Planning the Home Front

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Sarah Jo Peterson. Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 376 pp. ISBN: 978-0226025421



In her book, Planning the Homefront: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, Sarah Jo Peterson argues that the United States Federal Government mobilized the WWII home front using a participatory planning approach that included the opinions, ideas and goals of the federal government, military, state governments, local governments, industrial leaders, social reformers, labor unions and workers. She uses the example of the creation of the Willow Run bomber plant as an example of how the top-down engaged the bottom-up in planning for war production during WWII. Peterson focuses on several areas of the planning, building and operations of Willow Run and connects this discussion with the larger national wartime issues of industrial expansion, migration and suburbanization. The main areas of focus include the planning and building of the bomber plant, housing for the increased population of workers to the Detroit area, dealing with production problems once the plant became operational and dealing with racial issues.

Peterson gives a detailed summary of Ford’s negotiations with the federal government and military in order to receive the B-24 contract. She explains how Ford believed his company was in a better position than the already established airplane industry to efficiently mass produce B-24s for the war effort. Because of this, Ford issues an ultimatum to the government. He stated that he would not accept any contract unless Ford was contracted to make the entire plane (instead of just component parts). While negotiations continued, planning infrastructure to support workers continued with the assumption of a reduced role. This, plus internal issues between the top Ford leadership delayed the needed infrastructure to support living arrangements for the number of workers that would eventually be needed. Although not technically linked to the contract, Ford also gave into union demands for unionization just as he received the contract from the government.

Because of the requirement for an airport and large amount of equipment needed to support the bomber plant, a location outside of Detroit was the only option for the Willow Run plant. Because Detroit had no mass transit, congestion was an issue for commuting plant workers. To resolve this issue, three solutions were proposed: an expressway from Detroit, the construction of a modern city exclusively for plant workers and expansion of existing suburbs. Eventually all three solutions were implemented but each had unique issues to be worked out between various interest groups. The main issue of the expressway was over where the funding would come from. Due to these apportionment debates, a crosstown expressway, which was the city of Detroit’s goal, was put on hold and an expressway between Detroit and Willow Run was eventually constructed. Those in government advocating a new city were divided between building privately contracted/individually owned homes and government owned public housing based on the “Modern Housing” movement. Eventually, the private option with agreed upon cost cutting measures such as pre-fabrication became the primary option for the majority of workers due to worker preference for individual ownership. The expansion of existing suburbs pitted local governments and the federal government against one another over funding. Originally, only new communities were eligible for federal funding. But the eventual passage of the Lanham Act opened war funds for local improvements in existing communities.

In addition to how housing would be constructed, the living arrangements of African Americans was also a contested issue. The changing of the Sojourner Truth project from African American to white housing caused considerable discord. Eventually, the publicly run Willow Village was integrated with the approval of local leaders and Ford Motor Company despite earlier failures to integrate (ie: plant supermarketing center). This victory most likely came about because of two reasons. First, Willow Village was divided into distinct neighborhoods, so there was still a division between races. Second, local sentiment had prevented previous attempts at integration, but since Willow Village was not a preexisting part of Detroit or other established communities, it was immune from previously instituted segregated housing policy.


Dan Curry, spring 2014

Sarah Jo Peterson effectively analyzes the process of a democracy mobilizing for total war. Her study of the Willow Run plant is an excellent example of how different levels of government and multiple interest groups worked together to support the war effort during WWII despite the many problems of home front mobilization. Her analysis provides a clear understanding of the participatory planning process and brings order to what could be seen as a chaotic lack of planning. She also expertly explains the perspectives, motivations and agency of the many interest groups who were essential in maximizing wartime production as well as the expanded (yet limited) goal of the federal government in providing guidance and motivation in the process. Planning the Homefront is a significant contribution to the historiography of WWII, business, urban planning and community studies.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

The interaction between federal, state, local, industry, and community leaders which Peterson describes as “participatory planning” seems at times to have been frustrating to members of all of those groups, and most of all to the people whose lives were affected by the planning. The (lack of) housing at Willow Run, the story of which ties together many of Peterson’s chapter, clearly showed local resistance and gradual adaptation to a sort of suburbanization through in-migration and relocation of war workers. Ypsilanti in particular seems to have resisted newcomers or change, as evidenced by their deed restrictions and other structural barriers to settlement. Although local interests eventually came to accept some of the necessary changes for war production to move forward (and to improve their national public image), Peterson’s work makes clear that the various institutional players were rarely on the same page.

