The Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II in the American West

by Elliott West

Boulder (later, Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River, 1941. (Library of Congress)The Great Depression and World War II, far and away the worst economic calamity and the costliest foreign war in American history, profoundly affected every part of the United States. Changes in the West were especially obvious. From one perspective, the region in 1945 appeared fundamentally transformed from a generation earlier, but from another the forces at work and the changes they brought were only recent expressions of those seen in earlier chapters of western history.

One of the grimmest episodes of these years, for instance, resulted from two persistent themes of the previous century‌—‌the boom of the West as an agrarian empire and the environmental damage from western development. The enormous expansion of cultivation on the Great Plains after the Civil War continued after 1900. Much more land was taken up as homesteads during the first thirty years of the twentieth century than during the last thirty of the nineteenth. The massive plowing, plus overgrazing by cattle, largely destroyed the native grasses that held the rich soil in place. When a severe drought in the early 1930s in turn left the crops stunted, the relentless winds of the plains picked up the soil and brewed up horrific, roiling storms that gave this time its famous name: the Dust Bowl. During the “dirty thirties” many thousands of farmers saw their livelihoods literally blow away. Making matters worse, most had gone deeply into debt to increase production, and when the drought struck, their creditors closed in. Driven off their lands, they became part of the army of persons displaced by the Great Depression.

Many joined a massive exodus to the Pacific coast, illustrating another ongoing theme‌—‌the lure of the far West for those in trouble or simply looking for a better life. Impressions of the day and John Steinbeck’s literary masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (and the western director John Ford’s film made from it), pictured this migration as mostly displaced farmers, the “Okies” and “Arkies” from the southern plains and Ozark Mountains, but in fact most migrants were from cities, many of them unemployed workers but others reasonably secure families looking for opportunity. During the 1930s, California’s population expanded by nearly one-fourth, more than three times the national average.

The western population at large grew by one-eighth, nearly twice the national rate. In part this was because massive federal spending under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided precious jobs. Outside the West the Midwest was most blessed with federal work relief, direct relief, and loans‌—‌$380 per person. The Rocky Mountain states got $716 per capita and the Pacific states $424. As elsewhere, these funds went to build bridges, roads, parks, airports, schools, libraries, and other public structures and to pay for activities ranging from arts projects to historical research. Especially important were dams built on western rivers. Besides providing jobs, the projects supplied electrical power and water for irrigation that together had enormous consequences for the region’s later development. Two were especially impressive. When finished in 1935, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam), on the Colorado River downstream from the Grand Canyon, sent power to Los Angeles, southern Arizona, and Las Vegas and water to California’s Imperial Valley, which would become some of the most productive farmland in the world. Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, finished in 1941, eventually did the same for the Pacific Northwest. At the time it was the largest concrete structure in history.

The New Deal stabilized the economy and mitigated the worst of the Depression, but full recovery came only after December 1941, when America’s entrance into World War II triggered federal spending many times that under the New Deal. Once again the West benefited more than any other part of the nation. Its population rose at three times the national average. California alone gained nearly a million new residents between 1940 and 1943, and in that last year its population grew by an astounding 10 percent.

Once again part of the reason was the lure of government-funded work. Military bases blossomed across the region, and wartime industries fueled economic booms, especially on the Pacific coast. By 1943 California’s aircraft and shipbuilding industries employed 243,000 and 280,000 people respectively, and tens of thousands more were put to work in plants in the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle the Boeing Company’s sales of aircraft in 1944 was ten times that of all the city’s industries five years earlier. The key individual in this boom was Henry J. Kaiser. His organizational skills in the construction of dams and pipelines during the New Deal had made him wealthy already. During WWII he put those skills to work (and made an even greater fortune) in shipbuilding and other western industries. Federal funds flowed as well into wartime industries in the interior states of Utah, Nevada, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, and while the resulting booms were nothing like those on the Pacific coast, they brought considerable growth and local prosperity. Even the weather cooperated. An end to the drought, plus new demand for what they produced, brought good profits to farmers and ranchers of the plains.

Because most of the new jobs were in cities, the New Deal and the war sped up still more the urbanization that had been so much a part of the western story for generations. Interior cities like Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Wichita, and Tulsa swelled considerably, but the greatest surge was in West Coast centers like Seattle, San Diego, and above all San Francisco and Los Angeles and the towns around them. All faced daunting problems spawned by the rapid growth, yet they also saw their influence and their economic power grow to rival that of the greatest cities of the East. Los Angeles and San Francisco became major centers of architecture, literature, the arts, and popular culture, especially motion pictures. In 1939 Los Angeles had ranked seventh among the nation’s manufacturing centers. In 1944 it was second (Detroit was number one).

The New Deal and World War II thus saw an invigoration of trends of the previous century of western history‌—‌an expansion of the muscular federal support and investment seen earlier in exploration, military conquest, roads, rail and telegraph lines, homesteading, and more; accelerating migrations of opportunity-seekers like those who traveled the overland trails and flocked to mining camps and homestead country; even grander urban booms like those that had flowered in the nineteenth century. As had always been true, darker currents ran through those changes. During the Depression, authorities in the national capital and in California and the Southwest made scapegoats of Mexican and Mexican Americans who had provided essential labor before the hard times. Tens of thousands were “repatriated”—that is, deported—to Mexico and as many as half a million others left on their own under intense pressure. Then, when good times returned, the government contracted with Mexico to import temporary laborers, braceros, to work in fields and factories, usually under miserable conditions. The war saw the first large-scale westward migration of African Americans. Most went to California’s cities; by one estimate ten thousand a month arrived in Los Angeles during 1943. Seattle’s black population boomed as well. As in the places they had come from, these new westerners found themselves crowded into segregated neighborhoods. In 1950 nearly eight of every ten black residents in Los Angeles were confined to impoverished neighborhoods in Watts and the south central portion of the city.

In the most infamous instance of ethnic hostility, around 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific coast, two-thirds of them citizens, were rounded up and sent to internment camps in California, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and Arkansas after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. Most were kept there until 1945, although after 1943 some were allowed to take jobs outside the camps and to serve in the US Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment. The performance of these soldiers gave the lie to charges that they were a danger to the nation. With twenty-one recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the 442nd became the most highly decorated unit of its size in American history. While in one sense the Japanese internment was a wartime anomaly, in another it can be seen as a continuation of yet another western theme‌—‌the forced confinement and violation of rights of vulnerable minorities (American Indians before, Japanese Americans later) who were portrayed to the public as dire threats to national security.

In one area, on the other hand, these years marked a dramatic break with the past. President Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, reversed Washington’s longstanding commitment to “Americanization” of American Indians and to breaking up tribal land holdings. Under Collier’s “Indian New Deal,” Native customs and ceremonies were not only tolerated but protected and encouraged, and the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) reversed the process begun under the Dawes Act, providing for the reestablishment of tribal holdings and granting self-government to communities choosing to take part.

Given the region’s vital role in the war effort, it was fitting that the end came with the nation wielding a weapon created and first demonstrated in the West. Here was one more reminder of both the West’s deep history and its persistent influence in a larger world. The atomic bomb was developed in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was tested at the White Sands range, beside the old royal road used by the Southwest’s first Spanish rulers. Funding the project was the federal government that had taken that country from Mexico, confined its Native peoples to reservations and was then trying to restore something of their distinctive cultures.

As America stood at the start of a time of unmatched prosperity and international power, the American West was poised to play an even greater role in national life and in global affairs.


Elliott West is Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is author of, among other books, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (1998); The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (1995); and, most recently, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (2009).

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