When a bill becomes a law, more often than not it leaves unintended consequences in its wake. That was certainly true of the GI Bill of Rights, passed in 1944 as World War II began to draw to a close. In the case of this law, however, the unintended consequences were mostly positive.
Some authors overstate the importance of their topics, but in Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, journalist Edward Humes provides ample evidence for statements such as: "If the bill's transformation of college in America from an elite bastion to a virtual entitlement proved revolutionary, its home loan provisions were nothing short of radical."
The last time Humes wrote about the US military, the year was 1989. Then a newspaper reporter at the Orange County Register in southern California, Humes showed the link between fatal military helicopter crashes and faulty night vision devices known by the Pentagon to operate poorly despite their huge price tag.
Here, Humes has written a very different book involving the US military, one more historical in nature, and largely upbeat.
Humes opens "Over Here" – an examination of one of the most remarkable social engineering efforts in US history – with the story of Allan Howerton, a recently discharged GI now trying to rediscover his place in American society after fighting the Nazis.
Rather than allowing the crush of returning veterans to dampen his spirit, Howerton decides – with the help of the GI Bill – to enroll in college and earn a degree while he sorts out his employment options. As he exits a crowded, creaky trolley car in an unfamiliar city, he sees a sign confirming that he has reached his destination: the University of Denver. With a deep, nervous breath, Howerton – who, before the war, had been hustling burgers on the night shift at a White Castle in New Jersey – heads off to freshman enrollment.
For a man like Howerton, as Humes notes, the college experience "was as much about healing as it was about learning, as much about getting over being a G.I. as it was about using the G.I. Bill."
Of the 200 men in his combat division, 42 died under fire. "When he came home and found his way to Denver, he considered himself blessed, hale and hearty. In truth, Howerton would later realize, he was 'torn up inside.' It took time for that to change."
The GI Bill that helped World War II veterans re-adjust to civilian life after 1945 is one of the rare laws "everybody knows about." But Humes's expansive account of how the GI Bill changed American society in expected and unexpected ways demonstrates that what "everybody knows" is not even the half of it.
Officially called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, the law allowed millions of men and women to buy homes that would have been beyond their means, attend colleges by paying tuitions they could never have afforded, and receive increasingly expensive, sophisticated healthcare.
The human dramas scattered throughout the narrative are irresistible. Humes's handful of real-life protagonists invent sophisticated weapons for use in the cold war, populate suburbs with tract homes that alter the urban-rural equation, become beloved physicians and teachers and film directors – all because the GI Bill provided otherwise unimaginable opportunities.
Humes leavens the upbeat chapters with a case study of a woman veteran who faces obstacles receiving the benefits legally due to her, and a black veteran who must overcome even greater obstacles placed there by power brokers who failed to learn the lesson that all are equal on the battlefield.
Veterans returning from the Civil War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf did not fare as well across the board; the historical context provided by Humes makes the success of the GI Bill all the more noteworthy.
What about Howerton at the University of Denver? Howerton became involved in political campaigns while earning a bachelor's degree in international relations, worked for United Airlines, earned a master's degree, found a job in Washington, D.C. with a federal bureaucracy, married, and fathered three children.
Humes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 stories on the US military, has demonstrated remarkable versatility as an author. His first three books looked at murder cases. He has also written about the broken-down juvenile court system in the US, the disturbing workings of a US prosecutor's office, the stories of valiant doctors and nurses who save babies near death, and the lives of high school students, including some of the best and brightest.
With that kind of variety, who knew what would come next? The GI Bill seems an inspired, if unpredictable choice. As case studies such as Howerton's suggest, the book will provide nostalgia for the World War II generation, in addition to offering a well-rounded education for readers born later.
• Steve Weinberg is a freelance book reviewer in Columbia, Mo.