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There is an extensive body of literature regarding the original 1944 GI Bill, but Mark Boulton’s Failing Our Veterans: The GI Bill and the Vietnam Generation is the first comprehensive examination of the Vietnam-era GI Bill, the Veterans Readjustment Act of 1966, and its subsequent amendments. Boulton explores the legislative history of the bill, focusing in particular on the two most powerful political figures involved in veteran’s affairs, Representative Olin Teague and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The debate over veteran’s benefits was shaped by ideology, economics, and pragmatic necessities, and the resulting legislation left Vietnam veterans feeling betrayed and resentful.
Boulton explores the historical roots of the debate, demonstrating that some form of compensation, for at least some veterans, had existed since the American Revolution, as had the key issues that would later shape the discussion to provide benefits to “Cold War” and, later, Vietnam-era veterans. One of the most important issues was the debate over the nature of military service in a republic and the belief that someone did not necessarily deserve to be rewarded for performing their obligation as a citizen. Supporters of the original GI Bill in 1944 and subsequent bills argued successfully that their legislation was less a reward for service and more to provide aid in “readjusting” to civilian society. The question of whether peacetime “Cold War” veterans deserved the same level of benefits as those who served during wartime also influenced the Vietnam-era legislation and ultimately contributed to the reduced level of aid.
On March 3, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cold War GI Bill, which provided proportionately lesser benefits than the World War II and Korean bills because it was viewed as compensation for “peacetime service” despite the fact the United States was actively at war in Vietnam. The reduced level of aid would ignite debate and attempts to increase benefits for the next decade. The reduction in [End Page 778] educational benefits was the most controversial and most important to many veterans because it was their chance for personal advancement. Vietnam veterans believed their service was not as appreciated as previous veterans, and the fight for educational benefits would be both a symbolic and practical struggle. Vietnam veterans did not organize effectively to promote their concerns, and they received little help from existing veteran’s organizations, such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, which were more interested in their World War II and Korean War constituencies.
The huge financial cost to the federal government also affected the level of Vietnam-era benefits and was a major concern for every presidential administration and for government fiscal agencies. Over ten million veterans received Vietnam-era GI benefits and the cost was two-and-a-half times that of World War II. Lyndon Johnson had originally opposed a Cold War GI Bill because it would drain resources away from his Great Society programs and those Americans he considered to be in the most need. Despite nearly universal support from Congress, veterans’ organizations, and the public, President Gerald Ford vetoed the 1974 Readjustment Act over fiscal concerns and fears it would contribute to runaway inflation. The bill passed over Ford’s veto greatly increased educational benefits, but for many veterans it was too late.
Boulton argues that the debate over benefits not only helped redefine the meaning of citizenship, it also contributed to the development of sophisticated ideological arguments helping to define “conservative and liberal conceptions of the nature of government and the appropriate allocation of federal resources” (p. 8). The book is extensively and well researched. The author consulted a wide range of sources including government documents and reports, oral interviews, and secondary sources. The book is well organized and presents a convincing and compelling analysis of an extremely important issue. [End Page 779]
JAMES WESTHEIDER is a professor of American history and chair of the Social Sciences Department at the University of Cincinnati–Clermont College. He is the author of Fighting...