World War II and the West It Wrought
Edited by Mark Brilliant and David M. Kennedy




Few episodes in American history were more transformative than World War II, and in no region did the war bring greater change than in the West. Having lifted the United States out of the Great Depression, World War II propelled a massive westward population movement, ignited a quarter-century economic boom—underwritten by unprecedented public investment in manufacturing, education, scientific research, and infrastructure—and helped redefine the West as the nation’s most dynamic region. Amid robust economic growth and widely shared prosperity in the postwar decades—a rising tide that lifted all boats—westerners also made significant strides toward greater racial and gender equality, even as they struggled to manage the environmental consequences of their region’s surging vitality. Richard White once evocatively encapsulated the catalyzing effect of World War II on the West: “Never in western history did changes come so quickly or have such far-reaching consequences as between 1941 and 1945. It was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money, and soldiers all spilled west.”1

Abundant evidence in these pages affirms this perspective of World War II as watershed—and for good reasons: First and most obvious, since the broad Pacific region was one of the war’s principal theaters, the West Coast was the natural staging area for America’s Pacific war. Second, then as now, the West had the nation’s lowest population density and greatest expanses of federally owned land. Those unique assets provided the space and the secrecy to test jet aircraft, practice bombing, and develop weapons, conspicuously including the plutonium manufactured in Hanford, Washington, for the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Third, World War II proved so transformative for the West because the West was fortuitously primed for transformation. Industry in the region remained comparatively underdeveloped down to the eve of the war and was thus spared the cumbersome process and costly expense of retooling existing, older factories for war production. Instead, new factories were built afresh, incorporating the latest technologies.2 Western industries were also able to tap the enormous supply of hydroelectric power made possible by dam building in the West in the immediate prewar years, especially the immense systems that rose on the Colorado and Columbia Rivers. Hydroelectric power proved to be especially important for the energy-intense manufacture of aluminum and plutonium. Some 50 percent of the energy required for the wartime manufacture of those critical materials flowed from the turbines of just two dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest—Grand Coulee (completed in 1942) and Bonneville (completed in 1937).

Among the westerners best positioned to appreciate the dramatic impact of World War II was the California-based industrialist Henry Kaiser, who became famous for the hundreds of Liberty and Victory transport ships that splashed down the ways from the shipyards that bore his name along the West Coast, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. “The day of the West is at hand,” crowed Kaiser at the December 1942 inauguration of his Fontana, California, steel mill—the first ever to fire up its blast furnaces west of the Rockies.3 That pronouncement proved to be more prophetic than even Kaiser could have imagined. The United States had been the world’s leading industrial power since 1890, but the pace of industrialization had varied greatly by region, with the West markedly lagging. On the eve of World War II, for example, only 5 percent of the Los Angeles County labor force was employed in manufacturing—two-thirds the average level in some thirty other comparable US cities.4 But massive federal spending during World War II compressed into half a decade a veritable industrial revolution in the West that might otherwise have taken decades to accomplish.

Whereas Andrew Carnegie had raised a little more than $1 million in private capital to build his first steel mill in Pennsylvania in 1872, Kaiser Steel’s initial capitalization at Fontana half a century later—all $100 million dollars’ worth—came from a single source: the United States government, in the form of loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.5 To be sure, public financing of private ventures was certainly not without precedent in American history, in the West in particular (the transcontinental railroads, for example). But the scale of government engagement with the private sector during World War II dwarfed anything that had gone before. New Deal programs expended some $7.5 billion in the American West between 1933 and 1939. Yet during just four years of World War II, the federal government poured some $70 billion into the region.6 A good chunk of this spending went toward expanding western energy infrastructure and manufacturing—from dams that generated hydroelectric power for making ships and airplanes and plutonium in the Pacific Northwest, to more ships along San Francisco Bay and still more airplanes in Southern California, which became the nation’s airplane manufacturing hub, employing some three hundred thousand wartime workers (almost half of them women).

