World War II and the American Dream

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Doald Albrecht, editor. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995 Paper: ISBN 0262510839

Summary

World War II drastically changed America in many ways. The mobilization for Total War meant huge upheaval in the day-to-day life of Americans. Auto factories were refitted to make weapons, the government took control of the economy, and seventeen million Americans or 14% of the population served in the armed forces. There was a huge migration from South to North and from East to West. New cities sprang up in a matter of months. One of the reasons Americans were willing to put up with the disruption to their lives was the promise of a better tomorrow. An add from Revere’s Part in Better Living from 1943 sums up this post-war optimism with the simple statement “After total war can come total living.

On of the areas that underwent dramatic change during World War II was how the country viewed living space. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation, edited by Donald Albrecht chronicles some of the many transformations that took place in the building of houses, community planning, and public housing. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibit under the same name held at the National Building Museum.

As the country moved into Total War, a few things became clear. First, there was going to be a need of housing around war-time plants. Second, new designs for houses were needed. Efficiency was of maximum importance. Architects also had to come up with new ways to build houses because many of the traditional materials such as steel were only to be used for the war effort. By applying many of the technological advances made during the war, architects came up with cheap, durable homes, that could be assembled in a day. Community developers planned self-contained neighborhoods for workers that included schools, churches, and shopping centers. In many ways, these developments were the beginning of American suburbanization.

The housing projects were in the end a mixed success. Some communities like Richmond, California, Detroit, and Willow Run Michigan were disasters. The local communities were unprepared for the massive influx of workers to the nearby plants. The result was that workers were often forced to live in the poorest of conditions. There were also racial tensions. World War II provided significant new opportunities for African American workers. White Americans seemed happy to have blacks work, but not live near them. The result was huge conflict over the building of wartime housing in areas like Detroit. There were success stories though. Vanport, Oregon proved to be a truly model community that even provided around-the-clock daycare for working mothers.

The return to normalcy after World War II was difficult. Many women who had been working were laid off. Blacks, who had contributed so much to the wartime economy, were subject to intense racism. Many were left wondering when that promise of total living was ever going to come true.

Commentary

David Houpt, Fall 2008

The essays contained in World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation provide a wonderful overview of a topic that may not seem of much interest at first. They are well written and cover enough different aspects of wartime building to leave one with a good understanding of the major changes that took place. It is fascinating to see some of the prototype houses of the time and to learn how major structures were built using only the smallest amount of metals. The book elucidates a part of our history many current students are unfamiliar with and helps explain why some of the houses and neighborhoods we live in look the way they do. There are also wonderful and pertinent illustrations throughout.

There are a few essays in the book that are tough for the reader unfamiliar with architecture. Peter S. Reed’s “Enlisting Modernism” goes into detail about different architecture firms, and specific architects. It also bogs down in some of the difficult (but important) Federal legislation that was being passed to regulate personal home building. Greg Hise’s essay “The Airplane and the Garden City: Regional Transformation during World War II” has some interesting points but his whole thesis on how the airplane influenced housing development is strange and confusing.

The essays that were of particular interest “Scarcity and Promise: Materials and American Domestic Culture during World War II” by Robert Friedel and Margaret Crawford’s “Daily Life on the Home Front: Women, Blacks, and the Struggle for Public Housing” do not assume the reader is an expert in their topic and manage to tie specific events nicely into a larger historical context. Friedel’s article is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the ingenuity of Americans faced with rationed goods. Crawford’s article does a great job at comparing and contrasting how wartime housing worked in different areas. She also delves into the experience of working blacks and women and how their needs were either met or ignored.

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