The Bad City and the Good War

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Roger W. Lotchin, "The Bad City in the Good War: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco," (Indiana University Press, 2003) ISBN-10: 0253215463, ISBN-13: 978-0253215468


In the book “Bad City in the Good War: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego,” Roger W. Lotchin hopes to show the importance of cities to the Allied war effort in World War Two. This importance can be seen in the strategic role of cities, wartime urban industrialization, and the intense civic involvement of civilians that made cities “urban arsenals of democracy.” (pp 238)

With a focus on the coastal cities of California, Lotchin argues that historians have left the American city both understudied and misunderstood during WWII, making this book very much a historiographical challenge. While Lotchin challenges many historical understandings, from the role of women in industry to the use of private cars over public transit, his largest challenge comes from his critique of the idea that California cities of the 1940’s can be described as a “Second Gold Rush.” (pp 241) He feels that this categorization makes it seem as if urban growth during WWII created something out of nothing. “The growth was neither unprecedented, comparable to the Gold Rush, nor revolutionary.” (pp 155) In fact, cities already had large populations and infrastructures which the federal government was able to use toward military mobilization.This infrastructure included workers, police forces, schools, city governments, industry, freeways, expressways, downtown streets, streetcars and buses, business districts, parks, harbors, hotels and motels, and churches. (pp 52-53)

Instead of “Second Gold Rush,” Lotchin argues that “heroic interlude” more accurately describes cities during WWII. (pp 242) Banding together across age, race, class, gender, citizen, and soldier, Lotchin shows the ways in which every citizen group responded to the call of service. Looking at citizen social events and community organizations as proof of patriotic and democratic service to the war effort, city dwellers are shown as being one of the core elements which kept the city running calmly despite war scares which could have easily devolved the city into chaos. Various minority groups were also a key part of the war effort. Lotchin believes that each of these groups participated in their own transformative “Double V” victory at home and abroad campaigns, usually only associated with African Americans. Through the service of these citizens and their cities, the US was able to win WWII.


Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

The “Double V” idea for all minority groups is one of the strengths of “The Bad City in the Good War.” Allowing for a broad analysis of minority groups, including various nationalities, races, ethnicities, and genders, the universal Double V idea shows that despite individual circumstances, each minority group experienced a similar pattern of economic access, social integration, and eventual political power. These parallel routes demonstrate that it is a mistake for historical scholarship to analyze each in isolation. This points to the greatest strength of the book, that is challenging the historical scholarship of the era more generally.

While there were strengths within this book, there were also many weaknesses. With his focus on civilian service, Lotchin was quick to criticize the federal government, who he felt rarely “picked up their own tab for the problems of the war.” (pp 232) This villainization of the federal government Lotchin failed to recognize that they helped to create the infrastructure of the cities in the first place. This neglect of the government’s role as investor and builder during the 1930s is something which Schwarz would surely criticize.

If his portrayal of the federal government was overly critical, then his analysis of citizens was overly sunny. Lotchin goes so far in his descriptions of the patriotic rally around industrial work that he downplays the seriousness of a lack of fair treatment within these industries for minorities. His classification of female workers is representative of this weakness. Focusing on the novelty, excitement, and patriotism of the experience for women, Lotchin says that “women accepted their [lower] pay status” without complaint, “wanted to return to the home” and not continue to work after the war, and though “money counted for a lot with women coming out of the Great Depression... the patriotic motive was overriding.” (pp 83-87) This is an apologist argument for discrimination and makes it seem that if women, and other disadvantaged groups, did want to enter the workforce for money or power that this would somehow make them unpatriotic.

While Lotchin does successfully show that the city during WWII needs to be reexamined, I was not convinced by his work that the portrayal that he gave of the city was somehow more accurate.

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