Summer 1945, American GIs at the Sorbonne

After the end of the war in Europe, a challenge remained: What could be used to occupy the thousands of idle, impatient U.S. soldiers awaiting repatriation? The top brass delivered an answer: Send them to university! In record time, American study centers shot up in Paris, Nancy, Biarritz, and several other French cities.
American soldiers at the Sorbonne in Paris, July 1945. © Ralph Morse/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Picture the scene: At the prestigious Louis-le-Grand high school in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, a smiling teacher wearing a flower-print dress and a hat lists the basics of French grammar, including adjectives and the subjunctive and future tenses. Her students are some 20 American soldiers dressed in impeccable khaki uniforms. Meanwhile, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 6th arrondissement, a group of GIs are focusing on their drawings while a nude young woman strikes a pose.

GIs at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, 1945. © Keystone France

These young Americans were clearly enjoying peacetime. The war had made them soldiers, but the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act made them students. Signed by Franklin Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, this law stipulated that all soldiers having served at least 90 days in the armed forces had the right to take classes paid for by the government, either in the United States or at an authorized institution abroad. This highly popular program was nicknamed the GI Bill.

Preparing to Return Home

The program was launched in July 1945. Three million U.S. soldiers were posted in Europe at the time, and their repatriation – Operation Magic Carpet – lasted more than a year. While they waited for their ship to come in, the troops had to be occupied. With the end of the conflict, they had grown bored of guard duty and other thankless chores. In Paris, the theft of Jeeps by idle GIs were so frequent that the American military police confiscated 321 vehicles in 48 hours!

The study centers set up in France, England, and Italy had several objectives: helping soldiers forget the war, preparing them for their return to civilian life, and improving cross-culture understanding. The army wanted to show their troops “the real face of France, a face most American servicemen will never have seen,” wrote Major Ian Forbes Fraser in France-Amérique in October 1945. The director of the Maison Française at Columbia University and the future director of the American Library in Paris supervised a thousand soldier-students in the French capital.

In order to provide lodgings to the GIs, who had to have graduated from high school to take part in the program, the Louis-le-Grand, Saint-Louis, and Janson-de-Sailly high schools offered up their dormitories. The Cité Internationale Universitaire also opened two of its residences and a mess hall was set up on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The U.S. soldiers spent three hours a day in French and culture classes, while trips to the opera, the Louvre, and the Rodin Museum were organized. Others continued their previous studies at the Sorbonne and the Beaux-Arts, the Conservatoire, the faculty of medicine, and the National Institute of Agronomy. Almost 300 classes were given in English, including philosophy, agriculture, business, journalism, accounting, chemistry, dress-dressing, and even cosmetology!

American soldiers near the Sorbonne in Paris, July 1945. © Ralph Morse/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

A Change of Scenery

Military life came to a halt for two months. Bugle wake-up calls and daily drills were suspended and the army’s hierarchy was dismantled. Privates were allowed to hold debates with officers, and while men and women lived in separate accommodation, they took the same classes. Those who had ended the war in Germany, which was now a wasteland, enjoyed the change of scenery. “I think it is one of the luckiest breaks I have ever had,” wrote Alabama-born Sergeant James Hamilton in a letter to his parents in August 1945.

Charles Cestre, French director of the American study center in Paris, described the daily lives of GIs as follows: “Soon, young Americans in uniform walked under the courtyard cloisters; they avidly read or meditated in the shade of the trees; in the vast entrance hall, they rushed to look at the posters that announced what their new lives would be like: families expressing their eagerness to host them, theaters, conferences, and concerts that might interest them, and books for reading in their spare time.”

The same summer-camp atmosphere reigned in the other American study centers in Besançon, Dijon, Grenoble, and Nancy. In their testimonies, the GIs only rarely mentioned the cold showers and food rationing, which lasted until 1949 in France. “I spent the summer sitting in the sunny arcades discussing Molière, Flaubert, Hugo, and Zola,” said Corporal Arnold C. Franco in an interview with France-Amérique in 2015. This cryptographer in the 9th Air Force studied for eight weeks at the University of Nancy. “It really added to my français du trottoir, which is what I learned during the war!”

An American Campus on the Basque Coast

The Biarritz study center was a unique case in the program, growing to become an authentic university on the Basque Coast! Some 240 hotels and villas abandoned by the Germans formed the campus of the Biarritz American University, inaugurated on August 10, 1945. The students stayed at the Hôtel du Palais, the Hôtel Miramar, and the Hôtel Regina. The education department was housed at the Villa Titania and the fine arts facilities were found at the Villa La Rochefoucauld. The Casino Municipal (now the Casino Barrière), with its large windows and sea views, was home to a library and a reading room.

Some 300 American professors taught at Biarritz. Some were recruited from within the armed forces, but most were hired from the finest universities in the United States. The dean, John Dale Russell, came from the University of Chicago, while Frank Luther Mott, dean of the journalism school at the University of Missouri, headed up the journalism department and supervised the publication of a newspaper called the Banner. Other teachers included actress Marlene Dietrich, Hollywood directors Anatole Litvak and George Stevens, invited by the film department, and Paul Eluard, who was named poet in residence!

A group of soldiers from the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion at the Biarritz American University in the summer of 1945. © Courtesy of Rod O’Barr

The American press was fascinated by this university, which had mushroomed out of nowhere in one of the most fashionable beach resorts in France. The soldiers “are issued real beds, soft mattresses, clean sheets and pillowcases, and eat in lavish mess halls,” wrote Life in an article illustrated with photos of GIs in class, at the beach, and at dances. As John Dos Passos put it in an article for Time, “they are probably the most contented GIs in Europe.”

Universities, a Melting Pot for French-American Friendship

Ten thousand U.S. soldier-students (and a handful from France, England, and the Netherlands) spent time at this temporary university, which closed after three semesters in March 1946. It was the last American study center in France to shut its doors, and gave its name to the Rue de l’Université Américaine, a short street lined with elegant stone houses in downtown Biarritz. Nearby, an avenue running along the coast pays tribute to General Samuel L. McCroskey, commandant of the university.

Buoyed by their academic experience, many young Americans took advantage of the GI Bill to pursue their studies in France and remained Francophiles for the rest of their lives. This sentiment was summed up by George P. Schmidt, professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, shortly after he returned from Biarritz in 1946. As he explained at a Rotary Club dinner, these study centers “did more to eliminate misconceptions among Frenchmen about America than any other Army project,” and helped seal “Franco-American amity.”