Western steel production had long been artificially stifled by the “Pittsburgh-plus” formula, a transportation premium levied on steel shipped from Pittsburgh. Not for nothing did famed writer Bernard DeVoto describe the prewar West as a “plundered province.”7 The war dramatically changed all that, unburdening the West of its historically crippling, quasi-colonial terms of trade with the rest of the nation. “For the first time in American history the Pacific states and much of the West were independent,” wrote historian Bruce Cumings, “in oil, steel, factories, and investment capital,” as San Francisco’s Bank of America surpassed Chase Manhattan as the nation’s biggest bank.8

“The most important things in this war are machines,” Josef Stalin quipped to Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943. The United States, he said, “is a country of machines.”9 He could have added that within the United States it was the West where a disproportionate share of those machines—especially airplanes, ships, and nuclear weapons—were built. Among the biggest corporate beneficiaries of this river of federal dollars flowing westward in wartime were the several aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area—Douglas, Lockheed, Hughes, and Northrop; the steel, aluminum, cement, and shipbuilding companies of Henry Kaiser; and the San Francisco–based building company Bechtel, the largest construction and civil engineering company in the United States today.

The essays in this book grew out of a conference convened at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of America’s entry into World War II. While some of the authors are known for their work on the western United States, others are better noted for scholarship that reaches beyond the region. As much as the contributions to this volume reconfirm the narrative of World War II as western watershed, they also offer reason to revise it. By expanding their analytical lens to survey both prewar and postwar periods, the chapters suggest that World War II did not so much represent a break with the past but rather an extension of it. From this perspective, the war proved to be less transformative than catalytic—less watershed than water project, to borrow from Richard White’s fetching metaphor in the book’s afterword—with the war serving to channel, redirect, and amplify prewar flows.

For example, as Jared Farmer details in chapter 1, “Executive Domain: Military Reservations in the Wartime West,” large swaths of the American West had long been managed by federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the United States Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. World War II introduced a new federal landlord into the mix: the Department of Defense, which quite literally conscripted Department of Interior lands into Department of Defense military service, where they largely remain today. These isolated and extensive military land withdrawals concentrated in the intermountain West also included some Native American, state, and private property. For Farmer, executive action for the sake of conservation undertaken a half century earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt set the stage for executive action in pursuit of military superiority undertaken by President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR’s initiatives, in short, were “novel in magnitude rather than kind.”

The long, intertwined histories of expansion, conservation, and militarization that Farmer braids together serve to foreshadow the story Mary L. Dudziak tells in chapter 7, “How the Pacific World Became West.” Just as pre–World War II precedents prepared the ground for military land withdrawals in the interior West, so did they pave the way for the postwar projection of military power into the Pacific, where Dudziak focuses on Guam and Bikini Atoll.

While Farmer and Dudziak consider the Department of Defense’s wartime conscription of territory, Daniel J. Kevles explores the conscription of knowledge. In chapter 2, “Enlisting the Laboratories: Science, Defense, and the Transformation of the High-Tech West,” he examines the role of federal funding for aerospace engineering at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and nuclear science at the University of California at Berkeley, both of which predated World War II, although the war dramatically shifted their priorities from basic research to national defense. Professor Ernest Lawrence’s cyclotrons at Berkeley switched from neutron and radioactive isotope production for medical research to splitting atoms for atomic bombs. Similarly, aerospace engineering at Caltech converted from supporting the development of commercial airplanes to designing jet engines that enabled bomber take-offs from short airstrips and fighter take-offs from aircraft carriers.

