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America and the War Effort

million percent workers production

Hollywood’s wartime role can only be examined and understood in terms of the larger social, economic, and material conditions at home during that era, as well as the military developments overseas. The retooling of the motion picture industry that accompanied the nation’s entry into the war was simply one facet of a massive conversion of American industry and labor—indeed, of the American way of life—that began within days of Pearl Harbor and would extend not only through the war years but for years and even decades afterward.

From the moment the Japanese surprise attack was reported in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of Sunday, 7 December (the attack actually began in Hawaii at 7:55 A.M. local time), the government kicked the defense buildup into high gear. The buildup was orchestrated through a network of agencies, principally the War Production Board (WPB), the civilian agency that coordinated the wartime economy and the production of war goods; the War Manpower Commission, which coordinated and allocated the overall human resources required for military, industrial, agricultural, and other civilian needs; the War Labor Board (WLB), which handled all labor-management disputes in defense-related industries; the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which controlled prices and regulated the production and availability of civilian goods, including the rationing of virtually all the necessities of day-to-day life; and the Office of War Information (OWI), which handled all government news releases to the press, served as liaison between press and government, and supervised the dissemination of information and propaganda through the media, notably motion pictures and radio. Scores of other agencies and subagencies were created during the war, in addition to the myriad government and military organizations set up during the Depression and the prewar defense buildup.

Roosevelt and his colleagues in Washington well realized that Allied victory was essentially a matter of effective utilization of their military and industrial resources. As the historian R. A. C. Parker has noted in his study of World War II, “Superior resources won the war; the victors had greater numbers of men and women and made more weapons.” 2 Initially the government’s prime objective was to assemble a national war machine by creating new industries and, to a far greater extent, by converting existing industries to war production. This effort required additional workers and increased productivity, and both of these areas saw enormous growth during the war. In 1939-1940, 8 million people—nearly 15 percent of the workforce—were unemployed in the United States, and the average factory was in operation for forty hours per week. The defense buildup sharply increased employment rates. By early 1942, as the government began awarding war contracts (which eventually would total $240 billion) and pumping $2.3 billion per month into the economy, unemployment had fallen to 3.6 million. By 1944, Page 135  the U.S. workforce had increased by 18.7 million and unemployment bottomed out at 800,000. A total of 64 million Americans were at work, including some 10 million in the armed services. By then, the average factory was in operation for ninety hours weekly, and the United States was producing 40 percent of the world’s armaments. The productivity of American workers was unmatched throughout the world—roughly twice that of Germany in 1944, and fully five times that of Japan.

Millions of those factory workers were women, and in fact the war had a greater impact on the employment and economic status of American women than any other event in this century. More than 6 million women took jobs during the war, increasing the female workforce by more than 50 percent. Much of the work was in traditionally male roles, particularly factory work. Female employment in the aircraft industry increased from only 1 percent in 1941 to 39 percent in 1943, for example, while women came to comprise 15 percent of the workers in the previously all-male shipbuilding industry. Another one million women went to work as civil servants for the government, where they were hired at a rate four times greater than men.

The most rapid and significant conversion to war production involved the automotive industry, which retooled by government mandate to produce aircraft, artillery, tanks, heavy trucks, and jeeps. On 10 February 1942, the last new civilian car (a Ford) rolled off the assembly line in accordance with a government order to halt all civilian automobile production. Within weeks, all of the major automotive companies had converted operations and were producing war-related materiel. Ford’s new Willow Run plant, 50 miles from Detroit, for instance, was redesigned to mass-produce B-24 Liberator bombers. The plant covered 67 acres, employed 42,000 workers, and by the end of the war would produce 8,654 bombers, eventually turning them out at the rate of one per hour. 5 The Saginaw division of General Motors was retooled to produce Browning machine guns; by March 1942, it was cranking out over 7,000 per week. Pontiac, meanwhile, was producing antiaircraft guns at the rate of 1,250 per month. The auto industry continued to produce trucks as well, turning out more than one million light and heavy trucks in 1943-1944—more than all of the other Allied and Axis powers combined.

