introduction

shirts and five or six pairs of socks, and that was it. I was one of the first
kids to come [to Syracuse University] on the G.I. Bill.”
Over time, LaPorta would earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and eventually a doctorate. His education enabled him to attain a
standard of living far greater than any his parents might have hoped for.
Equally important, LaPorta involved himself to an extraordinary degree
in community activities and organizations. He devoted himself to establishing and coaching a vast number of youth sports teams. In 1950,
he started the state’s first chartered Little League in his own town; over
the next decade, he helped develop more than sixty such organizations
throughout the region. Time and again, he served as a delegate to Little
League Congresses, the international meetings that brought together
representatives of local and regional leagues, and then, for fifteen years,
he served as chairman of the board of International Little League Baseball, Inc. He became a well-loved and honored member of his community for his decades of public service to young people. Reflecting back
over his life, LaPorta credited the G.I. Bill with getting him started, explaining that he could not have afforded college without it, and even
more fundamentally, that he had not even thought of himself as capable
of pursuing higher education. “It was a hell of a gift, an opportunity,
and I’ve never thought of it any other way,” he commented. “Sometimes
I wonder if I really earned what I’ve gotten, to be frank with you.”
In recent years, popular books have celebrated the virtues of the
generation of Americans who, like Luke LaPorta, were born in the early
twentieth century, especially in the 1910s and the 1920s. The hallmark
of this literature—exemplified by Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling
Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community—is its power
to evoke nostalgia and a keen sense that the United States is losing much
with the passing of this generation.1 Yet none of these books explains
why those who came of age around the time of World War II exhibited
throughout their lives such remarkable commitment to the principles
and practices of democracy. Neither have they considered the significance of the intensive government involvement that was so commonplace in the lives of this renowned group of Americans. There is a story
that remains to be told about this generation, and it is a story with profound implications for our lives today.
The “greatest generation” is composed of individuals who spent their
childhoods in families struggling to survive the Great Depression, and
who came of age with World War II. “They answered the call,” Brokaw
writes, “to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless
military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands

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of fascist maniacs.”2 They included the citizen soldiers—the ordinary
citizens charged with the utmost obligation of civic duty, to defend the
nation—who stormed the beaches of Normandy, who trekked through
the cold European winter of 1944–45 and liberated the concentration
camps, and who dug in at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.3 They
were also the vigilant citizens who stayed behind to defend the home
front and support the war effort by working in defense industries, saving scrap metal and rubber, planting Victory gardens to raise their own
food, and shopping as conscientious consumers to make sure retailers
honored price controls.4
Once victory came, the members of this generation participated as
active citizens in the peace that followed. They joined civic organizations at record rates, producing what Robert Putnam depicts as a “golden
age” of American civic life.5 A wide array of organizations flourished,
including fraternal associations such as the Masons, Elks, Moose, United
Methodist Women, and Order of the Eastern Star; service groups including the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary; professional associations such
as the American Chemical Society and the American Psychological Association; labor unions; and churches and church-affiliated groups.6
These same young adults involved themselves intensely in political life
through voting, party membership, working on political campaigns, and
myriad other activities. Bolstered by their participation, voter turnout
hit twentieth-century peaks.7
Through such intense activity, these Americans earned their reputation as the “civic generation.”8 Their involvement in public life epitomized cherished ideals at the heart of American democracy: widespread
participation by ordinary citizens and the articulation of political voice
by a broad cross section of the populace. Among towering figures of
American political thought, from Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Cady
Stanton to Martin Luther King Jr., citizens’ participation has been considered essential to fulfill the promise of representative government.
While popular forms of mass participation have shifted historically, both
types in which the World War II generation took part—formal politics
and civic associations—have long been viewed as forms of “good citizenship,” means whereby ordinary citizens could be part of public life
and exert their influence on it.9 As French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville
observed in the 1830s, a time when only white men were allowed to participate in formal politics, Americans “of all ages, all conditions, and all
dispositions” exhibit a propensity to “constantly form associations” of
all varieties: “not only commercial and industrial . . . but [also] religious,
moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large
and very minute.”10 Throughout American history, these organizations

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served as a training ground to prepare adult citizens for participation in
democratic politics. They brought citizens together and gave them opportunities to practice collective debate and decision making and to hone
their organizing skills. They produced civic leaders by electing officers
and committee members who served on a rotating basis, and had responsibility for running group meetings, organizing events, and representing their local chapters at state, regional, or even national meetings.11
As well, many civic organizations actively encouraged participation in
politics and educated their members on public issues. Some advocated
for specific forms of legislation, and others formed the front lines of
social movements, including the postwar struggle for civil rights.12 Of
course, some citizens circumvented the associational route and jumped
directly into politics, whether at the local level or beyond. Through all
such forms of involvement, members of the World War II generation
helped fortify and invigorate the practices of self-governance.
As the twentieth century proceeded, this remarkable generation remained engaged, even when, by many indicators, democratic well-being
in the United States began to show signs of distress. Beginning in the
1970s, Americans began to vote less, to trust each other less, to trust
government less, and to disengage from political parties and other forms
of political action. The large, federated civic organizations that had
thrived at midcentury saw their membership rolls diminish.13 Interestingly, however, not all citizens were distancing themselves from public
life. In fact, members of the generation that had grown up amid the New
Deal and World War II remained as involved as ever. Their parents’ generation had tended to participate less in public life as they became older;
many of their children and especially their grandchildren never became
involved in the ways they had from quite early on in their lives. Those in
the civic generation proved themselves to be steadfast citizens, keeping
organizations alive and electoral turnout levels respectable rather than
receding from public life with the aging process and leaving it to the
next generations to carry on.14
In confronting the lack of civic involvement in contemporary
America, we might ask ourselves what made this generation so committed to public life. Some scholars propose that the experiences of uniting
for the common good during the war—both in the armed forces and on
the home front—may have helped foster the lasting inclination toward
civic involvement.15 This may have been compounded, others reason, by
World War II’s reputation as the “good war,” the most recent war in
American memory that was universally understood to be necessary and
just. Yet while the emphasis on war is understandable, it fails to serve as
a sufficient explanation for the civic generation’s high levels of involve-

Civic Generation

k

5

ment. Wartime brought with it as many factors that could help unravel
the civic fabric as ones that could strengthen its fiber. Studies of civic
involvement in the latter part of the twentieth century find that, all else
equal, veterans generally have not been more active in civic affairs than
nonveterans of the same age group.16 For many, the aspects of military
service that induce solidarity were likely offset by the harrowing experiences of warfare. Many veterans returned home with symptoms of an
unnamed malady that only decades later became recognized as posttraumatic stress disorder. As well, after having given much of their lives
for the public good already, veterans were typically anxious to pursue
personal goals and to do so in a hurry. On the home front, the war and
especially its aftermath brought massive dislocation of jobs and families. Patterns of relocation already under way in earlier decades hastened
as families moved in vast numbers from farms to cities, from East to West,
and from South to North. Newcomers did not easily become involved in
their new communities, and tensions emerged between old and new populations.17 All told, the experience of the war and its aftermath fail to explain adequately why the generation that emerged from them became so
public-spirited. This book entertains an alternative explanation.
Rather than focusing exclusively on how members of the civic generation experienced war, we might turn our attention to their experiences of government. They lived through the formative years of childhood
and early adulthood at precisely the time when national government
was becoming more involved in citizens’ lives than ever before, particularly in the realm of social provision.18 For the first hundred years after
the drafting of the Constitution, American citizens had looked primarily to their state and local governments to define the scope of their rights
and responsibilities. The limits of states’ governing capacity combined
with the Supreme Court’s insistence that states refrain from intervening
in economic affairs meant that early on, states did little to ensure the
economic security of individuals and families. Adults who fell upon difficult times had to rely on their extended families or church congregations; in the absence of such support, they could be relegated to the local
poorhouse and lose their children to an orphanage.19 Meanwhile, the national government involved itself primarily in activities far from most citizens’ lives: facilitating internal improvements such as roads, canals, bridges,
and post offices, setting subsidies and tariffs, protecting patents, and
issuing a common currency.20 After the Civil War, the national government began to affect citizens’ lives more directly through pensions to
veterans and their widows; by the end of the nineteenth century and the
beginning of the twentieth, these pensions had become generous and
expansive, reaching 18 percent of the U.S. population age sixty-five and

