8. RIGID PRIORITIES

The hurricane swept through the WPA, turning it almost overnight into a virtual adjunct of the military services and civil defense authorities. Defense work became the agency’s prime focus. On June 6, Colonel Harrington told his administrators that seventy-three projects the army and navy considered “of first importance” to national defense were to receive precedence. These included work at navy yards, major military reservations, military airports, and civil airports located in strategic areas. The projects anticipated a vast expansion of the military.

“Types of WPA work to be expedited in every possible way include, in addition to airports and military airfields, construction of housing and other facilities for enlarged military garrisons, camp and cantonment construction, and various improvements in navy yards,” he said.

As Harrington pointed out, much of the work the WPA had done since its inception had prepared the nation for this sudden and intense move to a military footing. In the five years since it began, he said, the WPA had built 85 percent of all the new airports in the country. Its work on army, navy, and coast guard facilities, costing $420 million, had already contributed directly to national defense, and he forecast that half a million WPA workers would be employed on defense projects costing $250 million during the coming year.

In August, Harrington’s deputy Howard O. Hunter underscored this, telling a news conference that “rigid priority is going to be given to WPA projects which may have military value.” Airports near America’s coasts and borders topped the list. These included as many as twelve new airports in Maine, whose long finger, extending northeast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, could serve as the launch point for the shortest flights from the United States to the European war zone. The Snohomish County Airport in Seattle, receiving $2.5 million worth of WPA work, would serve as a departure point for flights to Canada and Alaska. In nearby Tacoma, the WPA was working on the army flight training facility at McChord Field. California airfields to receive WPA work included those at Ontario, Hemet, Glendale, San Diego, Santa Maria, and Los Angeles; three of them would be used to train new pilots. The San Antonio, Texas, army airfield was on the work list, as well as several others scattered along the border with Mexico. Several existing airfields in Florida were also on the list, as was a major air base south of Tampa, Florida. Work on the Southeastern Air Base, Tampa, later known as MacDill Air Force Base, would begin on September 6.

Airfields in the country’s interior were not neglected. Scott Field, in southern Illinois, already tripled in size to over 1,800 acres between 1938 and 1939, was getting twenty-one new buildings and being prepared as a training facility for aircraft radio operators and mechanics. Lowry Field, near Denver, Colorado, was slated for additional runways and extensions of existing ones.

Further, the WPA had reached agreement with the War Department and the Bureau of Public Roads to work on a network of roads necessary for military transportation, building new ones where necessary, widening shoulders and strengthening bridges on existing roads, and doing similar upgrades on roads into military reservations. WPA picks and shovels would see duty on some 75,000 miles of federally aided main highways. Housing at and around military posts was also an acute need, for which the WPA would build infrastructure elements such as stores and sidewalks and install water and sewer lines and communications systems. Hunter upped Harrington’s earlier estimate of WPA workers on defense projects to between 600,000 and 700,000 and said they would be kept on for eight months to a year.

The agency also had begun preparing its workers to shift to private jobs. Twenty-five thousand of them were enrolled in training courses for specific war industries. The courses, taught in state vocational schools, were supported by the WPA and the Office of Education under the supervision of the newly revived National Defense Council, and the WPA workers were being paid while in training. The number of trainees would rise to 50,000 by October.

Still, not everyone was prepared to accept the WPA’s role in helping to rebuild the military and defense infrastructure. The New York Times, in a series of editorials headlined “WPA vs. Defense,” wrote that the agency’s projects were only incidental to defense and that the “WPA in its present form needs to be completely abandoned” as “an obstacle to the defense program.” But the reasons cited in the editorials—the restrictive work rules, limited hours, sponsorship cost requirements, and ceilings on amounts spent for materials on WPA projects—were even then being revised to allow for exceptions for defense projects. Moreover, the newspaper’s view was shortsighted.

The military services had languished in the post-war period. The end of the draft that had sent 4 million soldiers to the battlefields of Europe in 1917 and 1918 and the peace that followed that war had left their ranks depopulated. Its installations had crumbled from disuse, a process that accelerated during the depression when Roosevelt cut the army’s budget in order to steer money to relief and reduced its manpower below 140,000. As recently as 1938, when Hitler initiated the second of his territorial grabs, claiming the Czech Sudetenland for Germany, the army still had only 176,000 soldiers, and much of their equipment was of world war vintage. When new gear did become available, there was little of it; a year after the army adopted the M1 Garand rifle in 1936 for use by the infantry, the isolationist Congress limited the army’s new equipment purchases to 1,870 more of them. With no demand at home and with the neutrality laws preventing them from selling their wares to combatants overseas, arms manufacturers had no significant pool of trained workers to meet what was now a rapidly growing demand. Only the WPA, having employed millions of relief workers for more than five years, had a comprehensive awareness of the skills that would be available in a full-scale national emergency, both for accelerating the refurbishment and construction of military installations and supporting links such as roads and airports and for arms manufacturing itself. As the country began its preparedness buildup, the WPA was uniquely positioned to become a major defense agency.

