The American West Transformed

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Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War, 1985, Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 304, $12.50 ISBN 0-8032-8360-1



Gerald D. Nash details the profound changes wrought in the American West by WW II. Nash finds that prior to the war the West was basically “an underdeveloped region, a colony dependent on the older East for much of its economic well being, for its population growth, and for its cultural sustenance.” (p. 14) Nash finds, however, “By 1945 the war had transformed the West and made it the pace-setting region of the nation.” (p. 14) War mobilization accelerated industrial development. Nash states that the federal government was the driving force of development, investing $40 billion in the West during wartime. “More than ever, the West became a federal province.” (p. 17) Huge dams such as Bonneville and Grand Coulee provided cheap power, which fostered construction of manufacturing plants producing aircraft, aluminum, synthetic rubber, magnesium, and other products. Expanded shipyards and military installations brought people and development to many Western areas. The war brought new life to the West and demolished the Turnerian myth of the closed frontier.

As the labor force expanded through westward migration, there was a population boom. More than 8 million people moved into the trans-Mississippi West in the decade after 1940 with almost half going to the pacific coast. According to Nash, the migration was characterized by youthfulness and racial and ethnic diversity. Severe labor shortages in the new war production areas attracted workers, which in turn led to major housing shortages. Farm labor shortages also developed, leading to the importation of Mexican farm labor under the bracero program.

Nash discusses the impact of growth on various cities in California, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. He finds that housing shortages, lack of public transportation, inadequate police and fire protection, overcrowded schools, and water pollution were ubiquitous problems in these cities as well as in other Western urban areas. Las Vegas was uniquely impacted. With Boulder Dam providing cheap power for new industries and the establishment of extensive military installations in Nevada, Las Vegas became a major entertainment center.

Nash devotes several chapters to the involvement of racial minorities in the West in WW II. Thousands of African-Americans migrated from the deep South, as “The acute labor shortage now opened job opportunities for blacks in spheres from which they had been excluded for many decades.” (p. 88) Despite discrimination and racial friction blacks did have greater opportunities to improve their status. Spanish-Americans also made significant advances in the West during the war. “Military service and urbanization tended to break down traditional values and life styles, and accelerated social and cultural integration into American society.” (p. 126) Nash finds that the war had a profound influence on Native Americans, disrupting the simple barter economies and traditional life styles of the reservations. “To a considerable extent wartime experiences widened cleavages within the Indian community, between assimilationists (modernists) on the one hand and traditionalists on the other.” (p. 129) However, Nash maintains that the movement of many Indians from reservations to cities and towns and service in the armed forces – 25,000 served – did have the positive impact of fostering their integration into American society. The war had a shattering effect on Japanese-Americans who were uprooted from their homes and deported to detention camps. Nash finds, “But strangely enough, this tragic experience had an unexpectedly positive impact on the Japanese-American community. It accelerated its integration into American society.” (p. 150)

Science was promoted in the West. Rocket research and work on the atomic bomb produced large-scale scientific activity. European refugees aided these efforts and were significant contributors to scientific advances. Large-scale federal patronage of science was particularly important, helping make the West at war’s end, “a bustling beehive containing a wide range of important scientific research activities.” (p. 177)

The development of cultural life was accelerated in the wartime West. Hollywood assumed a new national importance as films were made in cooperation with federal government propaganda efforts. It became the free world’s movie capital, and through the absorption of many expatriate artists, producers, and writers, lost its provincial insularity.

After the war there was extensive regional and state planning to continue the growth of the industries promoted by the war. The dependence of the West on the East had been lessened, but dependence on the federal government replaced it. WW II transformed the West in many ways and made it economically and culturally independent, while at the same time it introduced many of the urbanization problems of the East. Nash concludes that the war was a major turning point in the history of the American West. “The West emerged from the war as a path-breaking self-sufficient region with unbounded optimism for its future.” (p. 216)


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Gerald Nash explores the impact of migration, technology, and entrepreneurs on the West during WW II. He finds that the West underwent dramatic change as it diversified its economy away from mining and agriculture into manufacturing, scientific research, and military installations. It became a testing ground for new ideas and a land of opportunity for millions of migrants from the East, Midwest, and South. It could no longer be viewed as a colony supplying Eastern manufacturers with raw materials. Instead, it became a richly diversified region experiencing both the benefits and burdens of older urban areas.

In discussing the impacts of WW II on the West, Nash stresses the positive effects on minorities. He describes discrimination against blacks in jobs and housing, but he finds that overall the West served as a land of opportunity where they made significant progress. Blacks moved to the cities in large numbers and were concentrated in urban ghettoes. According to Nash, “The war thus accentuated the transformation of blacks from a rural to an urban people.” (p. 97) While Nash admits that race relations remained strained, he asserts, “But wartime conditions accelerated the breakdown of discrimination patterns and crystallized conditions that generated the civil rights movement just a decade later.” (p. 106) This may be something of an overstatement since subsequent violent urban riots proved that racial animosity continued unabated after WW II.