6

K

Introduction

over.21 Still, the nascent social programs of the 1910s and 1920s, geared
toward mothers and their children, were established primarily at the
state and local levels.22
Only with the New Deal—through policies enacted as members of
the civic generation climbed through the middle years of childhood and
became teenagers—did national government begin to affect directly the
lives of vast numbers of citizens, across all age groups. In the worst years
of the Depression, millions of the unemployed found work through relief programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and many people saw electricity
come to their communities for the first time through the Tennessee Valley Authority. Families began to see their well-being enhanced by major
new social programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935 (including unemployment insurance, Aid to Dependent Children, and programs for the elderly) and by labor policies (namely, the National Labor
Relations Act of 1935, which sanctioned unionization, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandated the minimum wage and
overtime pay). Citizens witnessed national government working on their
behalf, ensuring their economic security and well-being and protecting
them from what President Franklin D. Roosevelt termed the “vicissitudes” of private life, the uncertainties of the marketplace, and the inability of families to care for their own amid such travails.23
Once they reached the age of eighteen, the vast majority of men of the
civic generation—and some women as well—answered the call of duty
and began their military service. Certainly in the war itself, they witnessed
government assuming a powerful role. But it was after they returned home
that they encountered what has become known as a landmark public policy,
the G.I. Bill of Rights. Formally called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act
of 1944, the law extended numerous social benefits to returning veterans of World War II. Any veteran who received a discharge status other
than dishonorable after at least ninety days of service qualified for extensive unemployment benefits, low-interest guaranteed loans to buy a
home, farm, or business, and financial assistance to pursue additional
education or training. Until they found a job, veterans could qualify for
unemployment benefits of $20 a week for up to one year; the average
veteran used only 19.7 weeks’ worth of the “52-20 Club,” as the program
was called, with only 14 percent exhausting their full entitlement. Twentynine percent took advantage of the loan guarantee provisions: 4.3 million purchased homes at low interest rates, and 200,000 purchased farms
or businesses. The construction industry received an enormous boost:
by 1955, nearly one-third of new housing starts nationwide owed their
backing to the Veterans Administration.24

Civic Generation

k

7

Of course, when most people think of the G.I. Bill they think of its
education and training benefits, and with good reason: 51 percent of
World War II veterans, a total of 7.8 million, took advantage of them.
Indeed, the usage rates for those provisions far surpassed the program
creators’ greatest expectations. By 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of students enrolled in American colleges. Ten years after World
War II, 2.2 million veterans had attended college under the law’s provisions. And for every veteran who used the G.I. Bill to attend college,
more than twice as many—a total of 5.6 million—seized the opportunity to acquire training below the college level.25 By attending G.I. Bill–
financed vocational or business schools or by utilizing the bill’s subsidy
of apprenticeships, on-the-job training, or on-the-farm training, they
gained preparation and credentials for a wide array of occupations.
Among the beneficiaries of such programs was Sam Marchesi, who
had an eighth-grade education. He had dropped out of school after his
father died in order to help support his mother and eight siblings. The
war began a few years later, and Marchesi enlisted in the Army. Sent to
the Pacific theater, he served in Australia, China, and finally the Philippines. During the invasion of Manila, he was badly wounded in battle,
earning a Purple Heart. While Marchesi recuperated, Red Cross nurses
urged him to use the G.I. Bill to develop new skills for supporting himself after the war. He used the benefits both for vocational training in
architectural drawing and estimating and for on-the-job training as an
apprentice carpenter. It enabled him to become a successful custom
builder. “I think it was a great thing that the government did, to give us
this opportunity to pick up where we left off,” he commented. “We had
to face the world. We had to make a living. Thank God the government
had the doors open for us.”
The G.I. Bill granted one year of education or training to veterans
who had served for at least ninety days, with an additional month of education for each additional month of service, up to a maximum of fortyeight months. All tuition and fees were covered, up to a total of $500 per
year—more than any university charged at that time—and veterans received monthly subsistence payments of $75 if single, $105 with one
dependent, and $120 with two or more dependents.26 By 1955, the federal government had spent a total of $14.5 billion—$108 billion in 2002
dollars—for the education and training provisions.27
To appreciate the scope of the G.I. Bill’s influence, we must consider
that among men born in the United States in the 1920s—those of the
generation in question—fully 80 percent were military veterans.28 And
unlike veterans of the Vietnam War and today’s all-volunteer force, they
were broadly representative of the general male population. The majority

8

K

Introduction

of them served in World War II, and over half of that group used the G.I.
Bill’s education and training provisions; those born later in the 1920s
were more likely to have served in the Korean War, and 42 percent of
them utilized a new and very similar version of the education and training provisions.29 Overall, close to half the men of the civic generation
took advantage of the education or training benefits of the G.I. Bill.
The central question posed by this book is how this landmark public program, one so widely experienced among men of the civic generation, might have affected beneficiaries’ involvement in the practices of
democratic citizenship. Answering this question is complicated by the
fact that despite the G.I. Bill’s popular reputation as a highly successful
program, we know surprisingly little about even its first-order effects,
meaning the scope of its coverage and the depth of its socioeconomic
impact.30 To be sure, the bill’s higher education provisions in particular
have been lauded, cited as the source of vast social change on the presumption that they expanded access to advanced education for over two
million Americans.31 But evidence for such claims has been surprisingly
rare.32 Several studies have shown that veterans enjoyed academic and
occupational success after the war that surpassed that of nonveterans,
but they neglected to isolate the effects of the G.I. Bill in producing such
success.33 A few scholars have evaluated selected effects of the G.I. Bill,
such as educational attainment.34 The most comprehensive of these studies found an increase in formal schooling of nearly three years among
beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill’s higher education provisions.35 However,
these studies are limited in their ability to explain the determinants of
program usage, leaving it unclear whether the provisions were genuinely accessible to the average veteran. They also tend to overlook entirely the effectiveness of the subcollege programs, which did not extend
educational attainment as it is typically measured but did enhance job
skills.36 And inquiry into the G.I. Bill’s impact on subsequent participation in civic and political life—the focus of this study—has been practically nonexistent.37 Despite the fact that historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
singled out the bill as “the most underrated national turning point” because it “contributed enormously to the release of economic and intellectual energy that carried postwar America to the summit of the world,”
and management guru Peter Drucker identified it as the single factor
most responsible for transforming the United States into a “knowledge
society,” we know little about the actual effects of this program on the
individuals who benefited from it.38
Recently, in the absence of comprehensive empirical studies, the
education and training provisions of the G.I. Bill have been targeted by
scholars attacking what they consider to be wrongheaded popular

