The Rise of the Modern Yeoman
Seemingly an obscure piece of legislation, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the GI Bill, completely transformed the nation and “signaled the shift to the knowledge society.”1 After World War II, a silent revolution swept through the nation, bringing along with it a new generation of independent, middle-class citizens and “the revival of the old belief that Americans should be yeomen.”2 The GI Bill created self-sustaining people by offering veterans bonuses, long-term loans, and first-class educational benefits, enabling them to make new lives in their pursuits of happiness. In the book When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America, by Michael Bennett, the congressional battle to pass the bill, as well as the full range of effects the bill had on not only millions of GIs and their families, but the structure of the United States itself, are explained in full detail.
Bennett’s book begins with a description of how the GI Bill impacted all of America and “helped make Americans what they have always wanted to be: middle-class citizens.”3 The bill changed nearly every aspect of life, altering the social and economic makeup of the United States. It was the Marshall Plan for America, an innovative and often overlooked piece of legislation that encouraged innovation. Veterans received direct cash payments of $300 to $500, educational vouchers, and loans for buying homes and starting businesses. Efficiently absorbed back into society, millions of GIs were able to draw out benefits and continue with their lives, preventing the start of a new Great Depression and marking the beginning of a silent revolution in the nation’s colleges and newly-emerging suburbs. However, veterans were not always treated with such high regard. Bennett details the earlier abuses of veterans, starting from the war for independence up until WWII. From the farmers of Shay’s Rebellion to the men fighting in the Civil War, previous veterans received neither the respect nor the benefits that they deserved for their actions. Veterans of World War I had wanted to fight for democracy, but ended up losing their innocence, coming “home to a nation disillusioned by a futile and useless war.”4 The authors of the GI Bill knew that the past patterns of mistreatment could not be repeated for the 12 million men and women returning from WWII, and thus they created a bill that would give the veterans the help they truly needed.
Bennett then proceeds to set the scene for the battle of the bill’s approval. Initially, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed an assistance program for helping WWII veterans – however, he only wanted to help the poor, his main goal being the prevention of another outbreak of the Bonus March. FDR’s bill was soon recreated in an entirely different fashion by an assortment of authors, including Colmery, Rogers, Atherton, and McFarland. The newly-proposed bill would help any WWII veteran on the sole grounds that they had served their country in history’s most devastating war. The bill’s supporters were an odd group of people, ranging from the press lord Hearst to the most outspoken racist of the House, Rankin. A liberal premise, the GI Bill was also championed by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Many who lobbied for the bill wanted nothing more than to “demolish the remaining vestiges of the New Deal.”5 By January 9th, 1944, the master plan for the GI Bill, called “The Bill of Rights for GI Joe and Jane,” was announced to the public. Important provisions included low-interest home loans and the 52-20 clause, ensuring weekly payments of $20 for a year to veterans. Bennett goes on to give a lengthy explanation of what occurred in Congress with regards to the bill. Though most did not entirely disapprove of it, Representative Rankin withdrew support at the last minute, revealing his willingness to sacrifice the entire bill in order to prevent aid from getting to blacks. Despite his oratory prowess, Rankin was unable to prevent the passing of the bill by both houses of Congress.
In the next fourth of the book, Bennett stresses the immense contribution of the GI Bill’s educational benefits to the growth of postwar America. Educational financing, the most controversial feature of the bill, “made ability the sole criterion for admission to colleges.” 6 Nearly 8 million veterans enrolled in an education or training program under the bill. WWII veterans accounted for a large portion of college enrollment, peaking at 49.2% in 1947. These young men and women, the most ambitious of the generation, were too busy studying to take any interest in labor strikes or union advances. Their first and foremost goal was to settle down and provide for their growing families. Such people did not seek to be dramatic or uplifting; they merely desired security and the ability to settle down after having participated in the greatest war of them all. Around 25% of veterans could not have otherwise fathomed going to college after the war if not for the bill’s educational provisions, which created new emphasis on “trained minds, rather than land or minerals,” as “America’s most important resource.”7 As a result, hundreds of thousands of new professionals such as engineers, doctors, and teachers emerged. People’s focuses shifted permanently, creating the knowledge-based society present today.
