The military legacy of the Roosevelts

Sep 11, 2014

Bank of America has a long history of proudly supporting military veterans, but no one can claim to have done more for the military than the Roosevelt family. From the creation of the American Legion to groundbreaking World War II programs and initiatives, the Roosevelts have changed the course of the American military, and positively affected the lives of untold service members and their families.

War Bonds

Before the challenge of fighting a war comes the challenge of financing a war. As Nazi victories across Europe mounted, Franklin Roosevelt felt the need to begin planning for how to fund a possible U.S. involvement in the fight. His solution was a voluntary loan system, which he began planning in the fall of 1940. Initially called Defense Bonds, they were savings bonds sold to ordinary Americans, allowing citizens to feel involved in the defense of their country, and a cash-strapped U.S. government to fund the fight against a technologically advanced German military. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the bonds were renamed War Bonds, and despite hard economic times, more than 134 million Americans purchased them. They were sold through banks across the country, including Bank of America, which sold more War Bonds than any other single institution.

The creation of American Legion

“No one man can claim to be the founder of the American Legion,” said Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., eldest son of the 26th president. But few people can claim to have been more directly involved. A veteran of both World Wars, Roosevelt and other members of the American Expeditionary Forces, who fought in France in World War I, saw the need for a strong organization to improve troop morale and support the well-being of returning troops. Despite Roosevelt’s protestations, at the formative St. Louis Caucus in May 1919 he was nominated to be its first national commander, a nomination he refused over the crowd’s chants of “We want Teddy! We want Roosevelt!”

Today, the Legion boasts over 2 million members and 13,000 posts nationwide, all helping to support veterans and their families on a local level, while advocating for veterans nationally.

The G.I. Bill

Before Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law on June 22, 1944, returning veterans hadn’t always been shown great support. In 1932, for instance, World War I veterans had marched on Washington to demand promised benefits, and found themselves in a bitter standoff with federal troops. So as the U.S. entered World War II, there was a strong urge to do a better job of supporting troops when they came home.

Nevertheless, the G.I. Bill, formally called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, proved controversial when it was introduced to the House. Some members argued that college campuses were no place for battle-hardened war veterans. Supporters of the bill argued that the mass of returning veterans might otherwise flood the job market, perhaps even causing another depression. Opponents countered that unemployment benefits offered in the bill could discourage veterans from looking for work.

But once passed, the G.I. Bill was a huge and almost instant success. In 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. All told, 7.8 million former military members took advantage of the opportunity to get some sort of education or training. Millions also used the bill as a path to homeownership, with almost 2.4 million home loans provided to veterans from 1944 to 1952. But, the bill’s biggest impact was in changing the way we think about our responsibility to returning veterans. As Franklin Roosevelt said in his statement at the signing of the bill into law: “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

Liberty and Victory Ships

Almost as much as it was about fighting, World War II was about transporting the equipment that made the fighting possible. And nothing was more important to that part of the war than Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, the creation of which was overseen by Franklin Roosevelt, and helped financed by Bank of America.

In 1937, Roosevelt foresaw the possibility of war with Germany, and the need to enlarge the merchant fleet that would carry supplies to the battlefields. Kaiser Shipyard—owned by industrialist and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—was hired to make the ships, and soon they were
building Liberty Ships (nicknamed World War II’s “ugly ducklings” by Roosevelt) using streamlined techniques that cut production time down significantly. The SS Robert E. Peary, for instance, set a world record when it was made in just four days.

In the early days of the war, Liberty Ships proved to be too small and slow to do the job adequately, and they were succeeded by Victory Ships, which were larger and faster. All told, almost 3,000 Liberty and Victory Ships were built to support military efforts in World War II, a key and underappreciated contribution to winning the war.

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