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

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

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

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

Synopsis

"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.

Excerpt

Little 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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