■ By Bert Anderson / Contributed
Memorial Day affords a grateful nation the opportunity to honor the valiant men and women who stepped forward to save this troubled planet as it spiraled down the black hole of international fascism. Their courage, and selfless sacrifice, stifled the scream of the 20th Century.
And yet, they had more to give.
After the victory speeches and celebrations, these hardy veterans quickly shed their uniforms. And then, with the grit particular to their generation, they set about creating the most powerful nation and the greatest economic entity the world has ever known. This gift remains in force today. Every living American has benefited from the largesse provided by these soldier-citizens; so indeed, has the world at large.
Many 1940-45 military inductees never before had ventured beyond 25 miles of their birthplace. High school diplomas were an exception. A majority received their first dental care and eyeglasses upon induction.
Prior to 1941, the United States was viewed by many of its citizens as a village bordered by two bodies of water. WWII brought an appreciation of the planet’s scale and the constant political churning on its surface.
The draft-age American in 1940 had spent their formative years struggling through the Great Depression. Theirs was a hardscrabble lot: a life without the joys of childhood, absent of hope. The survivors of that black period harbored no expectation of relief, and none was forthcoming.
However, the hardships and unendurable loss of hope forged these citizens into a hard working, self-reliant, inventive, opportunity seeking, and maniacally ambitious people ready to take on any challenge. They were physically and psychologically ready for WWII.
Forged in the Great Depression, battle-hardened, and inspired by victory, they approached their country’s post-war challenges, determined to make up for time lost and to take advantage of opportunities previously denied.
America’s Great Investment
One of the best investments this nation ever made was the enactment of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill of Rights). This single act created the great American middle-class and brought about the prosperity enjoyed by subsequent generations of Americans.
The GI Bill provided federal aid to veterans of WWII for home purchases, hospitalization, and most importantly – education. Approximately 8 million veterans had received educational benefits by 1951. More than 2.3 million attended colleges and universities. About 3.5 million veterans received other school training, and 3.4 million received on-the-job training.
The federal government’s contribution from 1944 through 1951 was $14.5 billion dollars. Each dollar invested in veteran education during that period returned $6.90 by the end of the decade in additional tax revenue and national economic output.
Another benefit entitled veterans to $20 each week for 52 weeks (52-20 Club) while seeking work. Less than 20 percent of the money allocated was claimed because most veterans quickly found work or sought higher education.
The student-veteran democratized higher education. They were a no-nonsense group pursuing a post-war mission. They were somewhat older than their classmates, and considerably more mature. Many were married, some with infants. They lived on or off campus in dormitories, Quonset huts and trailer villages. They were serious students; they viewed an education as the vehicle to rise above their pre-war socioeconomic lockdown. They were not frat boys and nobody was about to place a freshman beanie on a combat veteran.
Upon completion of their education, this group entered the workplace answering a pent-up demand, created by the Depression and war years, for consumer goods and services. They became the producers and keepers of the greatest consumer economy in history. They established the suburban culture through a provision of the GI Bill, making them eligible for low-interest home loans. In 1959, two-thirds of Americans owned their home, and white collars surpassed blue collars; each in opposite proportion to that which existed in 1940.
The exploding American economy impacted the rest of the world. The Marshall Plan (European Recovery Program) contributed $13 billion dollars during the years 1948 –1951 to rebuild 16 war-ravaged European countries. The return on investment in the GI Bill covered this with $86 billion to spare.
Contrary to custom, Washington has occasionally spent money wisely; the purchase of Louisiana and Alaska comes to mind. Some pretty savvy operators negotiated in the interests of a very young America, tripling the landmass of that which would become the United States. The GI Bill completed this trio of magnificent investments.
Never has such an investment paid greater dividends in fiscal and social progress. This government policy, in union with the spirit of the WWII veteran, resonates with us yet.