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Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream Excerpt from Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

by Edward Humes

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Troop Movement Unlike Any Other

Allan Howerton had never seen anything like it -- which was saying a lot.

He had swapped a job hustling White Castle burgers on the graveyard shift in Rahway, New Jersey, for action in six bloody, crucial battles in France and Germany, surviving some of World War II's most deadly months on the ground. By his own calculation, he was one of only eighteen out of 570 infantrymen in his company to make it through every one of those battles without being wounded, captured, or killed -- which meant, he would later joke, he was either good, lucky, or foolish. Or a bit of all three.

Still, Howerton felt nothing he had faced before -- not the deadly and constant thudding of artillery, not the endless slogging through the mud of Roer and Rhine, not even the sight of death and hope and fear mingling on the faces of enemy and friend alike along the Siegfried Line -- had prepared him for this latest massing of men, for this unprecedented mission with no guarantees.

Howerton stood on a packed tramcar, thick with the smell of Winston and Pall Mall and the familiar waiting sounds of shuffling, coughing, murmuring. The troops had been gathering for weeks, arriving first by the dozens, then the hundreds, and, finally, they began moving in by the thousands. Now they streamed toward the city and headed for the high ground, an emerald hilltop near the urban core with a commanding view and easy access by road and rail -- idyllic, quiet, underpopulated, waiting to be taken.

And so the most remarkable, least predictable action of World War II began to play out, a movement of more Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Corps forces than has ever been attempted before or since. Howerton's was just one location in a worldwide endeavor -- a coordinated effort of such magnitude that it would shape the future of America and the world in a way that would eclipse almost every battle of the war, even the Normandy landing and the decimation of Hiroshima. The men in Washington who had conceived this audacious plan virtually as an afterthought, almost killing it a half-dozen times before finally setting it in motion shortly after D-Day, had in no way foreseen what this moment would look like -- nor did they envision the long reach of its impact, still resonating to this day. In time, all America would feel its effects, from city to suburb to farm, from classroom to boardroom, doctor's office to Oval Office -- an unintended juggernaut.

The tram doors creaked open and the men rushed into the thin morning sunlight, freed from the coffinlike confines of the old trolley. Howerton, his thick brow knitted in momentary confusion, struggled in the jostling crowd to get his bearings on this unfamiliar turf, this grassy knoll with its old brick and granite buildings stretching out before him, gnarled trees, singed by autumn, obscuring the horizon. Then he heard someone say, "This way" and Howerton turned and saw the sign pointing to their objective:

University of Denver: Office of the Registrar

He took a deep breath and headed off to sign up for his freshman classes, a nervous eagerness roiling his stomach, a far different unease from the sort he came to know during his time in war-torn Germany. The fears no longer involved bullets and bleeding and death, but professors and textbooks and midterms -- and contemplation of a future that was no longer simply about surviving to see the next day, but about envisioning a new century, building a career, a life, a country.

On that creaky trolley car in Denver, in a moment replayed in cities and towns throughout the nation, the age of the G.I. had drawn to an end. And the age of the G.I. Bill had just begun.


The Greatest Regeneration:
The Accidental Remaking of America

Although he had no idea at the time, Allan Howerton's journey to Denver began two years earlier, on January 11, 1944, when two very distinct road maps to postwar America landed on Congress's doorstep.

One vision for "winning the peace" came wrapped in the pomp and ritual of the president's annual State of the Union address. The other was scrawled by lobbyists a mile from the Capitol, on hotel stationery, then hastily typed up for public consumption.

One represented nothing less than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's plan to expand the Founding Fathers' original vision of a just America: giving every citizen the right to a rewarding job, a living wage, a decent home, health care, education, and a pension -- not as opportunities, not as privileges, not as goods to which everyone (who could afford them) had access, but rights, guaranteed to every American, from cradle to grave. He called it a "Second Bill of Rights."

The other plan, courtesy of the era's most powerful veterans organization, the American Legion, advanced a more modest goal, or so it seemed: to compensate the servicemen of World War II for their lost time and opportunities, offering 16 million veterans a small array of government-subsidized loans, unemployment benefits, and a year of school or technical training for those whose educations had been interrupted by the draft or enlistment. The Legion called this a "Bill of Rights for G.I. Joe and Jane."

The first plan promised to reinvent America after the war.

The second offered to put things back to where they were before the war.

As it turned out, neither plan's promises could be kept. FDR never got the chance to remake America. Instead, the G.I. Bill did.

This was not by grand design, but quite by accident, as much a creation of petty partisans as of political visionaries. Yet the forces set in motion that day in January 1944 would power an unprecedented and far-reaching transformation -- of education, of cities and a new suburbia, of the social, cultural, and physical geography of America, of science, medicine, and the arts. And just as importantly, the blandly and bureaucratically named Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, forever remembered as the G.I. Bill of Rights, would alter both the aspirations and the expectations of all Americans, veterans and nonveterans alike.

A nation of renters would become a nation of homeowners. College would be transformed from an elite bastion to a middleclass entitlement. Suburbia would be born amid the clatter of bulldozers and the smell of new asphalt linking it all together. Inner cities would collapse. The Cold War would find its warriors -- not in the trenches or the barracks, but at the laboratory and the wind tunnel and the drafting table. Educations would be made possible for fourteen future Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 17,000 journalists, 22,000 dentists -- along with a million lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers, pilots, and others. All would owe their careers not to FDR's grand vision, but to that one modest proposal that was supposed to put the country back to where it had been before the war.

There was never anything like it before.

There is nothing like it on the horizon.

It began with a simple question: Now what?

Copyright 2006 Edward Humes