The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2000, Volume 46, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor

The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second Great War.

Edited by Roger W. Lotchin. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Notes, tables, index. xx + 246 pages. $44.95 Hardcover; $16.95 Papercover.

Reviewed by Professor Emeritus Lawrence B. de Graaf, of California State University, Fullerton, who has written articles on African Americans and local history in Southern California and is currently completing an anthology on African Americans in California.

This collection of ten essays and an introduction essentially originated in 1985, when historian Gerald Nash published his book The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War. In this work, Nash contended that the war was a turning point in the history of the West, causing major changes in the economy, population and race relations that transformed the West from an underdeveloped to a dynamic area. In the ensuing fifteen years this thesis has been the focus of numerous articles and conferences, and the Second World War has become a major area of interest in the history of California, and cities such as San Diego. This book, the outgrowth of a conference at the Huntington Library, is the latest and one of the most impressive of these reconsiderations of the basic question: In what ways and to what extent did World War II impact California?

This anthology is also aimed at filling a surprising historical void: no single volume history has been written on California during World War II. While many articles have come out, most have focused on a few aspects of the war. The central aims of this book are to provide such a book and expand the subjects associated with the war. The latter goal is admirably filled, taking the reader into such little-thought of areas as the impact of the war on music, the tidelands oil issue, and Italian immigrants. While a few articles, especially the one on defense spending, are technical, most are easily-read overviews that provide a basic body of ideas and information on each topic. Several articles attempt to depict the lives of everyday people during the war. Arthur Verge especially covers the “simple things” that give a sense of what it was like to live through that experience. The essay on film uses that medium to suggest what popular fantasies and hopes were during the war — “The Way We Thought We Were” is its title. The essay on music similarly notes the continuation of prewar trends in popular songs with only brief emphases on war-related pieces. Both essays have interesting analyses of the impact that an increasingly diverse population had on cultural expression. Two essays deal with the economic impact of the war, but neither sees the “transformation” that Nash suggested. To the contrary, Paul Rhode attributes California’s large portion of defense contracts to the growth of its aircraft industry especially before the war. Sarah Elkind credits the war as one of several factors that changed public attitudes toward big business and especially large oil companies, culminating in the state acquisition of tidelands oil rights in 1953.

The population changes wrought by wartime migrations and relocations have been extensively discussed, but three essays provide new slants. One on the very limited relocation of Italian aliens and the impact of the war on Italian Americans overall offers a European ethnic side to what has usually been a minority racial topic. The essay on Chinese contends that they made wartime gains in striking contrast to the Japanese American experience and is one of the few essays that sees the war as a major transformer of its topic. Kevin Leonard addresses the more familiar topics of African Americans and Mexican Americans, but from the unique perspective of their efforts at wartime coalition through interracial organizations. Women also receive a different approach, as “Rosie the Riveter” is only noted in passing, and the war as an accelerator of women’s influence in state and local politics is emphasized.

The final essay, William Issel’s study of San Francisco politics, should be of particular interest to San Diego historians. It is the one essay focused on a city, and it uses a national trend — the shift from sharply divided liberal and conservative factions to the moderate “growth liberalism” of the postwar period — as a vantage point for analyzing politics before, during and after the war. The result is a fascinating insight on how in some cities, trends usually seen as developing nationally in later periods were presaged at the local level.

Interesting and well documented as these essays are, they share one shortcoming of most anthologies: the pieces do not add up to a coherent whole. The quest for new aspects of the war has led this book to assume readers are already aware of the more familiar ones. This omission leaves a book with many interesting new ideas but a limited overall perspective. It will therefore primarily be useful to the already-informed reader. But local historians will find much information on individual cities (though little on San Diego) in several essays, making this work not only a fresh set of ideas on California history but a challenge to expand the treatment of this era in the local arena.

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