Because of the GI Bill, the previous social and economic structure of the United States quickly became obsolete, “shattering forever the idea that those who were not already members of the middle class could go to college.”8 Veterans were skeptical, as well as passionate, about what they were learning. Faculties around the country began to become accustomed to an outpouring of students who demanded more realistic and practical coursework. Initial fears of their possible incompetence dissipated as college performance levels began to rise. By 1950, nearly 500,000 college degrees were awarded, over double what the 1942 prewar levels had been. At the time, however, no one could be sure of the exact extent of the change occurring in the nation. Earlier social barriers were torn apart; a veteran was no longer identified by his skin color or religion, but rather as just another person who fought for his or her country. Along with this came the idea that housing could be a public works program operating on a nationwide level. 13 million new houses sprang up by 1952, creating a landscape dominated by suburbs. Bennett’s book ends with a reiteration of the bill’s effects on all parts of life, including education, housing, food, and medicine. The GI Bill was so incredibly effective because it put the power to change into the people’s hands, allowing the true American dream, “living in a system that rewards being an honest citizen and a hard worker,” to come true, offering with it the pursuit of happiness.9
The author of this book, Bennett, states that the GI Bill was “the catalyst creating our post-capitalist society.”10 It is because of the immense span of assistance the bill
called for, allowing for the highest benefits ever granted to American veterans, that the
modern society of the United States emerged. A social revolution, “even greater than Henry Ford’s”, occurred not through strikes or revolts, but through millions of individuals drawing their own paths.11 The government finally began to trust the veterans and gave them the resources that allowed them to transform their own lives and materialize the changes they envisioned. Bennett sees the bill’s reinvention of the nation’s political, economic, and moral landscape as something “future historians may consider the most important event of the 20th century.”12 Though the old frontier had closed by 1890, a new one emerged as urban population declined due to mass migration to the post-WWII suburbs, the place “where present-day America was born and lives today.”13 The prominence of this new frontier, along with the immense amount of money put into veteran education and training opportunities, amongst various other monetary benefits, allowed for an extraordinary yet simultaneously normal change: the revival of the yeoman, the independent, self-sufficient, and land-owning citizen Thomas Jefferson had so greatly praised.
A veteran journalist, Bennett’s point of view was most influenced by his previous reporting for The Boston Herald, The Boston Record-American, and Detroit News. In the 1970s, he first became aware of the GI Bill through whispered stories at a Boston saloon. Soon after, while writing a story about Vietnam veterans struggling with readjustment, Bennett heard of the 52-20 provision of the GI Bill. His interest sparked, Bennett went on to research it extensively for over 4 years in order to fulfill his desire of making “scholars realize how significant the bill was in shaping American society.”14 This desire manifested itself in the form of his book, which was written during the 1970s, when people were focused intensely on antipoverty programs and employment training. Liberal ideas, many of them similar to the ones that birthed the GI Bill, ran rampant. Some, like Bennett, felt that the Vietnam War veterans could also use the same benefits World War II veterans received in order to settle down. These GI Bill benefits extended to many; the bill even financed Bennett’s own education. When the neighborhood boy was able to attend college through the bill’s educational allowances, every mother began to believe her own child could go as well. Bennett was one of these children; solidly middle class, he was part of the social class that benefited the most from the GI Bill. Lastly, living in Washington D.C. played a noteworthy role in shaping his opinions. While living there, Bennett was able to formulate a positive view of government’s role in people’s lives, as well as research more on the bill as a press secretary.
In Christopher Howard’s critical review of When Dreams Came True, Bennett’s take on the GI Bill is seen as impressive with regard to his obvious admiration for the bill, but faulty in its actual claims and facts. Bennett draws a wider picture of the bill by placing it “in context by describing how badly veterans were treated from the Revolutionary War through WWI.”15 The detailed and organized way in which the bill’s origins, creation, and significance are narrated makes the book easy and somewhat enjoyable to read. Mainly written in order to draw scholarly attention to the GI Bill, the book’s author continuously repeats the widespread, long-lasting impact of its provisions in an almost obsessive manner. The parts of the book dealing with the bill’s impact, from widespread home ownership to heightened economic activity, seem to be its most striking aspect. However, the book as a whole contains several grave flaws, the most serious of which is that it seems to be written more like a work of political science than of history. No alternative explanations are considered, and the author seldom links “his findings to the relevant academic literatures.”16 Students interested in United States policy will be fascinated by the bill’s opposition from liberals and its context within the social history of the 1940s and 1950s, though many others “may find the book too detailed and unfocused.”17
In contrast, Jeremy Teigen reviews Bennett’s book in a much more positive light, praising Bennett’s “bold and convincing assertion that [the GI Bill], more than any other act, created modern America.”18 Teigen approves of the author’s carefulness in describing the legislative process of passing the bill and its impact on education, home ownership, and the rise of the middle class generation, as well as his focus on answering the “question about what returning veterans deserve from their government.”19 Another large portion of the book is devoted to drawing a precise portrait of the bill’s impact on the US, though the author’s evidence is sometimes dubious, trading statistics and concrete data for individualized historical accounts. However, by going thoroughly over various factors of the bill that allowed GIs to return to colleges, the author remains credible in his praise of the bill’s educational and social benefits. Overall, the book does a solid job of tying together the decline of unions with the rise of the new middle class, as well as giving the reader an exact idea of the extent with which the bill influenced an entire generation. Teigen also feels that Bennett deserves praise for his attention to the racial and ethnic proponents of the bill’s treatment of veterans, making sure to include the successes of many blacks who used this first color-blind legislation.