Parker has argued that “production of aircraft is the best single measure of industrial achievement in the war,” and here the U.S. conversion and output were particularly impressive. In 1939, Roosevelt set a production target of 5,000 planes, and that total was surpassed by some 800 aircraft. In 1941, the defense buildup took off and over 26,000 planes were produced. That output was nearly doubled in 1942 and then doubled again in 1943, with production leveling off in 1944 at 96,000 planes—over twice the output of the two next-largest producers, Russia with 40,246 and Germany with 39,275. Between Pearl Harbor and D day in June 1944, U.S. aircraft production averaged 5,700 planes per month, a rate roughly equivalent to the nation’s entire output during all of 1939.

Conversion to a war economy boosted salaries, of course, with total wages and salaries increasing from $52 billion in 1939 to $113 billion in 1944. Under government-imposed salary limits on raises, average weekly earnings in manufacturing rose 65 percent during the war, from $32.18 in 1942 to $47.12 in 1945. Meanwhile, the production of civilian goods fell by about one third as U.S. workers found themselves with greater purchasing power but increasingly less available for purchase. Shortages and restrictions became a way of life, and as the war progressed virtually everything that Americans wore, ate, drank, drove, or otherwise used was rationed by the OPA.

The war effort also required massive relocation of the civilian population. During the war, over 15 million persons, some 10 percent of the population, relocated in different Page 136  counties, with about half that number moving to another state. Industrial centers in all parts of the country saw sizable population increases, particularly on the West Coast; San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland were all among the top ten cities in terms of population gains between 1940 and 1944. (The Los Angeles population increased 15 percent during that period, with an influx of about 440,000.) 9 Some of the population relocation, however, was neither voluntary nor related to war production. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Japanese and Japanese Americans were systematically removed from their homes and confined in internment camps. The total number of persons interned reached 110,000, roughly two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens; 80 percent of those were from California.

Not only were Americans moving in record numbers, but they were marrying and reproducing at a higher rate as well, despite the millions of men going into the service. Indeed, the early 1940s saw something of a “marriage boom” and a mild “baby boom” as well owing to various war-related factors: the prosperity of the period in the wake of the Depression, the prospect of separation due to military service, and no doubt the prospect of draft deferments as well. From 1940 to 1943, one million more families were formed than would have occurred under normal conditions, while the birthrate rose about 15 percent. 11 The number of family households increased by about two million during the war, despite a sizable countertrend toward “merging households” due to shortages of housing and consumer goods. The number of households with married women at the head and husbands absent increased from 770,000 in 1940 to 2,770,000 in 1945.

While war production brought millions into the labor force and created real prosperity for the first time since the 1920s, the mobilization of millions of Americans into urban-industrial centers also brought labor conflicts, racial and ethnic discord, battles for women’s rights, a surge in juvenile delinquency, and various other problems. Union membership grew along with the war plants, although both the unions and the factories experienced an erosion of authority and leadership. Despite the unions’ no-strike pledges, labor strikes became a fact of life during the war, especially after 1942. The period saw record numbers of wildcat strikes—short-term, sporadic, unauthorized work stoppages within a limited labor arena. As Nelson Lichtenstein points out in Labor’s War at Home , “The proportion of all American workers who participated in wartime strikes quadrupled after 1942, reaching an eighth of the workforce by the time of the surrender of Japan in September 1945.” And in industries that suffered major strikes, such as mining and aircraft, the proportion of the workforce participating in strikes was 50 percent or higher per year.

The surge in war-related employment of women and blacks in industry also was a source of conflict. Women suffered routine discrimination in terms of salary scales, work assignments, and limited advancement (especially into the growing supervisory and management ranks), but women rarely mounted any organized action to protest this treatment. Male coworkers tended to tolerate their invasion of the factories so long as women produced and remained within the newly defined arenas of “women’s work”—aircraft riveting, welding, and wiring, for example. 14 Indeed, Rosie the Riveter became not only an accepted but an idealized figure during the war, best evidenced perhaps by Norman Rockwell’s May 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Black workers were given no such romanticized treatment, however; in fact, black workers were decidedly more militant and met with much greater resistance in their pursuit of equal opportunities in the workplace. Among the bleaker of these episodes were the Detroit “hate strikes” involving white workers who walked off the job to protest black integration of traditionally white shops. These strikes reached a climax of sorts in June 1943, when 25,000 workers at Packard staged a weeklong strike after two blacks were promoted to long-segregated machinist positions. 15 The conflicts spilled out into the streets of Detroit, which soon became inflamed in weeks of violent race riots, culminating on 21 June, when 25 blacks and 9 whites were killed and another 800 were injured.