In chapter 3, “World War II, the Cold War, and the Knowledge Economies of the Pacific Coast,” Gavin Wright considers the “knowledge economy” clusters that dotted the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. Like Kevles, Wright acknowledges the pre–World War II primacy of place of Southern California as the nation’s leading aircraft center (and Caltech as the nation’s foremost aerospace research hub), with Seattle not far behind, thanks to Boeing’s production of seaplanes in World War I. In shipbuilding, too, the West Coast possessed a comparative regional advantage prior to the war, which in turn facilitated the production of just over half the vessels launched in wartime. These pre–World War II developments certainly contributed to the flourishing post–World War II “knowledge economy” clusters. Yet in Wright’s account it is Cold War–era military spending (for both R&D and its commercialized products) that gets the major credit for transforming the once isolated American West into the nation’s most economically dynamic region, with Silicon Valley (as it was christened in 1971) and Seattle emerging as the world’s high-tech innovation capitals.

After postwar demobilization, cuts in defense spending, and recession accompanied by fears of slipping back into the prewar depression, it was Kim Il Sung’s fateful decision to dispatch military forces across the 38th parallel in Korea in June 1950 that led Congress to quadruple defense expenditures. Dollars now flowed even more disproportionately westward than they had during World War II.10 As Wright noted, “whereas the Pacific states received just 12.3% of military prime contract awards during [World War II], that share jumped to 23.9 percent in 1961,” with California receiving the lion’s share. Meanwhile, some 85 percent of R&D funding for electronics flowed from federal agencies. The military in turn dominated the developing markets for transistors and integrated circuits. In this way, Wright—like Farmer, Dudziak, and Kevles—also complicates the narrative of World War II as western watershed, albeit from a post-1945 perspective.

Economic dynamism’s partner was demographic transmutation. Nearly eight million people lifted their heels for states west of the Mississippi between 1940 and 1950. Almost half of them settled in California.11 The western population grew three times faster than that in the rest of the country. African Americans poured in at a commensurate clip, increasing their numbers during this period in California from 124,306 to 462,172, in Washington from 7,424 to 30,691, and in Oregon from 2,565 to 11,529.12

In 1962, California surpassed New York as the nation’s most populous state. The Pacific Northwest and the Southwest also exploded. Throughout the region white westerners flocked to mass-produced ranch-style single-family homes in ever-expanding suburbs, where a majority of all Americans dwelled by century’s end. Meanwhile, nonwhite (especially black) westerners fought pervasive housing discrimination in the West’s ballooning metropolises. Los Angeles became the epicenter of the legal campaign against racially restrictive housing covenants, which covered large tracts of developing suburbia until the United States Supreme Court invalidated their court enforcement in 1948.13 Battles over housing discrimination and segregation continued to rage for decades thereafter, with fair housing legislation serving as one of the defining issues in the emerging “red-blue divide,” as Matthew Dallek documents in chapter 4, “The Politics Wrought by War: Phoenix, Seattle, and the Emergence of the Red-Blue Divide in the West.” Like other authors in this volume, with respect to Phoenix and Seattle, Dallek locates in the prewar period the headwaters of the transformations that swept over the region in the wartime and postwar years.

Demographic upheaval on the scale unleashed by World War II disrupted inherited political habits nearly everywhere in the West. Los Angeles went so far as to experiment with government-funded child care well into the postwar period, as Rebecca Jo Plant reveals in chapter 6, “‘No Private School Could Ever Be As Satisfactory’: The Fight for Government-Funded Child Care in Los Angeles.” Meanwhile, wartime battles over issues like civil rights, labor rights, and anticommunism foreshadowed the political polarities that came increasingly to define the landscape of the West and the nation. Interestingly, the “red” side of this divide included a small but influential minority of Mexican Americans for whom, as Geraldo L. Cadava highlights in chapter 5, “The Roots of Hispanic Conservatism in the Wartime West,” the war provided a seedbed for a strand of Latinx political conservatism that flourished in the postwar decades and continued to bolster Republican ranks well into the twenty-first century.

