1940s: The Numbers

The decade of the 1940s was, from the perspective of seven decades past, a decade of numbers.

But in choosing the decade as a setting for my story, they are numbers to be looked at, as the nation changed drastically.

Before World War II, much of the country still resided in farm communities. No Ordinary Time, the book on FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin, defines the 1940s as a “major economic turning point,” where the country started from “predominantly a small-town nation with the majority of citizens living in towns of fewer than 25,000.”

During the war, everything changed.

And nearly everyone was affected. The National World War II Museum reports that over 12 million Americans served in one of the branches of military service, while the Federation of Scientists has the number of at over 16 million.

My own father served in the Army Air Corps. His brother fought in Belgium, as did my father-in-law.

Also in that number were women: about 400,000 of them, according to the Department of History at George Mason University’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Here I have a family connection too, as my mother trained for the Army Nurse Corp.

Civilians – 15 million men and women according to Goodwin – left home seeking jobs in defense factories in the upper-mid-west and the west coast: manufacturing ships, tanks, jeeps and airplanes.

Raw material sources for manufacturing had been cut off by the enemy, and in order to produce enough vehicles quickly enough, scrap drives were held across the country to collect materials, such as tin and rubber.

Volunteers made socks, blankets and care packages to send to soldiers; they worked for the American Red Cross, practiced air raid precautions and entertained the troops through the USO.

At the war’s end, returning GIs, many of whom had visited countries they would never otherwise had seen, attended college under the GI bill (the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944), earned specialized degrees and settled in places other than their hometowns to find more service-oriented jobs than ever before, especially with the rise of the suburbs from the end of the decade and into the next.

And, of course many Americans never came home – but the numbers vary: the National WWII Museum puts the number at 671,278. PBS NewsHour, sourced by the US Department of Defense, has a lower number of 498,332. The Federation of Scientists states the total number killed at 405,399.

Another major change had its roots in 1944, even if it wasn’t in full effect for another eight years: the Federal Highway Act which provided for the construction of over 46,000 miles of interstate highway, connecting all states in the US: the largest and most expensive public works project ever at the time.

Before that, travelers depended upon the two-lane roads constructed in the late 1920s, which included the famous Route 66 (the main route for those traveling from the east to west coast, established in 1926). But those were roads with intersections and stopping points, unlike the “limited access” highways which are designed with mainly entrance and exit ramps.

The highways reduced the need for rail travel and railroads and depots across the nation withered and died. Towns that were not in the path of highway traffic – and ready consumers – struggled.

After the war, big city prosperity boomed in the US, which had become the major economic and defense power globally. Fewer jobs were in producing goods; more were service-oriented than ever.

The wealth was not shared with the farmer, however. And small farming communities, who had suffered great losses of young men who never returned home, faced tough economic times as farming became big business, resulting in more leaving these communities for cities where they could find jobs with steady pay.

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