Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

Wartime Buildup Begins, June, 1938

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Wartime Buildup Begins, June, 1938

Three years prior to Pearl Harbor, anxious British war planners began transforming California’s economic landscape. In June 1938, Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank received one of the state’s first big foreign orders for 200 warplanes (Verge 1993, 4). Few realized at the time how momentous the next seven years would be in reshaping the Golden State. Historian Gerald Nash stated it simply when he wrote, World War II left an indelible imprint on the economy of the American West. No other event in the twentieth century had such far-flung influence” (Nash 1990, 1). Considering the magnitude and persistence of the changes, particularly for California, it is difficult to argue with Nash. During the war years,


over $35 billion was spent by the federal government in California (ten percent of the national total), the state’s manufacturing output quadrupled, per capita income doubled, and more than 1.5 million new residents flocked to the state (Johnson 1995,8; Malone and Etulain 1989, 107-119, Nash 1990, 1-6; Wyatt 1997, 158).

When war arrived on December 7, 1941, California immediately felt the conflict more directly than any other state. Indeed, two weeks later, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the SS Absaroka just outside Los Angeles Harbor (Verge 1995, 23·-25). Soon, large barrage balloons hung above the city (to entangle low-flying aircraft), the entire California coastline was protected with ant iaircraft guns, and coastal residents adjusted to the reality of nightly wartime blackouts. Other ephemeral, yet profound landscape changes shaped the California scene (Beck and Haase 1989, 74-78; Wyatt 1997). Prisoner-of-war camps littered the Central Valley and American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned at Manzanar (Owens Valley) and at Tule Lake (Northeast California), leaving a quiet, yet powerfu l legacy on the landscape that still scars America today.

Overall, the war brought four fundamental changes to the California landscape, alterations that remain apparent today (Nash 1990, 1-6). These enduring transformations included 1) the dramatic industrialization and modernization of the state’s two largest urban areas (San Francisco Bay and Southern California, 2) a broader set of infrastructure and technology investments throughout the state which sparked ongoing changes on the landscape, 3) the tremendous expansion of California lands directly controlled and subsequently shaped by the military, and 4) the sparking of an extraordinary population rush to the state that persisted for decades.

Major portions of the modern Bay Area and Southern California landscapes are directly related to wartime demands for industrial production, upgraded port facilities, and modernized urban infrastructure (Abbott, 1993, 3-29; Johnson 1993; Lotchin 1992; Nash 1990, 41-66; Shallit 1989, 170-92; Verge 1993). Port facilities in San Francisco (including the Naval Shipyard), the East Bay (including Vallejo, Alameda, Oakland, and Richmond), Los Angeles (San Pedro and Long Beach), and San Diego witnessed tremendous expansion as they became organizing and collecting points for the military and centers of war-related manufacturing (30 percent of America’s wartime ship tonnage originated in the Bay Area and more than 4000 defense-related manufacturing plants were located in Los Angeles County). Indeed, those crucial World War II investments paved the way for the state’s current role in trans-Pacific trade and the extensive port facilities that make it possible (Lotchin 1992).


Many major industrial landscapes of modern California have their roots in World War II. Even as direct military expenditures fell in the 1990s, the state still receives 20% of Defense Department spending and almost 50 percent of NASA funding (Birdsall, Florin and Price 1999, 555; Wyatt 1997). More broadly, while defense-related manufacturing no longer dominates the state, many of today’s industries were attracted to California precisely because of its war-spawned industrial infrastructure and skilled labor force. For example, General Motors, Quaker Oats, and Sylvania Electric all opened major manufacturing plants in California immediately following the war (Verge 1993, 146). In addition, California’s high technology industries grew from the presence of wartime concentrations of expertise and innovation in localities such as Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Lab and at Stanford University (Nash 1990, 1-6). While the Bay Area and Southern California were most dramatically transformed by the war, broader changes in the state’s infrastructure were also initiated and have persisted to the present. For example, the state’s oil industry, still of crucial importance today, expanded greatly during the war years (Shallit 1989, 1987). Agricultural output also soared to feed the troops, and the war generally hastened the state’s movement towards less labor intensive agriculture as thousands of young men left the farm, many never to return (Malone and Etulain 1989, 112; Shallit 1989, 187). In addition, both federal and state expenditures for basic infrastructure expanded greatly, again oriented toward wartime demands for better roads and airports, water supplies, flood control systems, communications facilities, and electricity production (Lotchin 1992, 139-52).

The military’s direct mark upon the California landscape owes a great deal to World War II. It is no coincidence that more than 3.3 million acres of California remain under federal military control (United States, Depart-ment of Defense 1995). That legacy was fundamentally influenced by the war when dozens of new military bases, airfields, shipyards, supply depots, training grounds, and testing facilities were either created or greatly enlarged. Major wartime investments in military facilities in-cluded collections of distinctive military housing (remnants still remain on or near some bases), infrastructure (airstrips, roads, and utility networks), and large open spaces designed to facilitate troop training and maneuver operations. More than a half-century later, sizeable chunks of the Cali-fornia landscape remain parts of active military facilities. Examples include Fort Hunter Liggett (purchased from the Hearst family near San Simeon in 1940) (165,000 acres), Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base near Mojave (300,000 acres), China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center (1,100,000 acres), and Camp Pendleton (186,000 acres) (Beck and Haase 1989, 74-76; California Trade and Commerce Agency 1999; United States


Department of Defense 1995; Lotchin 1992).

The recent deactivation of 29 military bases in California (as of December, 1999) has thrown a new wrinkle into the evolution of these landscapes (California Trade and Commerce Agency 1999). Facilities such as Fort Ord, Mather Air Force Base, Alameda Naval Air Station, and the Presidio (in San Francisco) have seen over 75,000 acres turned over to the National Park Service, The California State Parks system, leased to municipalities, or sold off to real estate developers. As a result, facilities such as the Mare Island Shipyard (Vallejo) have witnessed a process of adaptive reuse as old military buildings and open space have been transformed into federal agency office complexes, industrial parks, and public golf courses. Further Defense department downsizing in the future is likely to continue the process.

Perhaps most significantly, the war brought millions of people to the state, some as temporary workers, others merely as traveling service­men bound for the Pacific. These shifting migrations set the stage for a post war predilection to relocate more permanently to California. California builders eagerly met the pent-up postwar demand for housing by applying their wartime skills in the mass production of suburban communities (Hise 1997, 117-52; Johnson 1993, 87-91). Although it is impossible to measure the precise impact of the war on the state’s long­ term population growth, the pivotal years of the early 1940s produced a surge of economic investment and migration that the state is still dealing with more than a half century later (Matthews 1999; Preston 1971,5).

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