Civic Generation

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9

“myths” of the program’s inclusiveness and democratizing effects. They
characterize the policy as inherently elitist and charge that it created
new inequalities in American society. Some claim that the G.I. Bill merely
bestowed privilege on already privileged veterans, paying the college
tuition of those who could have obtained education at their own expense while doing little for veterans from less advantaged backgrounds.39
As Lizabeth Cohen argues, “The vehicle most often credited with moving working-class Americans into the postwar middle class . . . orchestrated much less social engineering than it promised and has been given
credit for.”40 Others argue that it worsened educational inequalities between black and white Americans, and between men and women.41 These
analyses, if valid, would imply that any subsequent effects on beneficiaries’ participation in democracy would likely have compounded social
and economic disparities with civic and political inequality. However,
such claims tend to be based on sketchy evidence, typically anecdotal in
nature, or drawn from case studies of selected localities or institutions.
At stake in this book, then, are the record and the reputation of one
of the most sweeping programs ever enacted in the United States, with
regard to its affect on beneficiaries’ life opportunities and whether it
made them better citizens. In order to investigate these questions, I
needed to use a range of available resources and talk to some veterans
myself. Government documents and archival materials illuminated the
program’s origins and manner of implementation, and existing surveys
of veterans provided useful information about their usage of its benefits. No existing materials, however, would permit systematic comparisons of subsequent civic and political involvement of program users
versus nonusers. I turned, therefore, to the veterans themselves, collecting surveys from over fifteen hundred members of the World War II
generation and conducting in-depth interviews with twenty-eight veterans from all regions of the United States. (For full descriptions of data
collection procedures, see Appendices A–D.) Drawing on all of these
sources, I have put the G.I. Bill’s education and training benefits to the
test, assessing the program’s effects on veterans’ subsequent participation in civic and political activities.
My central finding, which this book documents and explains, is that
the G.I. Bill’s education and training provisions had an overwhelmingly
positive effect on male veterans’ civic involvement. Those veterans who
utilized the provisions became more active citizens in public life in the
postwar years than those who did not. Certainly it is not surprising that
advanced education would facilitate civic participation; remarkably,
however, the program’s effects transcended the impact of education itself. Comparing two nonblack male veterans who grew up in the same

10

K

Introduction

socioeconomic circumstances and who attained the same level of education, the individual who used the G.I. Bill belonged to 50 percent more
civic organizations and participated in 30 percent more political activities
and organizations than the nonrecipient.42 Beneficiaries became more intensely involved in public life, in activities long considered to be critical to
self-governance and therefore the lifeblood of American democracy.43
How can we explain these positive effects of the G.I. Bill’s education and training provisions on democratic participation? What was it
about this policy that made it reap consequences in the realm of civic
life? The answer lay in its fundamental inclusivity, magnanimity, and lifetransforming power among male veterans. These attributes were reflected, in part, through the value of the education and training it financed,
which were praised by veterans for their impact on their lives, and also
through the rules and procedures by which it was administered. Veterans commonly responded that the benefits of the bill were generous and
accessible and that they felt treated with respect, on terms equal to those
of other veterans, regardless of their class, race, or religious background.
Importantly, their deservingness for the generous benefits was considered to be beyond question, given that through their military service
they had put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the nation. In
turn, by experiencing treatment as “first-class” citizens in the program,
beneficiaries became more fully incorporated as members of the citizenry and thus developed a stronger predisposition to assume the roles
of active participants within it. Subsequently, in the postwar era, G.I.
Bill beneficiaries from across the spectrum of educational attainment
participated at higher levels in civic and political activities than would
otherwise have been expected.
For some, such as Luke LaPorta, such involvement took the form of
membership and leadership in mainstream civic organizations—in his
case, Little League, Babe Ruth, and numerous community sports organizations. Others mobilized to challenge the status quo. Henry Hervey,
an African American and a former Tuskegee Airman, used the G.I. Bill
to gain a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University. Afterward, however, he found the job market to be as pervaded by racial discrimination
as ever. “I went to every bank in downtown Chicago and presented my
credentials, and I got the same job offer I would have gotten if I had not
gone to college: it was either a janitor or a mailroom clerk.” Following
the positive experience of the G.I. Bill and having gained the skills fostered by the education it financed, Hervey joined those who mobilized
to change the system. “By that time you learn you can fight city hall, and
you have to fight, and there are ways you can bring pressure to make

Civic Generation

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11

changes.” Black G.I. Bill users, in fact, became a major impetus within
the emergent civil rights movement.
The inclusivity of the G.I. Bill did have limits.44 Women, who were
not drafted, constituted just 2 percent of the armed forces in World War
II, and though the G.I. Bill was available to female veterans, they used it
at somewhat lower rates because advanced education fit less neatly with
their gender roles in the postwar era than it did with men’s. More important, the exclusion of the vast majority of women from the program,
given that they were civilians, widened the gender divide in educational
attainment. In turn, the incorporation of a generation of men into the
polity exacerbated the gender gap in active citizenship, highlighting the
power of government programs to stimulate the participation of some
groups relative to others.
Nonetheless, just as the G.I. Bill transformed the lives of veterans
who used it, they in turn helped to change America. Prior to the war,
advanced education had been restricted predominantly to the privileged,
especially to white, native-born, elite Protestants. The social rights offered by the G.I. Bill broadened educational opportunity to veterans
who were Jewish or Catholic, African American, and immigrants as well
as to those whose families had struggled in the American working class
for generations. Once G.I. Bill beneficiaries became active citizens, they
altered the civic landscape of the United States, helping to make the
political system yet more inclusive and egalitarian during the middle
decades of the twentieth century.
In suggesting that a public program enhanced participation in American democracy, this book is at odds with prevailing views about the relationship between government and civic involvement. Indeed, over the
last quarter century, as citizens’ activity and interest in public affairs have
waned, political leaders have argued that modern government itself might
deserve the blame. The “welfare state,” including many of the social policies of the New Deal, has borne the brunt of such criticism on the grounds
that it fosters dependency among recipients, thus undermining their
sense of civic obligation, and that it substitutes for institutions of civil
society, such as churches and voluntary associations, thus weakening
them.45 While such ideas had percolated in American politics since the
early 1960s, it was President Ronald Reagan who lent national prominence to the new public philosophy, announcing in his first inaugural
address in 1981, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His administration proceeded to act on such
principles by cutting taxes and reducing spending on social programs,
except those for the elderly.46 Next, President George H. W. Bush suggested that government agencies emasculate the vibrancy of civil society

