Defining the Peace

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Jennifer E. Brooks. Defining the Peace: World War II Veterans, Race, and the Remaking of Southern Political Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 1+256. ISBN 0-8078-5578-2 (pbk).

Summary

Jennifer E. Brooks has written a political and social history of Georgia after World War II using returning veterans as the focus of her study. She takes the familiar scenario of the triumph of race-baiting conservative southern politicians and shows how persons who had served in World War II came home to challenge the old guard hold on power. In general, veterans wanted good government that would provide more economic opportunities for Georgians. The importance of this work is not in the analysis of what was agreed upon but in the uncovering of the different voices heard from veterans. This new political force eventually brought change to a hegemonic state leadership without disturbing the state’s Jim Crow laws or anti-union traditions.

Brooks has divided returning veterans into four different groups—blacks, progressive whites, union whites, and reactionary whites. These broad groups had differing perspectives on many of the important issues to returning veterans including increasing the voting base in the state, providing improved economic activity, enhancing economic democracy in order that workers have a voice in their working conditions, and maintaining stable racial relationships. The clash over the meaning of each of these issues defined Georgia post war politics. In particular, getting out the vote became vital in the 1946 and 1948 elections. Black veterans worked hard to increase registrations among African Americans, but many reactionary whites resisted this effort while trying to increase voter participation among whites. Racial splits and the demand for a workers’ voice spilled into the work place. CIO union organization activities concentrated on the predominately white textile industry and ignored industries employing larger numbers of blacks such as meat packing. But not all whites supported the union movement. Many believed economic growth could only be achieved if Georgians had a “right to work” law which would hamper union activity. As differences mounted, white voters were often swayed by race baiting politics that threatened racial amalgamation if Georgians supported too much change. Pressure from veterans did increase the voting roles in Georgia and the new voters displaced some corrupt local political machines. On a statewide basis, Herman Talmadge replaced his father, Eugene as governor, and the state began responding to the economic demands of its returning veterans by improving the state’s infrastructure and education system. Blacks and union members were ignored in these immediate post war changes. Brooks concludes that eventually discrimination against blacks had to cease for business to come to Georgia, but hostility to unions continued as a mark of the pro-business climate of the state.


Commentary

Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

Writing a history of a diverse group of veterans returning from World War II is not an easy task. Jennifer E. Brooks has used resources such as union records, oral interviews, and NAACP records to attempt to give these people a voice. In order to place the veterans’ demands into context, Brooks has also researched extensive papers and manuscripts of politicians of the time. As a result, this work offers an excellent insight into the complexity of southern political thought in the aftermath of World War II.

Brooks finds that many veterans’ experiences outside Georgia during World War II were invaluable in bringing home demands for change in their home state. Some veterans were ridiculed during the war about the backwardness of their state’s leadership under Eugene Talmadge. Others saw parts of the country in which the infrastructure was far more advanced than was found in rural Georgia. Brooks uses these personal experiences as the background for the veterans' demand for change in Georgia. What she recognizes, but cannot quantify, is the number of veterans who left Georgia to find a better life after the war rather than staying home and working for change.

The book mentions the two major problems facing veterans returning to Georgia were finding decent housing and getting work that was comparable to the skills they had acquired during the war. The issue of housing receives little attention in this study, but the issue of jobs is the centerpiece of much of this work. As the war industry shut down, Brooks indicates that peacetime industry could not fill the void. The jobs situation was further worsened as agriculture was becoming mechanized and share cropping was no longer prevalent. In this highly competitive job market, the CIO was determined to make inroads in the South in organizing labor. Brooks’ research indicates that many whites turned their backs on unionization efforts because of CIO policies at the national level supported racially integrated work places. Although this explanation is undoubtedly correct, it does not fully explain why some plants were successfully unionized while others rejected organized labor.

Even though this book is a localized study of Georgia, it shows some of the broader themes of the era. Veterans of World War II came home to expect a greater voice as citizens and a better life economically. These expectations were shared by black veterans who found their hopes of a better life dashed by the continuation of Jim Crow laws and discriminatory traditions. As in World War I, the government’s rhetoric of freedom and democracy used to justify its war efforts, would also be used by its citizens to demand a better life for all Americans.

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