Americans celebrated the end of the war. At home and abroad, the United States looked to create a postwar order that would guarantee global peace and domestic prosperity. Although the alliance-of-convenience with Stalin’s Soviet Union would collapse, Americans nevertheless looked for the means to ensure postwar stability and economic security for returning veterans.
The inability of the League of Nations to stop German, Italian, and Japanese aggressions caused many to question whether any global organization or agreements could ever ensure world peace. This included Franklin Roosevelt who, as Woodrow Wilson’s Undersecretary of the Navy, witnessed the rejection of this idea by both the American people and the Senate. In 1941, Roosevelt believed that postwar security could be maintained by an informal agreement between what he termed “the Four Policemen”—the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—instead of a rejuvenated League of Nations. But others, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, disagreed and convinced Roosevelt to push for a new global organization. As the war ran its course, Roosevelt came around to the idea. And so did the American public. Pollster George Gallup noted a “profound change” in American attitudes. The United States had rejected membership in the League of Nations after World War I, and in 1937 only a third of Americans polled supported such an idea. But as war broke out in Europe, half of Americans did. America’s entry into the war bolstered support, and, by 1945, with the war closing, 81% of Americans favored the idea.
Whatever his support, Roosevelt had long showed enthusiasm for the ideas laters enshrined in the United Nations charter. In January 1941, he announced his Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—that all of the world’s citizens should enjoy. That same year he signed the Atlantic Charter with Churchill, which reinforced those ideas and added the right of self-determination and promised some sort of post-war economic and political cooperation. Roosevelt first used the phrase “united nations” to describe the Allied powers, not the subsequent post-war organization. But the name stuck. At Tehran in 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill convinced Stalin to send a Soviet delegation to a conference at Dumbarton Oaks, outside Washington D.C., in August 1944 where they agreed on the basic structure of the new organization. It would have a Security Council—the original “four policemen,” plus France—who would consult on how best to keep the peace, and when to deploy the military power of the assembled nations. According to one historian, the organization demonstrated an understanding that “only the Great Powers, working together, could provide real security.” But the plan was a kind of hybrid between Roosevelt’s policemen idea and a global organization of equal representation. There would also be a General Assembly, made up of all nations, an International Court of Justice, and a council for economic and social matters. Dumbarton Oaks was a mixed success—the Soviets especially expressed concern over how the Security Council would work—but the powers agreed to meet again in San Francisco between April and June 1945 for further negotiations. There, on June 26 1945, fifty nations signed the UN charter.
Anticipating victory in World War II, leaders not only looked to the postwar global order, they looked to the fate of returning American servicemen. American politicians and interest groups sought to avoid another economic depression—the economy had tanked after World War I—by gradually easing returning veterans back into the civilian economy. The brainchild of the head of the American Legion, William Atherton, the G.I. Bill won support from progressives and conservatives alike. Passed in 1944, the G.I. Bill was a multifaceted, multi-billion-dollar entitlement program that rewarded honorably discharged veterans with numerous benefits.
Faced with the prospect of over 15 million members of the armed services (including approximately 350,000 women) suddenly returning to civilian life, the G.I. Bill offered a bevy of inducements to slow their influx into the civilian workforce as reward their service with public benefits. The legislation offered a year’s worth of unemployment benefits for veterans unable to secure work. About half of American veterans (8 million) received $4 billion in unemployment benefits over the life of the bill. The G.I. Bill also made post-secondary education a reality for many. The Veterans Administration (VA) paid the lion’s share of educational expenses, including tuition, fees, supplies, and even stipends for living expenses. The G.I. Bill cause a boom in higher education. Enrollments at accredited colleges, universities, and technical and professional schools spiked, rising from 1.5 million in 1940 to 3.6 million in 1960. The VA disbursed over $14 billon in educational aid in just over a decade. Furthermore, the Bill encouraged home ownership. Roughly 40 percent of Americans owned homes in 1945, but that figured climbed to 60 percent a decade after the close of the war. Doing away with down-payment requirements, veterans could obtain home loans for as little as $1 down. Close to 4 million veterans purchased homes through the G.I. Bill, sparking a construction bonanza that fueled postwar growth. In addition, the V.A. also helped nearly 200,000 veterans secure farms and offered thousands more guaranteed financing for small businesses.
Not all Americans, however, benefitted equally from the G.I. Bill. Indirectly, since the military limited the number of female personnel men qualified for the bill’s benefits in far higher numbers. Colleges also limited the number of female applicants to guarantee space for male veterans. African Americans, too, faced discrimination. Segregation forced black veterans into overcrowded “historically black colleges” that had to turn away close to 20,000 applicants. Meanwhile, residential segregation limited black home ownership in various neighborhoods, denying black homeowners the equity and investment that would come in home ownership. There were other limits, and other disadvantaged groups. Veterans accused of homosexuality, for instance, were similarly unable to claim GI benefits.
The effects of the G.I. Bill were significant and long-lasting. It helped to sustain the great postwar economic boom and, if many could not attain it, it nevertheless established the hallmarks of American middle class life.