12

K

Introduction

and called instead for “a thousand points of light,” voluntary efforts by
Americans to care for those in need.
The demise of previously secure public programs has become, over
time, more politically feasible. Some have deteriorated due to neglect, as
in the case of the minimum wage, food stamps, Pell grants, and unemployment insurance, where policy makers have failed to maintain the
real value of benefits harmed by inflation.47 Other programs have faced
more serious restructuring, as in the case of welfare, which was fundamentally altered under the terms of 1996 legislation signed into law by
President Bill Clinton, and potentially Social Security, which President
George W. Bush hopes to transform into a system that includes private,
individual retirement accounts. While the events of September 11, 2001
stimulated new support for government involvement in citizens’ lives
for the purposes of national security, skepticism about the effectiveness
of social programs persists.
Yet claims that government programs undermine good citizenship
still remain unsubstantiated by solid evidence. In fact, most scholarship
proceeds in a manner disconnected from public discourse about how
government programs may influence civic engagement.48 Thus, despite
the growth of social spending over the twentieth century, we know
little about whether core programs have fostered active involvement in
public life or complacency, or whether they have promoted publicspiritedness or selfish individualism.49
Arguably, to the extent that government programs and regulations
have become a more important part of everyday life, they may have critical effects—for good or for ill—on citizens’ attitudes about government
and their participation in the political system.50 First, the sheer amount
of resources distributed by government is likely to influence civic engagement.51 Today the U.S. government spends 15.8 percent of the gross
domestic product on public social expenditures, facilitating a considerable infusion into citizens’ lives.52 Whether these resources are distributed in the form of dollar payments or as goods and services such as
food, education, or health care, they have implications for beneficiaries’
material well-being and life opportunities, and thus in turn are likely to
influence their rate of civic involvement. Greater resources—particularly
advanced education—tend to lead individuals to employment and social situations in which they develop greater civic skills and social networks, thus elevating their capacity for participation in public life.53 As
well, policy resources may boost civic engagement if they increase citizens’ sense that government is for and about people like them and that
they have a stake in government, prompting them to mobilize politically.54 Andrea Campbell found Social Security and Medicare to have

Civic Generation

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13

such “resource effects” on beneficiaries’ political participation, boosting
involvement particularly among those with low incomes given that they
are especially reliant on the program benefits.55
As well, public policies offer citizens routine, day-to-day encounters
with government and are likely to constitute their most personal and
informative experiences of government in action.56 These seemingly
mundane experiences are likely to be more instructive about citizens’
relationship to government and their status within the polity than are
their far less frequent visits to the voting booth, almost nonexistent encounters with elected officials, and impersonal sound bites of political
advertising. Citizens attain penetrating messages from government, for
example, when they fill out their tax forms every April, wait for a monthly
Social Security check, apply for unemployment insurance, or consider
how the perceived quality of their local public school affects the market value of their home.57 Their perceptions of a policy’s fairness, its
effectiveness, and its value in their life are significant, then, because
they may derive, on that basis, their view about government’s general
responsiveness toward people like them.58 Joe Soss found that Social
Security disability insurance, with its routinized procedures, elevates
recipients’ sense that government is responsive to people like them, while
Aid to Families with Dependent Children, through which recipients encountered nonresponsive agencies, had the opposite effect.59 As well, program beneficiaries may acquire a sense of their own status in the polity,
of how people like them are regarded—for instance, with respect or with
stigma—and the extent to which they are included among the citizenry.60
Program messages may be diffused, of course, if benefits are designed in
a way that makes government’s role less visible; Jacob Hacker argues
that employer-financed health and pension plans cultivate little public
activism given that their design obscures the public subsidies that help
finance them.61 Ultimately, to the extent to which such “interpretive” or
“cognitive” effects are conveyed by policies, they may influence citizens’
psychological predisposition or inclination to civic engagement, and thus
in turn affect the extent to which citizens later participate in civic and
political activities.62
We now turn to the education and training benefits of the G.I. Bill,
to explore how they transformed the soldiers of World War II into active
citizens for peacetime democracy. We will probe the significance of the
resources they offered—both for higher education and for subcollege
training—and the scope of their coverage among veterans, in order to
understand how they helped elevate civic participation. We will examine the tenor of the messages the program conveyed to veterans through
its rules, procedures, and manner of implementation; how beneficiaries

14

K

Introduction

perceived its inclusivity and its value in their lives; and how such interpretive effects could have been transformed into consequences for civic involvement. Throughout the book, readers will find stories about and
quotations from the veterans who were interviewed for the project, who
come primarily but not exclusively from the same units as those surveyed;
these veterans are identified by pseudonym, or, if they chose, by name.63
The responses of the survey participants, by contrast, are typically presented as aggregate quantitative results, except in a few cases in which
individual written responses from the surveys are presented anonymously.
Beyond its implications for the civic generation, the story of the G.I.
Bill bears critical lessons for contemporary policy-making efforts. From
the 1970s to the present, Americans have grown increasingly unequal in
terms of income and wealth, producing a highly stratified society; also,
by several measures, civic engagement has dwindled, particularly among
less advantaged citizens. To be sure, those who have more education and
income participate at much higher levels, and have greater political power,
than those who have less. In this context, the example of a public program of the past that produced egalitarian consequences for both socioeconomic status and civic participation, ameliorating inequalities and
fostering engagement, demands serious consideration. It is imperative
to understand the means whereby the G.I. Bill had such effects so that
we can ponder the implications for policy making today.

1
Creating the G.I. Bill

T

he end of World War II seemed to signal to Americans at least a
moment of relief from a decade and a half of struggle. After the
stock market crashed in 1929, unemployment and impoverishment ravaged the nation. The despair they produced hung like a dust
cloud that would not abate until, on December 7, 1941, a different crisis
emerged. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, a nation long reluctant to
enter the growing world war found itself undeniably catapulted into the
conflict. Jobs at last became plentiful, but goods grew scarce, and all citizens were asked to do their part to sacrifice and help support the war
effort. Most costly of all, nearly every family had to bid farewell to at
least one of their own who answered the call to serve the nation in the
military, some never to return. When troops stormed the coast of France
on D-Day, June 6, 1944, over fourteen hundred Americans were counted
among the dead, and casualties mounted as they made their way across
Europe. Between mid-December 1944 and early January 1945, the Battle
of Ardennes—also known as the Battle of the Bulge—eclipsed the Battle
of Gettysburg as the bloodiest event in American history: fifty-five thousand were killed or wounded and eighteen thousand taken prisoner. In
the Pacific theater, young Americans engaged in combat on a string of
islands with names most had never heard of before; the intensity of warfare culminated in battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where American
fatalities totaled nearly twenty thousand. By the time Germany finally
surrendered in May, followed by Japan in August, the United States had
suffered over one million dead or wounded—more than in any other
war in which Americans have participated before or since.1
As much as the nation yearned for peace, its arrival brought new
anxieties. Experts warned that the servicemen returning home had
15

16

K

SOLDIERS TO CITIZENS

undergone profound changes since they went away to war.2 “He may
have lost an arm or a leg,” explained the surgeon general of the U.S.
Army, Major General Norman T. Kirk. “His face or head may be disfigured. He may be a nervous wreck from battle fatigue and labeled psychoneurotic or psychotic.”3 Citizens also worried that the economy
would slump back into a depression. It seemed inconceivable that the
job market—which had been so fragile until the infusion of government spending for war mobilization—could possibly accommodate fifteen million returning veterans as well as the ten million civilians who
had been employed in the war industries. But public officials had already considered postwar challenges and had made plans in advance,
with the enactment of the G.I. Bill—otherwise known as the Servicemen’s
Readjustment Act of 1944.4
Today, it would seem reasonable to assume that the G.I. Bill was an
extension of New Deal largesse, created for the explicit purpose of broadening access to education and facilitating movement into the middle
class.5 In fact, that was hardly the case. Though created soon after the
New Deal, the G.I. Bill came about at a time when the social democratic
momentum and spirit of reform associated with the period had already
subsided.6 By the early 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had distanced himself from most domestic policy-making efforts, concentrating on his role as “Dr. Win the War” rather than as “Dr. New Deal.”7
Congress had grown increasingly conservative, and interest in social legislation had declined sharply.8
Certainly public officials in the most progressive corner of the
Roosevelt administration, the National Resources Planning Board
(NRPB), did hope that the end of the war would provide the opportunity in which to expand further the New Deal vision of social rights for
all citizens. Their call to arms was articulated by Roosevelt in his “Four
Freedoms” speech in 1941—famously memorialized by Norman
Rockwell’s illustrations—which declared that the nation should guarantee to all Americans not only “freedom of speech and expression,”“freedom from fear,” and “freedom of worship,” but also “freedom from want.”9
The NRPB carried the torch for this ambitious agenda and, focusing
particularly on the last component, issued several reports that outlined
bold plans for the postwar economy. The board set as a goal nothing less
than “the fullest possible development of the productive potential of all
of our resources, material and human, with full employment, continuity of income, [and] equal access to minimum security and living standards.”10 Most significant, the NRPB prioritized expanded access to
education as a key objective, arguing that it was “essential for the exercise of citizenship in a democratic society.”11

