Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART SIX
The 1940s

The 1940s in America were economically, politically, even intellectually dominated by the war. Virtually every area of life was in some degree altered by it, and the changes the war set in motion often persisted beyond the return to peace in 1945. War required the gathering of America's material and human resources into a national system of production whose needs had occasionally to override custom, habit, and traditional considerations of profit. Unavoidably, mobilization enormously increased the influence of the State, which coordinated national energies and opinions to a degree America had never experienced. As the State began to assert control over so many areas of life which had formerly been free of governmental influence, men on both the left and the right began to debate what its impact would be. There was both hope and fear on both ends of the political spectrum. The American government in 1941 was a New Deal government headed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and this situation fed hopes on the left that war mobilization might be used to bring fundamental social reforms. On the other hand, reformers recalled that powerful capitalist interests had controlled both mobilization and demobilization under Wilson in 1917-1919, and many of them feared the wartime reliance upon businessmen would bring the New Deal into jeopardy.

Each of these intimations was partially justified. Economic recovery came at once, but this had been the goal of all political and ideological factions. Recovery brought both profits and jobs, and was politically neutral. Conservatives, however, soon found the war an important ally. It diverted the attention of Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition from the social reforms still on the agenda at the end of his second term. Roosevelt announced in 1943 that "Dr. New Deal" had been replaced by "Dr. Win-the-War," but long before this remark the government had abandoned the most radical initiatives of the late New Deal. Soon after the outbreak of war the government dropped most of its anti-trust actions against industrial combinations, and shelved the critical report and recommendations of the Temporary National Economic Committee, which had pointed to even greater decentralization of industry and redistribution of income.

Those parts of the liberal reform program which the administration did not abandon in the rush of mobilization, the wartime Congresses often pruned away. In 1942 the Congress terminated the New Deal's planning agency, the National Resources Planning Board, and gave WPA its "discharge." Congressional conservatives harassed TVA throughout the war; reduced the appropriations of the reg

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