June 1943 also saw racial violence erupt in Los Angeles as white servicemen battled Latino youths in the “zoot-suit riots”—referring to the oversized, brightly colored jackets and trousers sported by Latino youths (and by blacks and whites as well). This kind of disturbance was not confined to Los Angeles, although the problem was particularly severe there because of the sizable Mexican-American population and the large numbers of servicemen passing through that city. Actually, the zoot-suit riots were also related to another wartime social problem: juvenile delinquency. During the war, teenage violence and vandalism were a problem in virtually every major city, particularly the war centers with their urban crowding, unchecked prosperity, late-night revelry, and general lack of parental supervision due to work schedules. Movie theater owners were among the more vocal critics of the situation, complaining about raucous disruptions of screenings, slashed theater seats, and the like. Nighttime curfews were imposed on teenagers in many cities, while the media constantly challenged parents to assume greater responsibility for their children’s behavior.

Although the war industries disrupted urban life, they also energized American cities in more positive ways. Perhaps no city in the United States was as lively during the war as Los Angeles, owing to three factors: the booming aircraft industry; L.A.‘s status as a point of embarkation for the Pacific war theater; and the movie industry’s efforts, especially through the USO and the legendary Hollywood Canteen, to entertain troops en route to the Pacific. Los Angeles, like most other large cities, also saw a tremendous wartime boom in nightclubs and restaurants, in live music and dancing, and in various other forms of entertainment. While entertaining the troops had its place, entertaining the workers who stoked the war machine was crucial as well.

Complementing the assembly of America’s industrial war machine was the buildup of its armed forces. By December 1941, the peacetime draft had increased the military to about 1.5 million men, and the total surpassed 2 million immediately after Pearl Harbor. This number, however, represented only a fraction of the required force, which eventually would peak at 11.7 million American servicemen.

The first year of U.S. involvement in the war was devoted primarily to recruiting and training troops and to building the domestic war machine. But 1942 did not go well for the Allies: Japan won decisive victories in the Pacific, while the Nazis scored victories in the Atlantic and in North Africa. By late 1942 and early 1943, the tide began to turn, thanks in large part to the steady supply of American aircraft and warships. In the summer of 1943, the Allies had taken the offensive on all fronts, and by late 1943 there was little question of whether the Allies would prevail; it was simply a matter of how long it would take and at what cost.

At that time, U.S. troop strength overseas was only about 1.6 million, but that number increased dramatically as the Allies dug in for the long haul both in the Pacific and in Europe. American military forces were deployed to two major theaters of action: the Pacific, where primarily navy and marine forces battled the Japanese; and Europe (and North Africa), where army and air force contingents fought the Nazis. The Russian-German theater to the east represented a veritable war unto itself, waged from June 1941 (when the Nazis invaded Russia) to May 1945. In the span of only a few months in early 1944, the number of U.S. troops in the two theaters reached about 3.6 million; this period also saw the American war machine reach peak productivity.

In the summer of 1944, Allied victory was assured with D day and the invasion of Europe and with a series of major victories over the Japanese in the Pacific. But Germany and Japan still fought fiercely, and casualties mounted as Roosevelt challenged the war-weary populace in early 1945 to upgrade the effort, issuing a “work or fight” mandate to increase both troop and war-plant strength. 19 Roosevelt’s death in April preceded Hitler’s suicide by only a few weeks as the war in Europe finally ended. Germany surrendered on 7 May; the following day was declared V-E Day (for “victory in Europe”). By then, the Allies had secured the Pacific (at an enormous cost in lives lost) and the United States was conducting regular bombing raids over the Japanese mainland in preparation for a November invasion. That invasion was precluded by Japan’s unconditional surrender following the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August). The official Japanese surrender took place on 2 September, which President Harry S Truman proclaimed V-J Day.

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