With a war between Ukraine and Russia seeming imminent, and rumors circulating of a possible draft as the United States decides whether to engage its self into yet another armed conflict, it may seem strange that being enlisted could ever be a better option than remaining at home. Being enlisted in the military, however, once offered an opportunity for soldiers to have an improved quality of life. During the Great Depression, unemployment was rampant. As a result, as the United States entered World War II, many men welcomed the income that a military career offered them. Though it meant risking their lives, it allowed them to provide an income to support their families. In addition to this, there were a number of improvements to the veteran’s pension system that allowed the returning soldiers to be assimilate successfully after the war ended. In the end, however, over 400,000 American soldiers died, and many that survived suffered from the crippling affects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Though many veterans had difficulties assimilating into society after the end of World War II due to symptoms of PTSD, the G.I. Bill of 1944 allowed veterans increased benefits after the war and helped them thrive after the war ended, while simultaneously paving the way for greater government intervention in the lives of its citizens.
Though soldiers have likely been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since the beginning of War itself, there have been a variety of different names assigned to it. After World War I, “shell shock”, was the term used to describe the symptoms. After the end of World War II, however, the term that was used to describe psychologically ill veterans was “combat fatigue”. Unfortunately, for many returning veterans, the social stigma for mental illness was that it showed weakness. Because of this, returning veterans adopted the tactic of suffering in silence, and avoided their issues instead of confronting them. A few ways that they did this were by turning to religion, alcohol, or immersing themselves in their schooling and career. Due to this avoidance of their psychological issues, a new trend of “delayed-onset PTSD” began to occur (Langer 53). Delayed-onset PTSD is a phenomenon is World War II veterans, where symptoms of PTSD went away for decades during young adulthood, only to return with vengeance when the soldier became middle aged. It is believed that this was caused by the avoidance of the trauma that they experienced during the war, as the G.I. bill provided new opportunities for veterans to create new lives for themselves. As they grew older, however, they experienced a midlife crisis. They would begin to reflect on their lives, and this self-reflection brought back the memories of chaos and death that they had worked so hard to avoid all their lives. This differed from the trend of soldiers after the Civil War, where men returned from the war, and were evermore entirely different men. One large contributing factor to returning World War II veterans being able to assimilate into society better than Civil War veterans was the development of the pension system, as bills such as the G.I. Bill of 1944 made it possible for veterans to make their lives better than they were before the war.
After the end of the Civil War, the federal government began to allow a large portion of Union veterans to receive pensions. As more time passed after the war’s end, the amount of veterans able to receive pensions increased, and the laws for collecting pensions grew increasingly more relaxed. This trend continued throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1930, the Veterans Administration (VA) was established to better assist returning veterans. The VA went to work immediately, and drastically increased the number of veteran’s hospitals. More importantly, the VA was responsible for the passing of The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also referred to as the G.I. Bill). This bill was one of the most important acts filed in the aftermath of the war. There were three parts to the act after it was passed in congress. The first and most essential clause in the G.I. Bill was that returning veterans received financial support to be able to attend college. This applied to all veterans, even if they had not attended college before the war. This was the most significant clause because it made them more employable, and helped flood the economy with competent workers. An incredible amount of veterans used this opportunity, with forty-nine percent of all college admissions in the year 1947 being U.S. veterans, and 7.8 million out of the 16 million veterans using this clause (Education and Training- History and Timeline). These 7.8 million veterans contributed greatly to the economic boom that the United States experienced after the duration of the war. The second clause of the G.I. Bill is that every veteran was able to receive a housing loan. While this did not contribute to the economy the same way as the education clause, it did provide the returning soldiers with a sense of stability that was impossible to find in the chaos of battle. At this time, home ownership was not as common as it is today. The G.I. Bill made it possible for them to settle down and provide shelter for their families, something that was often unattainable during the Great Depression. Over a fifth of returning veterans used this clause, as 2.4 million home loans were provided by the Veterans Association between the years 1944 and 1952 (Education and Training- History and Timeline). The final and most controversial clause of the G.I. Bill was that the government was to give unemployed veterans a stipend of twenty dollars a week. This was controversial because many people feared that this system was be abused, similar to the pension system following the Civil War. It was believed that this weekly stipend would eliminate the veterans motivation to find employment, and that the average working American would be footing the bill. This did not come to fruition, however, as a mere twenty percent of the budget set aside for unemployed veterans was used (Education and Training- History and Timeline). Though the G.I. Bill was paramount in improving the lives of veterans, its long term ramifications are at least equally important, if not more so.
