Monday, March 3, 2008 in , , , ,

WWII Sets the Stage

WWII, the legendary juggernaut of a war that set the stage for America life as we know it. What would the American dream be without this in our past? How many movies, books, and personal stories can there be? Well, if one counted just the Americans that served in the military, approximately 16 million stories would emerge, less the 400,000 people that were killed in combat.

WWII drove the American economy into the boom of the 1950s, where the good life was possible and a piece could be had by all (theoretically). But the beneficiaries of this boom were largely white, and the structure of the economy skewed development in ways that would prove to exaggerate class distinctions and continue the great divide between black and white in our society.

Approximately 2.5 million black Americans registered for the service during WWII but only about 1 million actually served in combat. Even those that did serve were confined to fully segregated units. Many were relegated to service and support missions rather than actual combat. The Marine Corps initially refused to accept any black servicepeople at all. In 1942 based on mounting casualties in the Pacific and pressure from civil rights groups, they relented but mostly kept black recruits in non-combat jobs as well. The combat battalions did distinguish themselves well in battle, and fought as bravely and well as any white counterparts.

At home the war economy and civil situation was a unique time in American history. Small towns boomed under the influence of wartime industry, the country was drawn together by collective sacrifice and spirit, and yet these collective energies were denied to many minorities. Japanese Americans were sent to camps, giving up posessions, businesses, and homes. African Americans were still beset by Jim Crow laws, and were even denied employment in war industries despite laws that made that discrimination illegal.

In 1941 President Roosevelt signed into law Executive order 8802 which outlawed discrimination in war industries and provided recourse and a Fair Employment Practic es Commission to investigate complaints. But companies such as the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile even went so far as to discontinue its mechanics apprenticeship program when blacks were prepared to enroll. According to the Ken Burns movie "The War" and their website, major fighting broke out at ADDSCO in Mobile in 1943 when a group of black workers was promoted to welding positions. Thousands of white workers turned on the black men who had been promoted, after rumors flew that many more black workers were on the way and that they would be working alongside the women employees. After the riot the black workers did return, and more were brought on to skilled positions, but they were forced to work in 4 separate shipways, and were never promoted to the position of foreman. In the remainder of the business blacks were kept to the unskilled positions they had held before the 8802 was issued.

So looking at the above factors, the benefits of the war economy were denied to most minorities. Good paying war industry jobs and benefits to service people were disproportionately awarded to the white population. Certainly it was great news for white women, who were finally allowed industry positions they would have never gotten if the men had been there to fill them. But blacks and other minorities were systematically shut out, maintaining the status quo and keeping blacks in menial labor jobs. If we look at just the blacks drafted into the army we have 1,000,000 out of 16,000,000 total. The US Census Bureau reports a total population of 131,669,275 for the entire country in 1940. 12,865,518 of these were black people. These numbers indicate that 11.3% of the white and other populations served in the military, while only 7% of the black population served. Only 6.25% of the entire military service was black.

According to "The War" website based on the Ken Burns documentary, "By the end of the war more than half of all industrial production in the world would take place in the United States." The economy was booming, the Depression was effectively disposed of, and once the war ended the stage was set for tremendous growth. But that growth would benefit only certain groups, and certain areas.

Next week I'll be delving a bit into the GI Bill, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the automobile culture, and postwar government policies in relationship to housing. Complicated stuff, and I'm betting I won't post until Monday afternoon again. This sort of writing just doesn't take place so well at 11 pm on a Sunday night. ;) I'm a lot more likely to get my facts straight and write intelligibly if I'm not falling asleep at the laptop. 

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