Midnight Ride Through Georgia: Passing the GI Bill

Bill of Rights

From the conception of the “GI Bill of Rights” in late 1943 to its spring passage in the Senate (50 to 0) and House of Representatives (387 to 0), the legislative path seemed too easy; something had to go wrong. That something became the joint House – Senate conference committee. After wrangling over the bill for three weeks trying to make the Senate and House versions mesh, the committee produced a tie vote. The deciding vote belonged to Representative John S. Gibson of Georgia’s Eighth District, but he had gone home leaving his proxy vote with Chairman John Rankin. The Chairman refused to cast Gibson’s favorable vote, thereby creating a 3-3 tie. With congressional adjournment looming, the bill would die in committee. Someone said “Find Gibson!”

The problem of how to treat American servicemen after the shooting stopped began with General George Washington at the close of the Revolutionary War. The always penniless Continental Congress owed the soldiers large sums of back pay, forcing Washington to quell a mutiny while the men awaited payment. Thirty years later Congress granted a pension to Revolutionary War soldiers, but within another decade fraud was rampant — more men were collecting pensions than there were living veterans. After the Civil War, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic(GAR), the country’s most effective political lobby. By 1893, GAR vets collected 150 million per year in pensions from a federal budget that totaled $385 million. Many Americans saw the pensions as a raid on the treasury. In the wake of World War I, Congress voted a bonus for the former doughboys payable in 1945. During the Great Depression the First World War vets received half their bonus early and marched on Washington for the other half; they were run out of town.(see July’s article)

With the coming of the Second World War, the nations leaders knew that this time they must solve the veteran problem. The huge number of men and women serving in World War II — 16 million served by war’s end — was unprecedented in American history. What would happen after the the close of hostilities? How could the economy, cooling off from wartime production, absorb these veterans?

Many GIs saw the lurking problem. In her newspaper column “My Day,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of a letter she received from a young GI who worried not about maiming and death, “but that when he is finally allowed to go home and piece together what he can of life, he will be made to feel he has been a sucker for the sacrifice he has made.”

Fortunately, there was one group of Americans determined to help solve the veteran problem, because they were veterans themselves — The American Legion. Formed in Paris after the First World War, these ex-doughboys dedicated themselves to helping not only veterans, but also the nation. The plan the American Legion put forward did just that.

In late 1943, Legion leaders met with officials of the War and Navy departments, the VA, and also with leaders of Congress, labor, industry, agriculture, and education. Quickly, the outline for a new veterans bill took shape. The new law would offer a helping hand to all veterans whose service time had caused them economic and educational hardships. The Legion dubbed the package, the “Bill of Rights of GI Joe and Jane.”

To ease the transition to civilian life jobless vets would receive $20 per week for 52 weeks (the 52-20 Club). Veterans seeking an education would receive tuition and living expenses for college or vocational school. All veterans would be eligible for low interest loans to buy houses and start businesses. If the bill worked as planned World War II veterans would ease back into civilian life, make up for lost time, and set a positive course for post-war America.

On June 6, 1944, as American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, the GI Bill was trying to overcome its own barbed wire — the House-Senate Committee. The main point of contention was the unemployment provision, the 52-20 Club. Representative Gibson favored the provision, but he had gone home after appointing Chairman Rankin as his proxy. When the vote came on friday, June 9, Rankin refused to cast Gibson’s aye vote to break the tie and send the finished bill back to Congress for final passage. Rankin, a Mississippi segregationist, opposed African-American vets getting the same unemployment benefits as whites. Unless Gibson cast his vote in person the following morning at 10 a.m., the bill would die. With some veterans already returning from service and the invasion of France opening the European War’s final act, the GI Bill could not wait until the next session of Congress. Where was Gibson?

He was somewhere near his home in southern Georgia. Helpful telephone operators in that rural part of the state tried to locate Gibson. Meanwhile, someone at the American Legion Headquarters called the Atlanta Constitution for help; the newspaper enlisted radio stations and the state police in the search. The quick thinkers at Legion headquarters also arranged for an army plane to fly Gibson back to Washington. But, at 11p.m., when Gibson was finally located and rushed to the army base, the plane was inoperable. Someone discovered a commercial flight scheduled to leave Jacksonville, Florida at 2:25 a.m.; Legion officials convinced the airline to hold the flight. Gibson’s car, escorted by state troopers, raced through the night at high speed. Gibson made the plane and arrived in Washington just in time for the vote.

The GI Bill did what its backers wanted it to do and more. As Michael Bennett wrote in When Dreams Came True, “The GI Bill of Rights painlessly reabsorbed 12 million veterans into the economy, 7.8 million through educational programs and 8.5 million — many of them the same individuals at different times — through the 52-20 club.” While the reabsorbtion of these veterans into the American workforce solved the immediate post-war problem, the lasting effects were greater. The GI Bill created a new American society based on a huge middle class of veterans who began businesses, bought homes, started families, and paid back in taxes far more than the 14 million spent on the GI Bill. The overall effects of this law are almost incalculable. The GI Bill became the engine of the great American economy that has led the world into the 21st Century. Well worth a wild, midnight ride through Georgia.