The G.I. Bill of 1944 was without a doubt a great stride in helping veterans assimilate into society after the end of the war. It did have its shortcomings, however. One glaring omission of this bill is that it did not provide disturbed veterans with proper psychological assistance. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not yet been recognized as a mental illness, so there was no proper protocol for treating it. The social stigma at the time, as mentioned before, was that mental illness showed weakness, and seeking medical help was not condoned. Due to this stigma. many veterans attempted to overcome their issues on their own. The symptoms that many veterans experienced, however, were much too serious to deal with alone. Some symptoms included vivid hallucinations, depression, and cognitive dissonance caused by persistent blood lust. The G.I. Bill served as more of a distraction from the reality of psychological issues, rather than a treatment and eventual cure. This helps explain the increase in delayed-onset PTSD. Going to college, finding a new career, creating a family, and buying a home all served as short term avoidance techniques for psychologically ill veterans, but eventually the illness would overwhelm them as they aged. Though the G.I. Bill was a significant stride in assisting veteran assimilation into American society, mental illness was not properly addressed, and many ill veterans suffered the consequences decades later. Even more significant, however, is that the G.I. Bill continued a trend of federal government expansion that helped shape the policies that the United States has adopted today.
In the aftermath of World War I, the government took a hands off approach in regards to returning veterans. According to the U.S Department of Veteran’s affairs, “discharged Veterans got little more than a $60 allowance and a train ticket home” (Education and Training- History and Timeline). In fact, the government had adopted a hands off approach to nearly all aspects of government during the years leading up to the Great Depression. The 1920’s, also known as the roaring 20’s was one of the most prosperous decades in United States history. Free market capitalism ruled supreme, as no president or congress wanted to disrupt the economic success that the country was experiencing. The problem with free market capitalism,however, is that is follows a trend of “boom and bust”. This means that after times of economic growth, there is inevitably a crash that follows. That crash was the Great Depression, and it was the worst financial crisis in United States history. As unemployment skyrocketed, there was increasing anger that the government did not try to intervene to quicken economic recovery. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he began a series of policies called the “New Deal”, in which the government began to intervene in the economy. The G.I. Bill that was passed after the war ended continued this trend of increased government intervention into the lives of its citizens. The government paying for its veterans to be unemployed was a dramatic step towards the more socialist policies that the government has adopted today. In fact, it can be argued that the roots of the recently implemented Affordable Care Act are found in the G.I. Bill of 1944. The G.I. Bill helped take care of returning veterans, and gave them opportunities to better their lives. The Affordable Care Act extends this policy of government assistance to all of its citizens, as they are granted the right to seek medical attention. In this way, the G.I. Bill did not just affect World War II veterans and their families. It helped pave the way for all American families to receive federal assistance. For this reason, the G.I. Bill is one of the most influential bills ever passed by congress. Its affects are being felt daily, as the government exponentially expands its grasp on the lives of its citizens.
Whether one supports or opposes the recently enacted Affordable Care Act, one cannot deny that it will positively affect the lives of the greatly impoverished. It assists those that are in dire need, and provides them with unprecedented opportunities to better their lives. In the same way, the G.I. Bill of 1944 drastically improved the lives of returning veterans, and helped to assimilate the battle weary into post-war society. While the bill, was not perfect, and the mentally ill often went without proper and competent treatment, it was a great stride in assisting those that are willing to risk their lives for their country. Whether it is a good or bad, the government is undeniably extending its reach into the lives of its citizens, and the roots of this trend also stem from the G.I. Bill. In conclusion, the post war issues that the United States faced in the aftermath of World War II helped shape the governmental policies that exist today, and altered the lives of its modern citizens.