White-collar WPA workers, however, saw their jobs jeopardized by the emphasis on construction. In San Francisco, they formed a Committee to Save WPA Clerical and Professional Projects and began a letter-writing campaign to restart projects that had been suspended, including a history of journalism, a history of music, and theater research. “Amid the current, feverish preparation for instruments of destruction, help us to preserve such symbols of peace and serenity of living as only the arts can impart,” the committee wrote in an appeal.

Some factors were very slow to change. Even as project priorities shifted to defense, political concerns remained focused on supposed threats of sedition. This caused protections against discrimination based on political affiliation to dissolve, at least as they related to Communists and Nazis. As Congress was debating emergency relief spending for fiscal 1941—the budget plan under which the WPA would operate starting July 1, 1940—Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia pressed forward with a bill to outlaw advocating, teaching, or abetting the overthrow of the government, or belonging to any organization that did this. His legislation also struck at aliens, requiring that all those over the age of fourteen be registered and fingerprinted. Suddenly, sunset was falling on the days when Writers’ Project workers could engage in Stalinist-Trotskyite pamphlet wars and take home their government salaries at the end of the day.

Harrington did not wait for this legislation to take effect, nor did Somervell in New York City. The two army men moved forcefully to purge the WPA of Nazis, Communists, and whatever aliens remained from previous bans or who had come onto the rolls since those expulsions. Rather than taking a loyalty oath administered in groups, as workers had been required to do the year before, the new price of job security was a signature on a sworn affidavit attesting that “I do not and will not advocate or hold position in any organization that advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States, and further, that I am not an alien, nor a Communist, nor a member of any Nazi Bund organization, and that I will not become a Communist or a member of any Nazi Bund organization during any time that I may be paid from funds appropriated to the Work Projects Administration.”

Somervell was not content to let it rest at that. He said that in New York, he would match the WPA payroll with Board of Elections registration lists and bring the FBI, the New York Police Department, and the WPA’s self-policing Bureau of Investigation into the affair. He was also planning to look at the records of the Dies Committee hearings and the transcript of the 1939 trial in which German-American Bund leader Fritz Kuhn had been convicted of stealing funds from the organization. Further, since Communists routinely denied their party membership and used false names, he was asking “responsible citizens” to inform on WPA employees they suspected of subversion. He anticipated some “grudge letters” among the 50,000 reports he expected to come flooding in, but would endeavor to separate those from authentic information. One thousand of the 101,000 WPA workers in the city were already under scrutiny, and he assumed at least that many workers would be dismissed in the purge. When it came down to a question of who was a Communist and who wasn’t—Trotskyists, he said, were Communists under his interpretation—he would have the final word.

An orgy of affidavit signing ensued. Harrington had set July 1 as the deadline for completing the purge. With five days to go, a fifty-seven-year-old WPA stenographer from the Upper West Side of Manhattan became the first WPA worker to be fired for refusing to put pen to paper. Her name was Charlotte I. Long. Looking “matronly” with her gray hair and black polka-dot dress and glasses, she appeared at the offices of the Workers Alliance and told reporters she had been born in Kansas, traced her family’s arrival in America to the seventeenth century, and hated fascism “with all my heart and soul,” but would not sign such an un-American document. The job she lost paid $68.90 a month, and she said it was her sole support.

When the purge ended, the numbers fell far short of those expected. Nationally, they did not even reach half of the 1,000 dismissals Somervell had predicted in New York City alone. State-by-state figures showed that forty-nine New York WPA workers were dismissed for refusing to sign the affidavit or confessing to one of its banned activities, a number matched only in Louisiana. Only twelve states reached double-digit figures. The highly unionized industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, with thirty-nine, seventeen, and fifteen dismissals, were outdone by Oklahoma and Iowa, with forty-three and forty-one. In all, the purge terminated WPA work for 429 employees, a minuscule percentage of the 1,665,000 then on the rolls. In being fired, they received not the fabled pink slips the WPA had used to let workers know they were being let go, but new notices in green ink on white paper. (The WPA did not invent the pink slip—the term originated twenty years before the agency came into being—but its use of pink dismissal notices cemented it into the vocabularies of millions of Americans.)

Meanwhile, the Alien Registration Act, as the Smith bill was called, passed. Roosevelt signed it into law on June 29, and by the December 26 deadline nearly 5 million aliens had registered under the act’s provisions.

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