In the years 1935 to 1939, when regular appropriations for the armed forces were so meager, it was the WPA workers who saved many Army posts and Naval stations from literal obsolescence.



When Congress passed the relief appropriation for the then-new WPA back in the spring of 1935, the bill contained a provision against military spending: “No part of the appropriations…'shall be used for munitions, warships, or military or naval matériel.”

Republican senator William E. Borah of Idaho was among those primarily responsible for this provision. A progressive on domestic matters, he had long ago shed the internationalism that had prompted him to vote for sending American troops to fight in Europe in the world war; he was now a leading isolationist. He had voted against the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations on the grounds that they would entangle America in European politics, and more recently, he had helped pass the Neutrality Act of 1935, which among other provisions prohibited arms sales to nations at war, no matter whether they were the aggressors or were defending themselves against aggression. The embargo received almost unanimous support in the light of the Senate Munitions Committee hearings that began in 1934 under Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota. The aim of the special committee was to investigate charges that arms makers and their bankers had conspired to draw the United States into the world war. In ninety-three hearings conducted over a period of eighteen months, the munitions interests were painted as greedy war profiteers bent on filling their coffers with “blood money.” Nye failed at his goal of nationalizing the arms industry, but the hearings left lawmakers averse to any overseas commitments, and Congress had renewed the Neutrality Act in 1937 over Roosevelt’s objections. Borah, Nye, and their colleagues believed, with most of the country apparently agreeing with them, that denying the government the capacity to make war was tantamount to securing peace. “Fortress America” would defend its borders, but it would not reach out militarily beyond them.

In fact, isolationist sentiment was so strong that in 1937, Representative Louis Ludlow, an Indiana Democrat, introduced a constitutional amendment that would submit a declaration of war to a national referendum unless the country was invaded. Roosevelt protested that this “would cripple any president in his conduct of our foreign relations” and tempt hostile governments to believe they could violate Americans’ rights and get away with it. Critics likened it to calling a town meeting before dispatching the fire department to a fire. But national polls showed that 73 percent of the people supported it, and it emerged from committee in January 1938 with strong backing; only some all-out presidential lobbying sent it to defeat by a thin twenty-one-vote margin.

The view that America could ignore the world and isolate itself behind the protective oceans that flanked its coasts alarmed the White House. Roosevelt had sought to dent the appeal of isolationism as early as the fall of 1937, when Hitler and Mussolini were deep into the buildup of their war machines and Japan already had invaded China. Homeward-bound from the northwestern trip during which he had dedicated Bonneville Dam and Timberline Lodge and visited other federal projects, the president appeared in Chicago on October 5. The occasion was the opening of the WPA-funded Outer Drive Bridge, the final link in a thirty-mile boulevard along the Lake Michigan waterfront. But as he addressed the crowd at the noon bridge dedication, the president went beyond the usual script stressing federal largesse and the benefits of public works. Instead, in this heartland where the isolationists were strongest and Robert McCormick’s Tribune relentlessly attacked all things Roosevelt, he spoke about “the present reign of terror and international lawlessness” outside the United States.

He named no names, but even casual followers of world events would have understood that he was talking about Japan, Germany, and Italy, and even General Francisco Franco’s right-wing rebellion against the elected government of Spain, which Hitler had aided that April by raining bombs on Guernica in the Basque country and killing some 1,500 civilians. Such aggressions, he said, had reached the point “where the very foundations of civilization are seriously threatened.

“Without a declaration of war and without warning or justification of any kind, civilians, including vast numbers of women and children, are being ruthlessly murdered with bombs from the air. In times of so-called peace, ships are being attacked and sunk by submarines without cause or notice. Nations are fomenting and taking sides in civil warfare in nations that have never done them any harm. Nations claiming freedom for themselves deny it to others.

“Innocent peoples, innocent nations, are being cruelly sacrificed to a greed for power and supremacy which is devoid of all sense of justice and humane considerations.”

Quoting novelist James Hilton’s best-selling novel Lost Horizon, he raised the specter of “‘a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, will rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing will be in danger, every book, every picture, every harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums, the small, the delicate, the defenseless, all will be lost or wrecked or utterly destroyed.’”

Speaking directly to the isolationists, he said, “If those things come to pass in other parts of the world, let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy, that this Western Hemisphere will not be attacked and that it will continue tranquilly and peacefully to carry on the ethics and the arts of civilization. If those days come,” he continued, quoting again from Hilton, “‘there will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. The storm will rage till every flower of culture is trampled and all human beings are leveled in a vast chaos.’” Nor, he added, would there be escape “through mere isolation or neutrality.”

He compared the spread of violence to an epidemic of disease: “War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared.” The only answer, as in an epidemic of disease, was for peace-loving nations to “quarantine” the aggressors, isolating them to protect the 90 percent of humanity they threatened.

The quarantine speech, as it became known, was front-page news and the beginning of a long campaign by Roosevelt to force the isolationists to look at hard realities. The Washington Post called it “perhaps the most momentous utterance of his career.” For all of its borrowed eloquence, however, its effect was doubtful. “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there,” he reportedly said later.

