The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1991, Volume 37, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

World War II and the West: Reshaping the Economy.

By Gerald D. Nash. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 288 pages. $32.50.

Reviewed by David W. Eakins, Professor of History, San Jose State University.

For a period lasting from the Great Depression until several years after World War II, many feisty western observers — from writers, academics, and politicians to small and large businessmen — viewed the West as a colonial dependency of the industrial Northeast. The West supplied raw materials for fabrication by northeastern industries. It had virtually no basic manufacturing of its own, much less a diversified, strong, independent economy. What little manufacturing it did possess was usually owned by northeastern corporate giants. Even Interstate Commerce Commission regulations were geared to keeping western industry at a permanent competitive disadvantage.

World War II, Gerald Nash tells us, changed all that. “In four years the war had transformed a backward colonial region into an economic pacesetter for the nation. And the pattern created by the war dominated the western economy for the next three decades.” The book deals with the wartime transformation in fascinating detail, but it raises more questions than it answers about the transformation of the old colonialism.

In part due to historical accident, in part to the energy, skill, and good luck of some western entrepreneurs and politicians, the West rapidly created the nation’s most productive shipyards and aircraft factories, the world’s largest magnesium plant, eight new aluminum plants, some new steel mills as well as a host of other subsidiary industries and military facilities and witnessed a rapid increase in population. There was a certain ironical advantage in the West’s underdevelopment. The Northeast had, for example, a shipbuilding crafts tradition that stood in the way of a necessary transition to mass production techniques. Not so with brash western contractors like Bechtel or Kaiser, however. And other businessmen, as in Southern California, were also willing to take risks. To be sure, the risks were not especially high. In the case of Kaiser, for example, the government built the yards, paid the employees’ wages, and guaranteed a profit of ten percent. But even with such federal largesse the Northeast was often reluctant to plunge into production the way Westerners were. Part of the western success in breaking the old mold came from the timely action of western politicians like Senator Pat McCarran, for example, who took advantage of the sudden need for unheard of amounts of magnesium by pushing Nevada’s unique conjunction of ore, transportation, and power.

Nash is at his best in describing the ardent desires of men like Harold Ickes, Maury Maverick, Thurman Arnold, James E. Murray, Joseph C. O’Mahoney and others in and out of government to build the new West. They all desired an end to the old colonialism and a new partnership between small business and government that could plan for and build a diversified, locally controlled western economy.

But that vision of a new West was defeated. The top 250 eastern corporations increased their hold on the national economy from forty to seventy percent, and the new industries in the West either folded with the war’s end or were, most often, continued as western subsidiaries of their eastern parents. But there was one major exception. What did remain in the West after the war was the military industrial complex. That is, many of the war plants — especially those in Southern California — simply shifted over to the new requirements of high technology in the Cold War-fueled western economy. By the 1980s a full twenty percent of the nation’s military budget came to be spent in California alone. It has, indeed, transformed the western economy. One might, however, argue that one sort of dependency has been exchanged for another. And Nash indirectly provides the evidence for that unhappy conclusion.