When Dreams Came True repeatedly drives in its main point: the GI Bill was so incredibly far-reaching and influential that it “made a reality of Jefferson’s concept of creating independent yeomen.”20 This statement is repeated throughout the book, supported by stories of the emerging middle class. Though some parts of the book are written in a dry and painfully over-detailed manner, discussing only complicated legislative battles and figures, the text is otherwise interesting and allows the reader to envision the rapidly changing lives of the 1940s and beyond. It was the small things that made a huge amount of difference for both regular citizens and veterans, and even the “frozen dinners and rock-and-roll would change America as much as Henry Ford’s development of the Model T.”21 Unfortunately, some of the massive transformations described by Bennett are hard to truly believe without concrete supporting evidence. It is hard to discern whether his lofty presumptions are based on hard facts, or rather his own generalizations. Though it is lacking in some parts, the book does succeed in educating the reader on the little-known GI Bill and providing an outline on the variety of areas the bill had influence over. Even those who are not especially interested in the general subjects encompassed by this book will find it enlightening to know that a seemingly average piece of legislation may have shaped the entire way America functions today.
Overall, When Dreams Came True solidifies the point that the GI Bill of 1944 was instrumental in completely changing the direction of US history. Bennett clearly and wholeheartedly agrees that the 1940s was a watershed in American history. Constantly bringing up the bill’s role as “both the catalyst for and the central driving force behind most of ordinary life,” Bennett allots much of the book to describing the various ways in which the very essence of the nation changed beginning in the 1940s.22 This decade was an era when people’s lives changed so drastically that even the generation before them could not have foreseen a fraction of the progress to come. For the first time, instead of being taken care of by the government, people were “provided with resources to take care of themselves.”23 Bennett sees the GI Bill as the main cause of the rise of the modern American way of life. Allowing millions to settle down and pursue their goals independently of each other, the bill was the secret force behind the various changes wrought at every level of society. To Bennett, the 1940s, a time when the very structure of the country was completely rearranged and rebuilt, were indeed a true turning point in the history of the United States.
In When Dreams Came True, Bennett portrays the GI Bill as a controversial move that ended up facilitating more progress than even its own authors could have imagined. The bill revealed that when given the proper resources, American citizens are fully capable of accomplishing whatever it is their dreams entail. However, more can always be accomplished, and as long as Americans believe “the job can be done, dreams will always come true.”24
1: Bennett, Michael. When Dreams Come True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern
American. Washington DC: Brassey’s, Inc., 1996. 7.
2: Bennett, Michael. 3.
3: Bennett, Michael. 30.
4. Bennett, Michael. 42.
5. Bennett, Michael. 82.
6. Bennett, Michael. 156.
7. Bennett, Michael. 236.
8. Bennett, Michael. 238.
9. Bennett, Michael. 317.
10. Bennett, Michael. 7.
11. Bennett, Michael. 25.
12. Bennett, Michael. 7.
13. Bennett, Michael. 279.
14. Bennett, Michael. x.
15. Howard, Christopher. "When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of
Modern America." Sage Journals (2001): 167. Print.
16. Howard, Christopher. "When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of
Modern America." Sage Journals (2001): 167. Print.
17. Howard, Christopher. "When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of
Modern America." Sage Journals (2001): 167. Print.
18. Teigen, Jeremy. "Debt of a Nation." Armed Forces & Societies (2007): 441-44. Print.
19. Teigen, Jeremy. "Debt of a Nation." Armed Forces & Societies (2007): 441-44. Print.
20. Bennett, Michael. x.
21. Bennett, Michael. 302.
22. Bennett, Michael. 9.
23. Bennett, Michael. 300.
24. Bennett, Michael. 318.