Creating the G.I. Bill

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17

If the National Resources Planning Board had prevailed, we might
consider the G.I. Bill as a policy intended to expand opportunities for all
citizens to attain advanced education. That was not the case, however.
For all its ebullient prose, the board’s political star never shone very
brightly, and it—as well as prospects that broad postwar plans might
emanate from the Roosevelt administration—grew dimmer as the war
proceeded. In fact, when NRPB head Frederick Delano urged the president to authorize planning for demobilization, Roosevelt hedged, saying, “This is no time for a public interest in or discussion of post-war
problems—on the broad ground that there will not be any post-war
problems if we lose this war.”12 Subsequent NRPB reports, when released
to the public, were castigated by journalists and conservative groups
around the nation as “fascist” and “socialist.” Then, in the spring of 1943,
Congress voted to terminate the board’s funding, thus silencing the voices
of those in the Roosevelt administration who advocated broad-based
social provision in the postwar era.13
In the absence of the NRPB, postwar planners were motivated by
the narrower and more practical goal of reincorporating returning veterans into society and, not least, by fears of social unrest. The experience
of World War I veterans, who had gained little by way of government
benefits, loomed in their memories: early in the Depression, during the
Hoover administration, thousands of disgruntled and destitute veterans from all over the country had mobilized to march on Washington in
pursuit of immediate compensation. In an incident that shocked and
embarrassed the nation, federal troops, summoned by Hoover and led
by General Douglas MacArthur, ran the ragtag “Bonus Army” out of
town.14 Policy makers hoped to avoid a repeat of such events by ensuring from the start that veterans of World War II would receive better
treatment. They aimed, further, to “solve the bottlenecks and to get
around difficulties” implicit in demobilization, to circumvent the possibilities for a return to massive unemployment rates, and at the same
time to correct for educational shortages in particular occupations that
had been created by the war.15
Public officials were also genuinely concerned about enabling veterans to retool themselves for active citizenship in peacetime. As
Roosevelt himself put it when submitting the administration’s proposal to Congress, “We must replenish our supply of persons qualified
to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the postwar world. We have
taught our youth how to wage war; we must also teach them how to
live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice, and democracy.”16 Diverting veterans away from the job market and toward educational

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SOLDIERS TO CITIZENS

institutions and training programs appeared to constitute a possible
means of addressing all of these concerns simultaneously.
Through a surprising series of events and highly paradoxical politics, the law that emerged, while limited to veterans only, was nonetheless striking for its generosity, inclusivity, and provision of social
opportunity. These attributes owed not to the efforts of the ostensibly
progressive Roosevelt administration, which ultimately offered only
modest proposals that would have granted education to very few veterans. Rather, it was the American Legion, an organization that had a conservative reputation and had tended previously to be skeptical of public
programs, that put forward the far more sweeping proposal of the G.I.
Bill, then mobilized the political support necessary to its enactment.17
The G.I. Bill bore less resemblance to New Deal legislation—which
tended to target citizens as workers—than to an older American tradition of social provision geared for citizen soldiers. In the democratic
ideals so central to the nation’s identity, military service had long been
regarded as the utmost obligation of masculine citizenship, and the protection of the nation by ordinary citizens, as opposed to a standing army,
was considered essential to maintaining self-governance.18 In the words
of George Washington, “It may be laid down as a primary position, and
the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of
a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even
of his personal services to the defence of it.”19 From the period following
the Revolutionary War onward, the United States recognized those who
rose to this demand of civic duty by granting increasingly generous pensions to veterans and their dependents. Initially these programs targeted
only disabled veterans, but in 1890, Congress extended Civil War pensions to those who had non-service-related disabilities and to the families of deceased veterans. By the beginning of the twentieth century, such
pensions had become fairly generous and widespread.20
Yet the G.I. Bill also represented a departure from the specific design of these prior veterans’ programs. Over time, the Civil War pensions had earned a poor reputation among Progressive reformers, who
associated them with corruption. They were delivered through the patronage system of party politics, which permitted a high degree of discretion to local politicians, who could in practice control the timing and
targeting of benefits for political purposes.21 With World War I, policy
makers sought to create benefits that would be less expensive, less open
to potential abuse, and more oriented toward the promotion of selfreliance among veterans. Rather than disability pensions, they offered
veterans of the Great War merely the option of purchasing low-cost insurance, and established vocational programs and medical and hospital

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care for disabled veterans only.22 This was the approach that veterans
viewed as so miserly; it generated repeated demands for outright pension payments and ultimately led to the notorious treatment of the Bonus Army during the Hoover administration.
From the outset, the Roosevelt administration responded more graciously to veterans but embraced a new policy approach. President
Roosevelt made his position clear when he addressed the American Legion in 1933: “No person, because he wore a uniform, must thereafter
be placed in a special class of beneficiaries over and above all other citizens. The fact of wearing a uniform does not mean that he can demand
and receive from his Government a benefit which no other citizen receives.”23 By executive order, he eliminated some veterans’ benefits and
scaled back others, instead advancing legislation that made jobs available to thousands—veterans and nonveterans alike—in the Civilian
Conservation Corps and later in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.24 Then the New Deal proceeded, through its core pieces of social and labor legislation, to expand American social rights by bestowing
them primarily on citizen workers.25
Once World War II was under way, the combination of Roosevelt’s
lack of enthusiasm for social provision limited to veterans, his focus on
the war, and the withering influence of the NRPB explain why his administration offered plans for postwar veterans’ benefits only in strikingly restrictive terms. First the administration’s Conference on Post-War
Readjustments of Civilian and Military Personnel, known as the PMC,
proposed higher education benefits that would be contingent upon competitive examinations and thus restricted to a relatively small number of
veterans; then it suggested that permissible programs of study should be
limited to those deemed directly relevant to occupations in need of
trained personnel.26 This narrow articulation represented the confluence
of viewpoints of PMC members, both the fiscal conservatism of the
military officials and the cautiousness of higher education leaders about
opening too widely the doors of the academy, to which few outside of
the elite had access at the time.27 A second committee, the Armed Forces
Committee on Postwar Educational Opportunities for Service Personnel (called the Osborn Committee for its chairman, Brigadier General
Frederick H. Osborn), made the elitist approach even more explicit. It
proposed that all veterans who had served for at least six months would be
able to have one year of education or training, but only a “limited number
of exceptionally able ex-service personnel” who demonstrated “unusual
promise and ability”— just a hundred thousand—would be assisted in
pursuing education beyond one year, and their aid would combine a mix
of grants and loans.28 Roosevelt transmitted this latter plan to Congress