Nash’s portrayal of the wartime benefits accruing to Native Americans also seems a bit overstated. While large numbers of Indians went into the service or into wartime work and thus left the reservations to learn new skills, those remaining behind experienced hardships. New Deal programs were cut, and appropriations for the Office of Indian Affairs were significantly reduced. Abolition of the Civilian Conservation Corps eliminated jobs and the only cash income source for many young men. (pp. 135-37) Arguably the worst consequence of the war for Indians was the adoption of the policy under Truman and Eisenhower to encourage urban settlement and dissolution of reservations. As Nash says, “With hindsight it appears that this disastrous policy, conceived with good intentions, ignored the strength of traditionalism among American Indians and the deeply rooted matrix of an ancient and venerated culture.” (p. 146)

Similarly, Nash finds positive effects for Japanese Americans forcibly deported from their homes to detention camps. He says, “For the war shattered the closely guarded introspective life of Japanese-American communities before 1941 and ruthlessly deposited them after release from detention camps within the mainstream of American society.” (p. 148) While this experience may have accelerated the acculturation of Japanese-Americans into American society, this cannot be used to justify internment of people guilty of nothing. As Nash says, “Their race was their only “crime.”” (p. 150)

Nash’s book is well researched, using a wealth of primary and secondary sources, and includes an extensive bibliography. While Nash treats his subject well, he does leave out some important aspects. For example, there is no discussion of the economic forces at work in the West prior to WW II, and he does not describe New Deal policies that had major impacts. Nash also does not include any discussion of the politics of the era, especially relations with the federal government. His discussion of impacts on minorities is good as far as it goes, but he does seem to have an overly optimistic and even paternalistic attitude toward the wartime experiences of these groups.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Nash provides a broad overview of the rapid changes that occurred in the Western states during the Second World War as the region transitioned from a colonial state to a region of “enterprising innovators, independent pace-setters who had freed themselves from many of the bonds that had tied them to the older East” (pp. 212-3). To accomplish this perceptual shift from dependence to independence, the West needed manpower, raw materials, and federal government funds to jump-start industries and transform isolated communities into dynamic urban centers of culture, science, and opportunity. In the process, new ideas of place in society competed with older notions of social hierarchy; communities faced shifting cultural and ethnic boundaries; and reliance on federal funding to solve work and housing problems changed the nature of government responsibility and authority.

In order to solve critical labor shortages, Western industries encouraged the importation of manpower from the rural South, the addition of female workers into the labor force, and the implementation of innovative labor solutions like the Braceros program with Mexico. Housing shortages manifested not only in lack of space, but also in determining how that space would be allocated with white men receiving top priorities for billeting. Single female workers, families, and minorities found limited housing options and color lines were quickly drawn in neighborhoods and in federal housing projects. Tensions flared when groups that had maintained semi-separate spheres in the pre-war West (Spanish-speaking and Japanese-Americans in ethnic neighborhoods, whites and blacks in segregated neighborhoods, Native Americans on reservations) suddenly moved into close proximity in the congested urban areas near war plants, defense industries, and military bases.

While industrialists like Henry Kaiser profited from the ability to design plants in key locations, local communities felt the pressures of rapid population growth. Without the corresponding tax base from private industries or from private lands or homes, the addition of thousands of new residents seeking public services like shopping, health care, education, police, fire, and recreation strained local resources. The tension to provide services also brought competition for scarce resources between the newcomers and the old timers leading to a reevaluation of community values and social hierarchies. Fears about security from foreign and domestic enemies sparked many urban conflicts over rights to work in certain jobs, to live in certain neighborhoods, to participate in public recreation, and to maintain proximity to certain groups. These fears attributed to the internment of Japanese-Americans, the discrimination of blacks away from career-enhancing jobs and better housing options, and the quasi-scientific association of race with inherent criminal tendencies in Mexican-American youth, all seen as measures to preserve white status in a rapidly changing home and work environment. While Nash acknowledges the difficulties these tensions presented at the time, he also sees the end result of enduring these conflicts as a positive with minority groups experiencing collective growth and a heightened ethnic awareness and sense of activism arising out of these troubles. While there is little doubt that the formation of the NAACP and unions to support black labor rights was a positive movement deriving from these experiences and that an increased emphasis on education for Native Americans helped create more opportunities, Nash’s overly positive assessment does not diminish the profound pain and psychological trauma that individuals endured during race riots, through police brutality, through enduring stigmas and negative characterizations. In the case of the Japanese-Americans, to suggest that a positive benefit of being forced out of isolated localities through internment “accelerated its (the Japanese-American community) integration into American society” seems a bit trite.