But if he seemed ineffective in public, he acted in private. Roosevelt had no doubt that war was on the way and that when it came, airpower would be a key to victory. In March 1938, coinciding with Hitler’s annexation of Austria, he sent Harry Hopkins on a closely guarded mission to the West Coast, where America’s airplane manufacturing industry was concentrated. Traveling with Colonel Arthur R. Wilson of the Army and Lieutenant Colonel Donald H. Connolly of the Corps of Engineers, who was the Los Angeles–based WPA administrator for southern California, Hopkins toured aircraft factories to assess their capacity to build military airplanes.

His trip resulted from information Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the assistant chief of what was then the Army Air Corps, had given to the president. The United States military had fewer than 2,000 planes, most of them obsolete, and only 1,650 pilots. Seventeen B-17 bombers were on order, but they were not due to be delivered until the end of 1938. Germany, Arnold briefed the president, had 8,000 fighters and bombers in its rapidly expanding air force. Moreover, in commanding a roundtrip flight of ten B-10 bombers between Washington and Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1934, Arnold had demonstrated by the distance of the flight that enemy bombers might have a similar range, so America was not necessarily safe from an attack by air.

When Hopkins undertook his mission for the president, he and Colonel Wilson, who was the liaison officer between the Army General Staff and the WPA, already had a working relationship. Hopkins shared the view of Roosevelt and the military that some of its legitimate needs were being denied by Congress. The president had put in his budget request for the 1938–39 fiscal year a request for a billion dollars for a “two-ocean Navy.” Even the isolationists could not deny that warships could be used to defend America, and the president got his naval appropriation. But Hopkins later recalled that about the time Roosevelt sent him to make his California survey, when the president said the country needed to add planes—he set the number at 8,000—as well as battleships, “everybody in the Army and the Navy and all the newspapers in the country jumped on him.”

All this meant that well into 1939, American airpower continued to lag far behind Germany’s. Not only did the United States have many fewer airplanes, the ones it had did not perform as well. In December 1938, the head of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics pleaded for more research money to develop planes equal to the German Messerschmitt and the new Heinkel fighter; the Heinkel could fly at 440 miles per hour, while no American or English plane could top 400 mph.

But in his last months as head of the WPA, Hopkins had been doing what he could, in public and behind the scenes, to repair the situation. In little-noted remarks in San Francisco on September 20, 1938, he said he would like to see more national defense projects performed by the WPA. Later that same year, after meetings with Wilson and General George C. Marshall, the head of the Army’s War Plans Division who was appointed deputy chief of staff in October, Hopkins secretly authorized the use of several million dollars in WPA funds for making machine tools to be used to produce small-arms ammunition.

At the same time, the National Youth Administration, the education and training program within the WPA, was launching a program to help solve a serious shortage of aviation mechanics, who would be vital in wartime. Assistant Secretary of War Louis Johnson had sent a memorandum to Roosevelt on August 12, 1938, saying that War Department studies and conversations with aircraft manufacturers indicated “that one of the most serious problems as regards national defense will be found in a shortage of skilled workmen. Specifically, I anticipate that the shortage of airplane mechanics, both for the construction of aircraft in the civilian manufacturing plants as well as for the maintenance of planes in service with the armed forces, will be perhaps the most difficult problem of all.”

Both England and Germany, he wrote, were turning out 5,000 trained aircraft mechanics every year. Here, too, the United States was far behind; airplane manufacturers and airlines would not spend money training more workers than they needed, and aspiring mechanics usually could not afford to pay to attend trade schools out of their own pocket. Johnson asked the president to direct the War Department to launch a comprehensive training program that involved government agencies, including the NYA, the CCC, and the Department of Labor.

Three days later, Roosevelt sent Hopkins a memorandum asking for his recommendations on the matter. By October, he went public, speaking at a news conference about the need for “a very large additional number of aviation mechanics” but adding that he was not yet ready to announce specifics of a training program. Before the end of the month, however, Aubrey Williams had given the White House a proposal to use NYA resources to set up a wide range of vocational training courses that could support military needs. It envisioned a system of schools in urban centers, as well as residential centers that brought together youth from isolated rural areas. The training, Williams wrote, “will include blacksmithing, electric and acetylene welding, sheet metal, simple pattern-making, foundry and machine tool practice, auto mechanics, electric motors and wiring, plumbing, steam-fitting, blue-print reading and draft.”

The best students would graduate to regional centers for intensive training in mechanics and the metal trades, and a technical institute for master mechanics would incorporate the needs of the army and navy into its training program.

A feel of urgency accompanied these covert explorations and public pronouncements about the need for more airplanes, more ships, more mechanics, more defense projects. Still, it was not as if the country was starting from scratch to rebuild its military capability, despite the isolationist rule in Congress. Indeed, even with the restrictions placed upon it, from the very beginning the WPA had been working on the military complex to prevent installations from falling into decrepitude and disrepair.

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