Even with her extensive discussions government and organizational institutions, Peterson does not lose sight of the experience of the workers. Although in her discussions of housing it takes some time to get to what workers actually wanted, rather than what various experts thought was best for them, Peterson allows the reader to hear the voices of the Willow Run workers who overwintered in trailers or who had to decide between work and living with their families elsewhere in the United States. Peterson incorporates the voices of women and minorities, paying attention to the ways in which race, gender, and regional origin affected their reception and work experiences.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

In Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, Sarah Jo Peterson’s employment background as a planner is quickly made apparent. Although Peterson recalled in a recent lecture at George Mason University that she had worried about her book’s reception by her new colleagues in the Division of Regional and City Planning at the University of Oklahoma, few readers would mistake this book as anything but a history of planning during World War II. Peterson’s book fits easily into the historiography of the homefront, but is especially effective alongside texts such as World War II and the American Dream, which analyzes the impact of wartime spending and development on the shape of American geography, culture, society, and industry. Peterson’s study on Willow Run digs deeper into one of the specific cases mentioned by other authors as an example of wartime production and a focal point of housing controversy.

Drawing on her education and experience equally, Peterson successfully merges an analysis of planning and historical narrative. She moves between planning and experience, covering the legislative and political negotiations as well as the challenges faced by workers trying to find affordable housing (or any housing whatsoever) in the areas surrounding the Willow Run plant. She also covers the different experiences of white and black, male and female workers, and the tension that arose over housing policies and segregation. Most importantly, she draws from diverse sources from numerous archives, recreating lengthy conversations and debates about planning, housing, production, and race. Although Peterson’s text is not likely to fascinate military historians as much as social historians, her version of Willow Run’s history shows the depth and complexity of wartime investment, production, and development.

The only drawback of Peterson’s approach is that her prose becomes, at times, belaboured while she tries to capture the fast-paced interactions between various planning committees, local councils, union organizations, and federal agencies. The most effective sections of her text are those devoted to the experiences of workers and planners as they negotiated influences and circumstances. When Peterson weaves those experiences into the historical narrative, her prose is both engaging and informative.

Stephanie Seal Walters, Spring 2016

According to Peterson, the United States home front played a significant role to the World War II war effort. By using the Willow Run factory as a case study for the American home front. However, instead of looking at how factories functioned during the War, Peterson examines how the Federal government came to rely on American factories to supply troops in the European and Pacific theaters--specifically factories that created fighter planes. The Willow Run factory located in the heart of America's "Arsenal of Democracy"--Michigan (2). Even though Michigan would seem as the obvious choice to create a mobilization of military equipment considering it had a long history of factory lines and car factories. However, the federal government remained unsure that Michigan companies--including the Ford Motor Company--could produce enough planes to supply the military. However, after lobbying the government, Willow Run received a government contract to start producing B-24s.

The book reveals not only the story of life at Willow Run before and during their government contract, but how the federal government began to rely on the American home front for mobilization. Peterson examines how the government considered mobilization before the war and then their response after the attack at Pearl Harbor. While Ford Motor Company saw Michigan as the easiest place to start producing for the war, the Federal government was concerned. Detroit did not have expressways, there were no airports, and the government was unsure of how that was going to effect the transportation of these planes. However, after choosing Detroit--partiuclarly Willow Run, the government stepped in to create these expressways and airports. However, the problems didn't stop there. The local, state, and federal government came under fire for how they handled race relations in the area, including how to house white and black factory workers.

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