Nash highlights the role of federal funding in promoting industry and new technology. The development of “science cities” like Los Alamos created a new partnership between government, science, and technology (p. 177). By creating multiple research areas, more states could benefit from increased federal funding through the emphasis on decentralization of war industries. Decentralization not only reduced the power of eastern institutions, but also served as a security measure against enemy attack. The West’s vast amount of federal lands in isolated locations provided ideal, secure locations with limited conflict over land rights. Realizing wartime needs to bring together a scientific community on a scale not possible with university funding, the federal government created science communities using strategies similar to the public works programs or public utility projects of the New Deal era. As the war neared its conclusion, the West vocalized concerns over sharing control of science with eastern institutions already “entrenched positions of power” (p. 176). The creation of the National Science Foundation perpetuated the relationship between federal funds and science yet distributed power among an advisory committee. Science remained one American frontier yet to be closed and the wartime experiences of federal funding led to expectations for continued partnerships with the scientific communities. While these partnerships created a boon for scientific research, the funds expended on research and the secure communities also generated a class system of federal funding. Less analyzed are the types of jobs available in these cities and who was eligible to apply. To say that it was expedient to hire spouses does not address the question of qualifications or types of work or if discrimination played a role above security concerns.

Reliance on federal funding for jumpstarting businesses also became meshed with other expectations of war industry workers. Federal housing provided in locations like Troutdale, Oregon reflected a dramatic shift in priorities from New Deal policies as occupants apparently assumed housing came equipped with furnishings or appliances and tenants refused to move in until amenities were available (p. 76). This contrasts with the descriptions of black housing in San Francisco by Dr. J. C. Geiger where occupants took “any space available” and did not have expectations of federal help (p. 97). These expectations for housing are not fully explained as a government problem, nor does Nash discuss the availability of construction materials for housing projects for local civilian contractors as an alternative housing solution for federal housing projects. In areas where housing shortages prevailed, it does seem odd that workers or families would choose not to inhabit federal housing due to lack of furniture or that housing projects could not retain the status of a New Deal public works project in securing local construction contracts for city housing (subject to local taxing) rather than federal housing. Since a lack of housing seems to be the common factor for all the groups discussed in Nash’s study, more details about the inhabitants of federal housing and the selection process besides the one black for every ten white ratio in Los Angeles federal housing projects would help determine the general population demographic that federal housing was designed to serve (p. 94).

Unlike the unfortunate war workers, European cultural émigrés apparently did not encounter difficulties finding housing in the Hollywood hills. This section on the cultural life seems a bit out of place to compare the Hollywood hardships of writers enjoying elegant salons with the labor and day-to-day hardships of displaced, rootless workers, yet, like the rural blacks and migrant braceros and Native Americans, these European artists and intellectuals also looked to the Western United States for economic opportunity and freedom from oppression. Nash’s point is that this wartime migration not only transported the lowest rungs of the economic structure, but also some of the top scientific, intellectual, and cultural thinkers as well.

Nash’s overview of the transformation of the West carries an important message about the dramatic shift from a colonial dependency to urbanized cultural, industrial, and scientific hub. Encouraged by the influx of federal funds and development of untapped natural resources, western cities and regions broke free from colonial dependency on eastern institutions and industries. This shift did not happen without the contributions of groups typically at the mid- to lower rungs of the economic scale, yet by participating in the war effort and facing discrimination in housing, community life, and work, Nash argues that marginalized groups discovered a new source of strength and identity as patriotic Americans entitled to civil rights, worker rights, housing rights, cultural rights, and social rights. Wartime experiences, according to Nash, empowered a new regional identity as well as new ethnic, gender, and labor identities that sparked social change.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

Beginning with the simple premise that “the Second World War transformed the American West” Gerald D. Nash successfully shows how through changes in demographics, international influences from European emigres, and federal intervention in the economy through wartime industry, support of Hollywood films/ propaganda, and support of scientific research, that the west was transformed from a politically and economically cautious and racially segregated region with “colonial status” to the east, to a thriving, diverse, urban, integrated, cultural center. (pp vii, 4)

One of the strengths of this book was its diversity of analysis. Nash looks at all of the regions of the west - including the California coastal cities, the Pacific northwest, the mountain states, and the southwest. In addition to looking at a diverse area, Nash focuses on the many minority groups of African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and European refugees. Within these diverse groups and places Nash tracks similar themes of demographic change, economic development based on federal funds, municipal difficulties, and eventual improvement in economic condition as well as social inclusion for minority groups. But Nash does a good job showing the growing pains of these areas, which each experienced huge municipal shortcomings in transportation, education, and services because of the wartime booms - showing a more complicated side of demographic shifts during “the good war.” The inclusion of such a broad sense of the people and places that make up the American west, Nash is successful in giving his reader a broad understanding of a changing time and place.

However there are also weaknesses in this analysis. Perhaps the greatest weaknesses is the way in which Nash glosses over the racial problems of the west. This is perhaps most clearly shown in his treatment of Japanese Americans. Spending only five pages on their experience, Nash gives fleeting reference to the horrors of the internment process. Instead he focuses on how Japanese internment actually helped Japanese Americans assimilate into society because it destroyed the “Little Tokyos” which had segregated them in western cities. To play up the loss of property, wealth, civil rights, and dignity of Japanese Americans and instead focus on the ways that internment helped them integrate into a society that did not accept them is such a huge overstep of historical conclusions it is offensive. Though to a lesser degree, these same rosy conclusions can also be seen in Nash’s analysis of declines in Native American reservation life, African American integration, and Hispanic inclusion in federal programs for the first time.

Overall, I appreciated Nash’s attempts to show his reader a complete picture of the west, but did not find his book overly compelling.

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