Michael C. C. Adams
On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history.
Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.
Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images.
Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.
Ana Elizabeth Rosas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
In January 1938, Benny Goodman took command of Carnegie Hall on a blustery New York City evening and for two hours his band tore through the history of jazz in a performance that came to define the entire Swing Era. Goodman played Carnegie Hall at the top of his jazz game leading his crack band—including Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet—through new, original arrangements by Fletcher Henderson. Compounding the historic nature of the highly publicized jazz concert, Goodman welcomed onto the stage members of Duke Ellington’s band to join in on what would be the first major jazz performance by an integrated band. With its sprit of inclusion as well as its emphasis on the historical contours of the first decades of jazz, Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert represented the apex of jazz music’s acceptance as the most popular form of American musical expression. In addition, Goodman’s concert coincided with the resurgence of the record industry, hit hard by the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, millions of Americans purchased swing records and tuned into jazz radio programs, including Goodman’s own show, which averaged two million listeners during that period.
And yet, only forty years separated this major popular triumph and the very origins of jazz music. Between 1900 and 1945, American musical culture changed dramatically; new sounds via new technologies came to define the national experience. At the same time, there were massive demographic shifts as black southerners moved to the Midwest and North, and urban culture eclipsed rural life as the norm. America in 1900 was mainly a rural and disconnected nation, defined by regional identities where cultural forms were transmitted through live performances. By the end of World War II, however, a definable national musical culture had emerged, as radio came to link Americans across time and space. Regional cultures blurred as a national culture emerged via radio transmissions, motion picture releases, and phonograph records. The turbulent decade of the 1920s sat at the center of this musical and cultural transformation as American life underwent dramatic changes in the first decades of the 20th century.