There’s a tendency in America, and perhaps everywhere, to look back on the past through a lens of nostalgia, particularly regarding issues and subjects that seem, from our current vantage point, to have been in some way simpler “back then.” In many ways, America has always been a nation of progression and innovation. We pride ourselves on our forward-thinking and our capacity for change. Yet, when it comes to politics and government, many Americans can be reluctant to revise or adapt policies that we perceive as having been effective in the past. Others, meanwhile, advocate for obliterating long-standing laws and policies and rebuilding them from scratch. The collision between these two points of views is evident in many of the cultural and political disputes we see playing out on the news today, regarding everything from health care to immigration, with some insisting that we have to return to the America of the past, and others insisting we have to completely transform America as we know it.
Progress, it seems, takes place somewhere in-between these two mindsets. Stasis is, and always has been, impossible. An absolute overhaul of everything we know, on the other hand, would be chaotic, disordered, and rife with unanticipated problems. One of America’s greatest strengths is the diversity of its citizens, but with diversity comes diverse (and often opposing) points of view. America’s history is, and continues to be, in many ways a story of finding the middle ground. Progress does not always mean starting over and preservation does not mean standing still. As evidence of this, we need only look to our past endeavors.
One of the best, and lesser-known, examples of America’s evolving laws and policies involves the history of its commitment to supporting military veterans after the completion of their time of service. Long before the United States became an official nation, there was a precedent for providing for soldiers. Back in 1636, more than 100 years before the American Revolution would result in independence from the British and the establishment of the nation, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were at war with the Pequot Indians. During this time, they passed a law by which all disabled soldiers would be supported by the colony. Following the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress provided pensions to disabled soldiers, and in 1811, the first federally authorized medical facility for veterans was established. The establishment of numerous state-run homes for veterans followed the Civil War, and these new facilities provided treatment for vets regardless of whether their illnesses and injuries were the result of their time in service.
World War I was a different kind of war than the world had seen before, the first fully “mechanized” war. As a result, the casualties and damages were astronomical in scope. Millions of veterans returned from World War I having been promised monetary compensation for their time overseas. But then the Great Depression struck, and vets were left without any means of support. In response, tens of thousands of veterans and their families went to Washington DC to demand their bonuses. They set up camp in the capital city, much like the recent protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement, where they stayed for several months until the Hoover Administration sent the army to disband the camp. The army set fire to the camp and drove the vets out. Photos of this chaos were printed in newspapers all across the country, and people were, not unexpectedly, horrified to see the US government attacking the veterans who had won the war.
There was no Twitter or Facebook Live to capture the violence as it happened, no television news, but the photos nevertheless had a deep impact on Americans all across the country, and it brought awareness to the veterans’ struggle and the failure of the government to provide for them after their service. The reaction throughout the nation was so significant that, in 1944, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (more commonly known as the GI Bill) to help vets readjust to civilian life, and to compensate them for their service.
The GI Bill is perhaps one of the most influential pieces of legislation ever issued. It provided tuition and living expenses for vets attending high school and college, as well as low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans to enable vets to buy homes and start businesses. Many historians have credited the GI Bill with establishing and expanding America’s middle class, as it provided the opportunity for education and home-ownership to veterans who otherwise would have never been able to afford them on their own. This changed not just the lives of the veterans, but of their families and larger communities as well.
Of course, not all those returning from the war received equal opportunities in regards to the GI Bill. Many black veterans were denied the home loans and college admissions given to their white counterparts, which only served to deepen the disparity between an already disparate set of conditions and advantages. Also detrimental was the rise of “for-profit colleges,” which targeted veterans in an effort to get the tuition money provided by the government and which continue to target veterans to this day.
In the years since the GI Bill was established, there have been numerous shifts and changes in the federal support provided to veterans. In more recent history, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (often referred to as the new GI Bill) provided tuition for those who have served at least three years of active duty since September 11, 2001, and enabled them to receive a public four-year undergraduate education. And just a couple months ago, Congress passed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which expands benefits for veterans, including a provision which now allows vets to enroll in non-traditional technology courses. The necessity of these changes in benefits to veterans was based on the changes of the world we live in, where jobs are increasingly tech-based, and those who have training in technology are more and more competitive in the changing market.
You don’t have to be a veteran or an active member of the military to see significance in the government’s evolving role in the issue of support for military veterans. The laws involving compensation and provision for vets have been shifting and adapting throughout the country’s history in order to better suit the times, and they will likely continue to do so. The modifications and adaptations have not always been the result of polite conversation or careful study, and they have not always resulted in perfect policy. But these days, when we think of something like the GI Bill, most of us don’t even know about the protests and the violence that in many ways instigated its inception, but about the opportunities the bill provided not just for veterans, but for the entire country.
Looking back is important, but not because we can find within our past some pristine version of our society to which we may return. There is no pristine version of America, at least, not in the rearview mirror. But looking back can nevertheless teach us a great deal about how our country has changed and how it could continue to change in the future. So much of our progress has been made in small, almost invisible steps—laws passed and amended and amended again. This gradual fluidity of policy can be frustrating for those who want to see big changes happen fast and it can be misleading for those who believe that things were better in the “old days.” But time continues to move forward, and all the past can really offer us is a lesson in how we can best implement the changes necessary to move forward with it.