The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

The West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War.

By Gerald D. Nash. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 304 pages. $35.00. 

Reviewed by Steven E. Schoenherr, Associate Professor, University of San Diego.

In this study of the American West during World War 11, Gerald Nash argues that the region underwent greater changes between 1941 and 1945 than any other equivalent period in American history. The result was “a West transformed”. His emphasis is on changes that affected the economy, labor force, major cities, minority groups, science and cultural life. The most significant change was economic. War was good for business as the federal government spent $70 billion in the West, with half going to California. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation created new plants in industries such as synthetic rubber, aluminum, magnesium and steel. San Diego became a major aircraft production center for the federal government. Even small businesses shared the federal largess through Maury Maverick’s Smaller War Plants Corporation. War spending created jobs and set into motion a westward migration of 8 million people, of which over 3 million ended up in California. These migrants were largely youthful and urban and ethnically diverse.

Many war jobs were filled by women, especially in San Diego, but this is not discussed by Nash. Rather, he focuses on the problems in housing, transportation, factory turnover, farm labor shortages caused by the rapid influx of newcomers. The government built some housing but it was inadequate and often shabby. In San Diego the Truman Committee investigated the construction of 750 units built in only 30 days, but which were so unattractive that only 44 units were occupied. The civilian population in San Diego increased 147% during the war to 380,000 plus 130,000 military personnel. This put a strain on services as well as housing. The 16,000 residents of Linda Vista had no grocery store until the opening of Safeway in February of 1943, and even then it took an hour to get through the checkout lines. Police Chief Clifford Peterson was more concerned with traffic problems than the crime rate. In general, Nash argues that San Diego experienced fewer problems than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver due to the availability of land and the ameliorating role of the Navy.

According to Nash, the war had a profound effect on minority groups. Blacks migrating to the West found jobs first in the shipyards, and then in aircraft plants. With access to education, social services and health care, they became urbanized and found a place in the mainstream of American society. Prejudice and discrimination continued to exist, but the West did not experience the violent race riots that occurred in the Midwest and East. The largest minority in the West were the Spanish-speaking Americans and they also were transformed by the opportunities created by war. Nash discusses the pachuco gangs and zoot suit riots and argues that government aid programs after the 1943 riots were successful in easing tensions.

American Indians in the West also benefited from the war. The average family income rose from $400 to $1200 per year and educational levels increased. While some Indians failed to adjust (the tragic story of Iwo Jima flag-raiser Ira Hayes is told), the war years were a rebirth of Indian pride and identity.

The experience of Japanese-Americans was less sanguine than other minorities. While Nash concedes the tragedy of the internment of 120,000 American citizens, he tries to argue that this detention had “unforeseen and unexpected beneficial effects” because it ended the isolation of Japanese-Americans and hastened their acculturation and integration into American society. A weakness of the book is this tendency to gloss over the disturbing meaning of events such as the zoot suit riots and the Japanese-American internment and instead emphasize their positive significance, however weak the evidence for any kind of positive interpretation. Nash’s book is well-researched with 71 pages of notes and bibliography but it is not a comprehensive or definitive treatment of the West in the war years. Nash himself admits that his study is only a start and he plans to produce another volume. It is hoped that his next book will offer a more critical interpretation than its predecessor.