A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History

By Clayton McClure Brooks | Go to book overview

Governing the 1940s

In the 1940s, national emergency and the expanded activism of state and federal governments convinced governors that they had not only a right to become involved in national concerns, but a responsibility. Although Roosevelt’s policies had gone far toward relieving the suffering of Americans, many governors were frustrated about the consequences of the New Deal—the erosion of state autonomy with an unprecedented expansion of the federal government. At the 1940 Governors’ Conference meeting, Governor Herbert O’Conor of Maryland (1939–1947) announced that he would “like to see the Federal departments withdraw gradually from the field of direct administration, and supply to the States … advisory and supervisory service, along with financial participation.”1 O’Conor supported a more activist government overseeing the creation of Maryland’s Department of Welfare and a state medical care program during his term as governor but, like many of his colleagues, opposed the federal government dictating policy to states. O’Conor was not alone; many governors reacted to the changing federalism balance by speaking out more forcibly on national issues. As a collective through the Governors’ Conference, they issued resolutions directed at the president and Congress in which they sought, among other things, better coordination of state and federal taxes and the return of state employment service authority that the federal government assumed during the war.

America’s entry into World War II and the profound effect that participation had on the nation’s social and economic infrastructure accelerated the centralization of power in Washington and compounded the dilemma that governors faced with respect to their dependence on— and need to compete with—the federal government. Accordingly, their focus during the 1940s was on two primary, overriding issues: protecting the home front, during both World War II and the ensuing Cold War, and an uneasiness that the national government was slowly usurping state power.

In the early 1940s, war dominated all other issues. Their concerns about the federal government notwithstanding, governors enthusiasti-

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