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in the fall of 1943, where it was sponsored by Senator Elbert D. Thomas
of Utah, a former political science professor and loyal New Dealer who
was chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor.
At this same juncture, the American Legion, a veterans’ organization created in 1919, after World War I, and which by the mid-1940s had
three million members in local posts across the nation and abroad, began its focus on postwar planning.29 No doubt the Legion—both then
and now—is best known for its promotion of patriotism in local communities and its involvement in community service, particularly through
the support of local youth baseball leagues, Boys’ State and Boys’ Nation
events, and Boy Scout organizations. When it came to politics, the Legion had assumed a conservative, antistatist posture. Unlike the Veterans of Foreign Wars, it had refused to lend full support to “bonus”
payments for the able-bodied during the 1920s, and during the Depression, it promoted voluntary provision of aid by local Legion posts rather
than expanded government benefits.30 The Legion would have appeared
an unlikely suspect for the creation and promotion of landmark social
legislation.
Yet remarkably, in a period of just a few weeks, the Legion’s special
committee charged with planning veterans’ legislation produced what
became known as the G.I. Bill. John Stelle, former governor of Illinois, “a
big, fighting, bulk of a man” and a leader in the American Legion, received
a letter from his son in the military that described what those with whom
he served hoped for after the war: “All they wanted was an opportunity
from their Government to make good when they returned . . . ; an opportunity to get education or training, and to find work.” This prompted
him to suggest to the Legion’s Executive Committee, in November 1943,
the core ideas of the G.I. Bill.31 The organization set to work, and just
two months later, in January 1944, Senator Joel Bennett Clark of Missouri, one of the founders of the American Legion, introduced the
organization’s proposal to Congress. The speedy time frame was made
possible by the Legion’s ability to draw liberally on the efforts of committees and experts whose plans had begun years earlier, most notably
on the Roosevelt administration’s bill, which had just been considered
in hearings in the Senate.32
But while the Legion’s bill essentially replicated much of the administration’s overall framework, it was the civic organization’s leaders who
endowed the G.I. Bill with its hallmark features, pushing vigorously for
provisions that were significantly more generous and inclusive.33 Whereas
the administration’s version entitled veterans to one year of education
and permitted only a small percentage with “exceptional ability and skill”
to receive additional training, contingent on passage of competitive ex-

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aminations, the Legion-inspired bill, by contrast, offered up to four years
of funding—contingent on length of service—to any veteran whose education had been interrupted.34 The one year of guaranteed education
offered by the administration’s bill was promised only to those who had
served at least six months, while the Legion plan offered educational
benefits for all who had served at least ninety days.35
The Legion’s G.I. Bill Committee worked intensely over a one-month
period from mid-December to mid-January. Chairman Stelle stood at a
large blackboard and wrote down the ideas of all in the room, which
were then “kept, revised, or erased after prolonged discussion and debate.”36 The actual drafting of the bill’s language fell to Legion official
Harry Colmery, a lawyer from Topeka, Kansas, who, in Stelle’s phrase,
“jelled all our ideas into words.”37 The organization’s acting director of
public relations, a former newspaperman named Jack Cejnar, read the
draft proposal and shrewdly dubbed it “a bill of rights for G.I. Joe and
G.I. Jane.” Within a few days, the name was shortened to the catchy “G.I.
Bill of Rights,” and publicity about the proposal began to spread.38
Over the next six months, the American Legion proceeded—through
its vast grassroots network and public relations apparatus—to marshal
critical and widespread support for the G.I. Bill. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, acting on his personal interest in veterans’ welfare, offered the Legion the assistance of three of his top reporters for
the duration of the legislative battles. Besides writing feature articles,
the trio canvassed members of Congress as to their positions on the bill
and rallied American Legion members throughout the nation to exert
pressure on those expressing indecision or opposition. The national organization mailed packets to all local posts offering them materials to
help their members write letters to Congress, appear on radio talk shows
in support of the legislation, organize petition drives, and encourage
local journalists to write articles about the legislation. The Women’s
Auxiliary for the Legion joined in all such efforts. The national staff prepared a motion picture clip and sent it to local theaters around the country, and rank-and-file members barraged Congress with telegrams. The
G.I. Bill quickly gained far more widespread popular support than the
Roosevelt administration’s plans for veterans had ever garnered.39
Although the Senate acted quickly, approving the Legion’s bill by
late March, progress slowed in the House of Representatives. There, John
E. Rankin of Mississippi, chair of the Committee on World War Veterans’ Legislation, argued that the educational provisions of the bill would
allow federal authorities to intervene in state and local affairs. He was
distrustful of higher education, certain that it yielded an “overeducated
and undertrained” population, and he announced, “I would rather send

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my child to a red schoolhouse than to a red school teacher.”40 He saved
his most vitriolic disdain for the unemployment provisions of the bill,
and it was in those criticisms that it became clear that Rankin feared
that the legislation threatened the racial order: “We have 50,000 negroes
in the service from our State, and in my opinion, if the bill should pass
in its current form, a vast majority of them would remain unemployed
for at least a year.”41 The committee finally approved, and the House
passed, a version of the bill that was narrower and more restrictive than
the Senate’s version, leading to another round of contentious proceedings in conference committee. Once again, Rankin impeded the process.
Finally, in a dramatic eleventh-hour series of events, Legion officials,
assisted by political leaders, managed to contact Congressman John
Gibson, a committee member who had gone home to Georgia because
he was ill, and arranged for a local Legionnaire to drive him to a waiting
plane so that he could get to Washington in time to break the deadlock
at the committee’s final meeting.42 The conference version was swiftly
approved by both houses, and on June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt
signed the bill into law.
Throughout the politics surrounding the G.I. Bill’s passage, proponents articulated vigorous arguments about the policy’s relationship to
American citizenship. Importantly, these claims were voiced not as progressive demands for all citizens to enjoy broader access to economic
security and welfare.43 Rather, supporters promoted the social rights in
the legislation by observing their connection to civic obligations. They
stressed that potential recipients were deserving because they had already performed the ultimate act of participatory citizenship through
military service. Legion official Harry Colmery explained, “We recognize that the burden of war falls upon the citizen soldier, who has gone
forth, overnight, to become the answer and hope of humanity; we seek
to preserve his rights, to see that he gets a square deal.”44 Equally important, supporters emphasized that the policy would enable veterans to
become more active citizens in the day-to-day workings of democracy
in the postwar era. As the Legion’s national commander, Warren
Atherton, noted, “However great may be the service of the men and
women who have served on the battlefields or home front in this war, an
even greater obligation will face them when peace returns. . . . The continuing duty of citizenship is to apply the lessons of this war to the establishments of a better and stronger nation. As these veterans have led
in war, so must they lead in peace.”45
Policy makers did not spell out the precise dynamics by which they
anticipated that the G.I. Bill’s education and training provisions might
help foster civic involvement in the postwar world, but the most vocal

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among them made clear that they intended and hoped for such outcomes. Harry Colmery told Congress, “Now this educational provision
has a much deeper significance. . . . The nation needs the trained mind
and body attuned again to the peaceful pursuits of American life, because, trained in the art of destruction of both property and life in every
known personal and mechanical method, the nation then will owe an
obligation to them. It has to take them back sympathetically away from
the horrors and stark reality of war and give them every opportunity to
again become disciplined forces for peaceful progress through educational opportunity in its every aspect.”46 Still, Colmery held only modest
expectations for the reach of such efforts, noting, “We do not know how
many there will be. It is estimated somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.” In time, the provisions would reach over 50 percent of all veterans, and former service members’ experience of the bill’s design,
implementation, and socioeconomic effects would yield social and civic
consequences beyond those Colmery could ever have imagined.

