Primary Source: Franklin Roosevelt, Statement on the G.I. Bill of Rights (1944)

This bill, which I have signed today…

  1. It gives servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retrainer course, not only without tuition charge up to $500 per school year, but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.
  2. It makes provision for the guarantee by the Federal Government of not to exceed 50 percent of certain loans made to veterans for the purchase or construction of homes, farms, and business properties.
  3. It provides for reasonable unemployment allowances payable each week up to a maximum period of one year, to those veterans who are unable to find a job.
  4. It establishes improved machinery for effective job counseling for veterans and for finding jobs for returning soldiers and sailors….

With the signing of this bill a well-rounded program of special veterans’ benefits is nearly completed. It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down…. This bill therefore and the former legislation provide the special benefits which are due to the members of our armed forces — for they “have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.” While further study and experience may suggest some changes and improvements, the Congress is to be congratulated on the prompt action it has taken.

Source:  The statement can be found on the website of the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

Three Pre-Zoom Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Roosevelt administration put so much energy into thinking about returning soldiers when the war was very much still going on in 1944?
  2. Why do you think the Roosevelt administration and Congress chose to use the phrase “GI Bill of Rights” to refer to the legislation that was actually named “The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act”?
  3. What do you think was the most radical feature of the G. I. Bill of Rights?

Five-Minute Mini-Lecture Transcript 

My name is Bill Carrigan, and I am a professor of history at Rowan University, an institution that I will discuss about a bit about at the end of this lecture.  Today, I am discussing Franklin Roosevelt’s statement at the signing of what most people refer to as the GI Bill of Rights.  Many historians, including myself, believe that this is one of the most important acts of legislation ever passed by the United States government.

On June 22, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which provided for key benefits for veterans that were expected to flood back into the United States economy after the end of World War II.  To understand why Congress passed this transformative legislation, we must go back to the end of World War I. 

In the early 1920s, many veterans found themselves struggling to find employment and to adjust to life in the United States.  In 1924, Congress passed “The Bonus Bill” that agreed to provide funds to veterans based on days served, but the payments were not to begin until 1945.  This unsatisfactory legislation became even more offensive to veterans after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.  When 10,000 veterans marched on Washington demanding that the bonuses be paid early, President Herbert Hoover refused them and ordered the military to break up the protest.  Franklin Roosevelt vowed that he would make no such mistakes with returning veterans from World War II. 

Equally important to the Bonus Marchers, however, was a general feeling among ordinary Americans that the Great Depression would return after the end of the conflicts in Europe and the Pacific.  Even after more than eight years of the New Deal, unemployment remained stubbornly high, around 15%, on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  It was the subsequent massive mobilization of both soldiers and war production factory workers that ended unemployment.  Many ordinary Americans worried that the nation’s underlying economic problems still existed.  Politicians of both parties sensed this concern.

World War I veteran Harry Colmery provided the initial draft of what became the GI Bill of Rights.  Roosevelt championed the legislation, which had both supporters and opponents in Congress.  It almost died in Congress because of the controversial unemployment provision.  Critics considered this provision a radical form of welfare that would strip many veterans of the desire to seek employment.  Memories of the Bonus Army and fears of a return to the Depression proved too much, and Congress sent the bill on to Roosevelt to sign.   

In later years, critics of the GI Bill would point not so much to this provision but instead to the uneven extension of its provisions due to discrimination at the level of implementation.  Many colleges restricted admission to African Americans and female veterans of all backgrounds.  Bankers and real estate agents prevented many African Americans from being able to take full advantage of the legislation. 

In the end, the GI Bill of Rights was a massive expansion of veteran’s benefits by the federal government.  Officials smartly described this expansion the “GI Bill of Rights” in order to convey that the federal government had a duty to provide for its veterans, that the bill’s provisions were not handouts but benefits rightly won by brave service.  The effort was successful, and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act became one of the most popular and successful of all legislation passed under Franklin Roosevelt.  By 1956, the government had provided benefits to ten million Americans.  In 2017, the United States Congress passed the “Forever GI Bill,” making it clear the enduring impact of this act of Congress passed while the worst war in world history still raged.

Let me conclude with a personal note that I hope drives home the transformative nature of this legislation.  My very own institution, I believe that the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was, after the founding of the College itself in 1923, was the single most important moment in the history of Rowan University.  In 1944, my institution was known as the New Jersey State Teachers College at Glassboro and served students interested in working for the primary and secondary schools of the region.  After the GI Bill, enrollment sharply increased thanks to local veterans choosing to attend.  The curriculum expanded and the name changed to Glassboro State College.  Without the GI Bill, there is no doubt that the two other important moments in my University’s history would have ever happened, namely the decision by US President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to hold a summit on our campus in 1967 and the decision by MIT graduate Henry Rowan to donate $100 million in the 1990s.  The latter act led to our final name and has been responsible for our continued expansion.  When I first arrived in the late 1990s, the University enrolled some 9,000 students, up from 170 in 1943.  Today, the University has over 20,000 students and two medical schools.  None of this would have been possible, however, without the GI Bill of Rights.

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I am a Professor of History at Rowan University.  A native Texan, I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993.  In 1999, I earned my PhD in American history from Emory University and joined the faculty in the Department of History at Rowan.  I have taught over 100 courses and thousands of students on such topics as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American West, and the History of New Jersey.  In addition to publishing numerous scholarly essays, I am the author or editor of four books.  Most of my published work is on the history of violence in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but I have also published on a variety of other topics, including George Washington the US-Mexican War, the history of Reconstruction, religious thought in the 19th century, and the influence of Karl Marx upon North American historians.  Named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians in 2015, my research has been cited widely in the news media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and the Houston Chronicle.