Arizona's Ernest McFarland and the fight for the GI Bill

Arizona's Ernest McFarland and the fight for the GI Bill

Few know of Arizona’s “Father of the GI Bill,” Ernest W. McFarland, and his fight to add the provisions to give educational and home- and business-loan benefits to veterans.

McFarland, known as Mac, began life in his adoptive Arizona as a farmer to later rise to the ranks of U.S. senator, U.S. Senate majority leader, governor and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. He is the only Arizonan to serve in the highest office in all three branches of Arizona government, two at the state level, one at the federal.

In addition to his work on the GI Bill, McFarland sponsored 40 bills to benefit veterans and fought equally hard for Arizona’s water rights. He was instrumental in the development of the Central Arizona Project, a portion of which still bears his name, and is credited with creating the Arizona State Parks System.

While McFarland deserves to be recognized for his unique role in Arizona history, it was his pursuit of what would become the GI Bill that may have made the most lasting impact on post-World War II America.

McFarland had seen firsthand WWI veterans returning home to rampant unemployment and long soup kitchen lines. McFarland knew that without government intervention, there would be 16 million returning WWII vets without educational and housing opportunities, which could have led the country into economic depression.

The American Legion promoted a veterans omnibus bill containing health and economic benefits by Warren Atherton, a former American Legion national commander. McFarland drafted a bill that allowed veterans to obtain their educations and take advantage of zero-down, low-interest home and business loans.

Working with both houses of Congress to incorporate the two bills, McFarland and Atherton worked to promote what became the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.

The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the legislation on June 22, 1944, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed what is now known as the GI Bill of Rights, or GI Bill, into law.

For his efforts, McFarland is considered, with Atherton, a father of the GI Bill — considered by many to be one of the most successful pieces of social legislation ever written.

The impact of the bill was far-reaching.

“The GI Bill increased the country’s intellectual capital exponentially. The Bill funded the educations of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, and 450,000 engineers, as well as three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, 14 Nobel Prize winners, and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners,” according to a 2015 article by American RadioWorks.

Millions of returning veterans also took advantage of the GI Bill’s home-loan guaranty. From 1944 to 1952, the VA backed an estimated 2.4 million loans.

McFarland was honored this past March 30 in Florence, where he began his political career. “The Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the GI Bill and Ernest McFarland” featured a parade and tributes from the American Legion, representatives from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office and other dignitaries.

No one at the time of the original bill could have imagined how McFarland’s foresight would end up impacting the nation’s veterans, educational system and workforce for generations to come.

Contact A.E. Araiza at

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