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2
Citizen Soldiers

I

n the late 1930s, with the nation still in the depths of the Depression,
Americans hoped desperately to avoid involvement in the conflicts
that were intensifying abroad. As soon as the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbor, however, support for war mobilization soared, not least among
the millions of young Americans who became subject to the draft. Thus
began for a generation of men the experiences that would later on qualify
them for the G.I. Bill’s education and training benefits.
“I thought it was a normal, natural course of events,” explained Isaac
Gellert, who volunteered before he could be drafted. “There was a war
and everybody was needed. It wasn’t a matter of patriotism, not any
flag-waving patriotism. I just felt it was the appropriate thing to do, especially since the war seemed to be a good one.”
Gellert had grown up in New York City, and he termed his background “middle-class . . . or lower-middle-class, by the end of the Depression.” His father, a small-business owner, had died at age forty-one,
which Gellert attributed to the stress of attempting to keep his business
afloat after the economy soured. His mother then went to work as a secretary. As soon as Gellert graduated from high school, he volunteered for
the Army, hoping that by doing so he might have the opportunity to participate in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), a short-lived
program geared to produce “officer material” for the Army. It enabled recruits who scored high on intelligence exams to attend universities, pursuing courses of study deemed useful to the war effort while being subject
to military discipline.1 Gellert got his wish and attended Cornell University for one semester in the autumn of 1943. At that point, however, the
government—hard pressed for soldiers, with the invasion of Europe
looming—terminated the program.2 Gellert was sent to basic training
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in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he became part of the 87th Infantry Division.
“We were a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, very wet behind the ears,
who didn’t appreciate what was going to be demanded of us physically
and emotionally,” said Gellert as he recalled reporting for his assignment of duty. “The fellow who was interviewing us, each one individually, turned to me and said, ‘What would you like to be, a messenger or a
truck driver?’ I thought to myself, a messenger is a guy I picture running
across the battlefield . . . ; a truck driver sits and drives around.” Gellert,
who weighed barely 140 pounds, replied, “Truck driver.” The man responded, “You are a little light for a truck driver. We’ll make you into a
rifleman.” Gellert was assigned to the front lines of combat duty, where
he would witness firsthand the intensity and devastation of warfare, and
serve with many who would not live to return home. “I think that’s how
most people got to be who they were,” he explained. “You didn’t have a
lot of choice.” He continued, “Eventually [in] every squad numbering
twelve people in the Army platoon, in the company, one of those people
was a Browning automatic rifleman. I eventually aspired to that position. The ‘virtue’ of that position was that instead of carrying a tenpound rifle, you carried a seventeen-pound light machine gun. So I was
a BAR man for part of my Army career. . . . I would say it was a very
unenviable position to be in.”
The men of Gellert’s unit, also known as the “Golden Acorn Division,” joined up with the Allies as part of General George S. Patton’s
Third U.S. Army in Central Europe. They engaged in combat in the
Alsace-Lorraine region of France, proceeded into Germany, where they
captured several towns, and took part in the brutal Battle of the Bulge at
Ardennes. Next, they attacked German lines, advancing first toward Belgium and then Czechoslovakia. By the time Germany surrendered, 1,109
of the division’s men had been killed and 4,110 wounded.3 Afterward,
Gellert, like many others in the 87th Infantry Division, used the G.I. Bill
to attend college: it paid for his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and the first year of his graduate work at Harvard.
In the world of today’s all-volunteer armed forces, it may seem surprising that Gellert and so many of his comrades willingly volunteered
for such life-threatening duty. Traditionally, however, America imbued male
citizenship with the republican ideal of military obligation: the common
man had to be willing to fight when his country called on him to do so.4
From the post–Revolutionary War period onward, those who fulfilled such
duties came to be seen as deserving of subsequent benefits from government. It was on this basis that lawmakers and citizens united in support
of the sweeping legislation that became known as the G.I. Bill.

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In order to understand the effects of the G.I. Bill on civic life, we
must begin by considering the composition of the World War II armed
forces and the nature of military service. The program benefits could be
no more inclusive than the military itself, and the magnitude of their
impact would be affected, first and foremost, by the scope of the potential pool of beneficiaries and their socioeconomic backgrounds. Notably, the World War II military resembled the general male population of
the United States more closely than has been the case in any subsequent
war.5 Veterans’ responses to the G.I. Bill would be tempered by how they
experienced their time in the armed forces. While military service left
some with enduring difficulties that could impede civic engagement,
most gleaned from it experiences that heightened their readiness for
democratic citizenship.6

Mobilizing Manpower
Even while the nation still hoped to avoid war, President Roosevelt took
steps to prepare for possible military involvement. In 1940, he signed into
law the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime draft in the
history of the United States.7 The new law required all males in the United
States between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six to register for the
draft; they would be called up through a lottery system. The Army drafted
proportionally from each state. The president could authorize deferments
for the purpose of maintaining the “public health, safety, or interest,” which
potentially affected many employed in agriculture or the defense industry, both of which were deemed essential to the war effort. Actual decisions regarding which individuals would qualify and which would be
deferred were relegated to civilian-run draft boards at the local level.8
Immediately, more than sixteen million men registered, and over the next
year, nearly a million were inducted by these local boards, making the
armed forces 1.6 million strong.9 Mobilization accelerated rapidly after
Pearl Harbor: over the next four years, nearly ten million men were drafted
and another two million volunteered for military service.10
Among men in their late teens and twenties, military service in World
War II was understood to be a fundamental obligation of citizenship.
Indeed, the scope of recruitment into the military was greater than in
any prior American war, with the vast majority of men between the ages
of eighteen and thirty eventually joining its ranks.
Ross Flint stated simply, “It was the thing to do,” a sentiment widely
shared among male veterans. Interviews for this project suggest that many
young men desired to volunteer, but family members—often their mothers—

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dissuaded them. Richard Werner explained that he wanted to join the service during his senior year of high school, but “my mother and grandmother got a hold of me. They wanted me to wait and graduate from high
school.” He complied with their wishes, becoming the first member of his
family to obtain a high school diploma. A few months later, Werner was,
to his great relief, admitted to the military: “I think the saddest day of my
life would have been if they told me I was not physically fit to be a soldier.
. . . This was how everyone felt at that time.” Some, such as Gellert, volunteered because they knew they might have a chance to enroll in the Army
Specialized Training Program. Others, including John Mahoney, hoped to
avoid being placed in the infantry. Yet as Robert Forster, already in college
at the University of California at Davis, explained, a sense of loyalty was
the key factor that led him and others to enlist: “It’s just something that
you really wanted to do, to do your bit, during that time. You’d be amazed
[at] how we were. The loyalty was through all classes of society.” Forster’s
sentiment was echoed by William Martinez, a fellow Californian who had
grown up in a much poorer family. He said, “I wanted to help the country.
My brother was in there already. . . . I wanted to go in and do what I could
for the country. I was patriotic.”11
Certainly a few veterans looked back on their youthful enthusiasm
with skepticism. John Towey remembered, “I guess I took it as any young
fellow would take adventure. I went into it all hell-bent for action, to tell
you the truth.” And Joe O’Leary noted, “I guess I was looking forward to
it in a way. You didn’t think about getting killed.”
For some, joining the military was motivated not only by a collective sense of mission but also by a more specific commitment to the
justness of the war. Said James Murray, “I had come to understand Hitler
was a real menace.” Jewish soldiers were especially cognizant of the war’s
purpose, knowing that their relatives were suffering persecution in Europe. Kermit Pransky recalled his family’s reaction when they stopped
hearing from relatives in Germany: “I was aware because my mother
looked for the mailman every day . . . and no mail came. It was heartbreaking to see her; she was so disappointed all the time.” As Harry
Serulneck explained, “People had a good sense of what was going on, as
far as Hitler [was] concerned, in killing the Jewish people; that’s what
drove most of us [Jewish soldiers] to enlist.”