World War II also redefined—even revolutionized—relations between the United States and the rest of the world. As Cumings wrote, World War II “created for the first time in world history a continental nation with a combined integral industrial economy from the Atlantic to the Pacific, an ‘organic whole’ that emerged from the war unscathed . . . ​constituting 50 percent of global industrial production.”14 The United States no longer stretched merely from sea to shining sea. Now both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, it reached across the world’s two widest oceans. The war and its aftermath hugely amplified the West’s and therefore the nation’s engagement throughout the Pacific basin, as evidenced by the Korean and Vietnam Wars and swelling trade with Asia. The resulting legacy of commercial, environmental, and military ties has shaped the global economic and geopolitical landscape ever since, as Dudziak makes clear with respect to the military basing and weapons testing that unfolded in the Pacific in the immediate postwar decades.

The acclaimed novelist Phillip Roth got something profoundly right when he described the immediate postwar era as the “greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history.”15 That giddy moment endured for the next few decades in the United States, and nowhere more giddily than in the West. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has described the period as the “golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished.”16 As with any drunken bender, however, intoxicating glee eventually gave way to a painful hangover. Though the Cold War postponed this morning-after reckoning, ultimately the consequences of World War II began to have their own consequences, “countering some of the changes that the war brought” and creating their “own weather that would disrupt further progress,” as Richard White writes in the afterword.

For White, the defining attributes of this new weather pattern include the growth of a “new conservatism in the West” and the expansion of economic inequality as the “great problem of our time,” along with climate change and related effects of the post-1945 “Great Acceleration.” These developments, White adds, were not yet discernible to the scholars in the 1980s and 1990s who “first forged the consensus on the impact of World War II on the West.” But they are of central concern for the historians whose essays are assembled in this volume. Their studies at once affirm, qualify, and challenge the paradigm of World War II as western watershed. Put another way, just as the “consequences of consequences” of World War II have become more apparent, so have their antecedents.

It is therefore altogether fitting that Dallek pays heed to the pre–World War II roots of political conservatism in Phoenix; that, relatedly, Cadava focuses on a latent strand of Latinx conservatism that became more pervasive as the political center of gravity in the West shifted from New Deal liberalism to Reaganite conservatism; that Plant highlights a liberal policy road abandoned shortly after the war; that Dudziak draws attention to the projection—and, implicitly in the shadow of America’s two-decade-long War on Terror in the Middle East, overextension—of US military power into the Pacific; and that Wright connects the West Coast’s war-spawned knowledge economies to the demise of well-paying blue-collar jobs and the concomitant rise of high-tech-driven income polarization. As with so much of the story of World War II and the West it wrought, the West, ironically enough, has arguably led the way into a New Gilded Age.17

Attention to these dimensions of the history of World War II and the West it wrought attests to the ways in which “each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time,” as America’s first—and perhaps most famous—western historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, put it in 1891.18 Taken together, the essays assembled in this volume compel a reckoning with the discomfiting question of whether the salutary changes that World War II helped set in motion were nothing more or less than an exceptional interlude between stubbornly recurring eras of inequality.


1. Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma, Press, 1991), 496.

2. Gerald D. Nash, The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth-Century West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999), 42; and Bruce Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 308–309.

3. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 309.

4. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 301.

5. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 309.

6. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 309.

7. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 309; and Bernard DeVoto, “The West: A Plundered Province,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine (August 1934), 355–64.

8. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 334.

9. Stalin quoted in David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 190.

10. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 340.

11. White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” 503–504.

12. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: Norton, 1998), 253.

13. Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), chapter 4.

14. Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea, 334.

15. Phillip Roth, American Pastoral (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 40.

16. Nicholas Kristof, “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality,” New York Times, July 23, 2014. For a more extended discussion of this point, see Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New York: Harper, 2012), chapter 13.

17. Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012 (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2015). See especially the regional comparative data at the bottom of Table 6. Among regions, income was most widely distributed in the West during pre-1979 economic expansions and then least widely distributed in the post-1979 expansions—by a considerable amount.

18. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of History,” Wisconsin Journal of Education 21 (October 1891) in Ray A. Billington, ed., Frontier and Section: Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961), 17.