The Face of the Armed Forces
As noted above, the composition of the World War II military mirrored
quite closely the male population at the time, and to the extent that it

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differed, servicemen on average were slightly more educated and had
somewhat better health than those who stayed behind. The widespread
impoverishment that had come with the Great Depression meant that
many young people lacked the level of mental or physical health or educational preparation deemed desirable for military service. Early on,
nearly 30 percent of those examined were rejected because they failed to
pass the physical exam.12 Contrary to the popular assumption that “flat
feet” represented the most frequent cause of disqualification, it accounted
for only 1 percent of rejections. Mental illness, usually defined as “psychoneurotic disorders and psychopathic personality,” constituted the most
frequent cause of disqualification (17 percent), followed by illiteracy—
inability to read on a fourth-grade level—and lack of educational readiness, as measured by results on intelligence tests (a total of 14 percent).
The remainder were disqualified due to a wide range of physical problems, ranging from hernias to syphilis to tuberculosis.13 One in ten registrants suffered from a “manifestly disqualifying defect,” such as total
blindness or deafness, missing arms or legs, or chronic or severe physical or mental disorders. Over time, as the need for inductees grew more
pressing, government officials opted to rehabilitate men rather than reject them. Many who would have been disqualified previously for physical reasons were provided with dental care, fitted with glasses, or treated
for venereal disease, and individuals deemed to have inadequate education were no longer rejected but instead brought to special training units
for several months of basic education.14
Overall, World War II soldiers had already attained, on average, one
more year of education than their counterparts.15 Fifty-seven percent of
soldiers had completed at least one year of high school work, compared
to only 41 percent of the male population of draft age. The proportion
that had completed at least one year of college—12.3 percent—was
equivalent to that of the general population.16 These civilian-military
differences emanated not only from the military’s use of the literacy requirements, which eliminated those with little or no schooling, but also
from the lack of educational deferments, which meant that by contrast
to the Vietnam War, college students were not excused from duty. With
the onset of World War II, representatives of the nation’s colleges and
universities, worried about the financial fate of their institutions as male
enrollment plummeted, pleaded for student deferments.17 Military officials opposed such deferments, viewing them as a way for those who
could afford college to evade military service and thus as fundamentally
undemocratic. As a compromise, they fashioned the ASTP program, in
which Gellert enrolled, as well as its counterpart, the Navy College Training Program (known as V-12). Though short-lived, these programs pro-

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vided an extra incentive to enlistment by those with somewhat more
education prior to military service.18
By late 1942, policy makers, convinced that younger men were most
fit for military service, lowered the draft age from twenty-one to eighteen.
Young men tended to volunteer or to be drafted soon after their eighteenth birthday; a few interview subjects mentioned that they had been so
eager to join up that they lied about their age and enlisted even before
turning eighteen. Officials also raised the upper age limit to thirty-seven
to gain additional manpower, though rejection rates increased sharply with
age, with 40 percent of draftees between ages thirty and thirty-seven rejected for physical or mental defects. Early on, married men, who were
likely to be older, received deferments, particularly if they had children; by
1943, as manpower demands grew, the government began to induct them
regardless, unless they qualified for occupational deferments.19 Among
nonblack male respondents to the World War II Veterans Survey, year of
birth ranged from 1909 to 1929, with a median of 1923 and an average of
1922. This means that on June 6, 1944, when Allied troops stormed the
beaches at Normandy and began the campaign across Europe, most of
these servicemen were twenty-one or twenty-two years old.
The racial and ethnic composition of the armed forces was somewhat
less diverse than that of the population generally, with slightly more white
Americans than their proportion in the larger population. Combined,
Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, and those of Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese descent constituted 1.6 percent of the ranks.
Most of these groups were represented in proportion to their presence in
the general population, with the exception of Native Americans, of whom
the proportion was slightly lower, and those of Chinese descent, of whom
it was higher.20 As the war began, African Americans’ demand for the “right
to fight”— for recognition of their willingness to fulfill the obligations of
citizenship—became a rallying cry.21 Yet despite the Selective Service Act’s
formal prohibitions on racial discrimination, males of African descent,
though accounting for 9.5 percent of all men ages eighteen to forty in the
general population, made up only 8.5 percent of those in the armed forces.
Forty-one percent were disqualified because they failed to pass the physical or literacy requirements, compared to 28 percent of whites, evidence
of socioeconomic disparities as well as racial bias.22
The most glaringly undemocratic aspect of the armed forces’ treatment of men involved how African Americans were treated once inducted: they were marginalized in a manner that was overt and pervasive,
in blatant contradiction to the United States’ democratic posture in the
battle against Nazism and fascism.23 They served in separate, segregated
units that were typically forbidden to engage in combat, relegated instead

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to tasks such as construction and transportation. Only after extensive
and fractious congressional debate were two segregated units awarded
the “right” to engage in combat.24 And while white troops could focus
on defeating the Germans, black troops experienced a more complicated
mission: proving themselves as a group even as they were treated as inferior to white soldiers.25 As Charles Dryden, a Tuskegee Airman, explained,
“Oftentimes we flew missions when the birds weren’t flying, the reason
being that we . . . all had a deep feeling [that] we dared not fail. If a white
guy failed, ‘Oh, it’s an individual that failed,’ but [if] one of us failed, then
‘None of you make it through’—the stereotyping syndrome sets in. . . . If
we did not go, then we knew they would be saying, ‘They are cowards—
we told you they were scared of combat.’ So we had to dispute that by
our actions.”
In terms of the composition of the World War II military, the gender barrier presented the greatest limitation to its ability to represent a
cross section of the general population. Women, not being subject to
the draft, constituted less than 2 percent of those who served. This was
despite the fact that far more women—332,000—participated than in
any prior military conflict and they were, for the first time, incorporated
within units of the armed forces.26 After considerable debate, in 1942
Congress approved the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a unit that would
include women in a variety of noncombat roles in the Army, though
without regular military status and benefits. One year later, the auxiliary
corps was replaced by the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), a full-fledged
part of the regular Army, permitting full military status and equal benefits for women. Women gained similar treatment in the WAVES (Women
Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), the attachment to the Navy;
the Marine Corps Women Reserves; and the SPARs (meaning “Semper
Paratus—Always Ready”) of the Coast Guard. The exceptions were the
eleven hundred Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, known as WASPs, who
were not granted military status until 1970, despite the fact that they
risked their lives ferrying planes and teaching male cadets to fly. Nonetheless, although women constituted a larger military presence t