The factories filling England’s orders were taking on new workers and pushing unemployment steadily lower; 300,000 new jobs were being created every month. Still, 8 million people remained out of work at the end of 1940, a rate of 14.6 percent, and Roosevelt had rejected calls from his army and navy chiefs to crank up arms factory work schedules to seven days a week with heavy overtime. Holding to the five-day week would continue to spread the work around, even as the arms orders were adding private sector jobs at a fast pace.
The rolls of the WPA had bumped up from the previous summer’s usual dip, even though from July 1940 through March 1941, 855,000 workers had left the jobs program. One was Jimmy Bonanno, the Brooklyn carpenter. From his work at La Guardia Field, after the fire that damaged Hangar Four, the WPA assigned him to Fort Hamilton, the historic army garrison on the Brooklyn waterfront that once guarded New York against attack from the sea; it was also where Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and baseball inventor Abner Doubleday had served. He was there only briefly, working as part of a crew that did general repairs, before he received a call from the union. A private contractor was hiring carpenters to build housing for defense workers in East Hartford, Connecticut. Bonanno gave his notice to the WPA, packed his clothes and the tools he had replaced since losing his old ones in the hangar fire, and said goodbye to Teresa and little Frank, now five years old. It would be several years before he lived full-time with them again. By the fall, he was one of 11,000 carpenters among a workforce of 20,000 men on upper Cape Cod, tasked to build a huge army training camp. Crews working three shifts around the clock built Camp Edwards using production line methods, finishing 1,200 buildings in 125 days. The first of 25,000 trainees began arriving in January 1941.
But as men such as Bonanno left the WPA for private work, others from the million-strong waiting list were taken on, so the total enrollment remained around 1,900,000. The flow of WPA workers into private defense jobs was complicated, Commissioner Hunter told the House Appropriations Committee in February, by the fact that most of those jobs were in areas where the rolls were thinnest. Meanwhile, 400,000 workers were employed at the WPA’s multifarious defense projects, and more were moving into defense-related training, including 50,000 who would be trained to work in hospitals as ward attendants, orderlies, and aides.
By that April, the WPA was working on a large array of new construction projects sponsored by the War and Navy Departments. These included bases and cantonments, airports, hospitals, arsenals and arms depots, and ship repair yards, a majority of them clustered on the northeastern and western coasts, along the Mexican border, and in Florida. The agency was building new civil airports in every state in the nation and military access roads and strategic highways in most of them. It had built or reconstructed 9,241 buildings for the army and navy and 576 armories for state national guards. White-collar workers, meanwhile, were compiling statistics, performing research, and doing clerical jobs for the defense agencies.
The WPA was doing so much defense-related work that Hunter, in an April 15 letter to the president, requested he designate the WPA as a national defense agency. It would strengthen the “patriotic morale among the unemployed,” he wrote. Roosevelt declined, since the defense agency designation was used to keep civil service employees from being shuffled among agencies, and WPA workers, who were not permanent government employees, did not fall under civil service rules.
In May, Hunter recommended in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee that the eighteen-month rule and the ban against aliens be dropped. “In the past we have been glad to utilize their skill and special training,” he said, referring to non-naturalized immigrants. Since they had to obey the law and pay taxes and were subject to the draft and military service, Hunter said, it seemed unfair to bar them from WPA jobs, especially since they were denied private sector jobs by employers who maintained citizens-only hiring policies. He also suggested the Theatre Project be revived under state sponsorship, in line with the other arts programs, as a means of entertaining military trainees. The committee ignored all three suggestions.
On May 27, 1941, Roosevelt declared an unlimited national emergency. “Common prudence,” he said, required instant readiness “to repel any and all acts or threats of aggression.” The declaration lent even more urgency to the war preparations, as the president called upon “all loyal workmen as well as employers to…'insure the survival of the only kind of government which recognizes the rights of labor and of capital.”
On June 19, Howard Hunter called a news conference in Washington to tell reporters that the WPA rolls would be pared to around 1 million workers as of July 1. They currently stood at 1,413,000. Until now, in the six-year history of the WPA, there had never been fewer than a million and a half workers on the rolls, and that figure had come in the fall of 1937 before shooting up again during the Roosevelt recession. The availability of private jobs was causing more turnover than the WPA had ever seen, Hunter said, but the defense program would keep the sheer numbers steady at close to 1 million through the end of the year. Even so, the once ubiquitous program was receding; 1,500 of the nation’s 3,100 counties would see their WPA projects disappear.
Construction work, much of it on airports and access roads to military installations, continued to provide the biggest share of jobs, but 27 percent of them remained in the white-collar and service areas. These included the arts projects. The Writers’ Program still had much of its original work to complete: thirteen of the state guides in the American Guide series remained unpublished at the beginning of 1941. Where writers were not scrambling to finish the guides, they were assigned to produce introductions to the environs of the new military camps springing up around the country, as well as cautionary pamphlets on the dangers of malaria, unsafe drinking water, and unprotected sex. The Music Project’s orchestras and bands were in demand as morale boosters for draftees undergoing military training. The Art Project’s graphic artists were producing civil defense and other informational posters. The rest of the white-collar projects would focus on nutrition, health, recreation, and adult education.
Hunter also said that the number of WPA workers training for arms factory work, which had dropped below 50,000, would rise again. This training had now shifted from state vocational schools to the manufacturing facilities themselves. Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York, was training 300 WPA workers. In New Haven, Connecticut, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company had committed to training 1,000 of them.
Three days later, Hitler launched his long-rumored invasion of Soviet Russia, deploying troops and tanks across a 930-mile front from the Arctic to the Black Sea, bombing military airfields, and destroying a thousand planes in twelve hours—one-quarter of the Soviet air force. The invasion forced a reassessment of ideological allegiances in the United States. As long as the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact had been in force, it was possible to conflate the two vastly different dictatorships as enemies of America and Western democracies. With the invasion came the prospect that the United States, under the policy inscribed in the Lend-Lease Act of furnishing all necessary aid to enemies of the Axis as a means of ensuring its own defense, would now be sending military weapons and supplies to Communist Russia. The perception was that this surely would be a waste, since military estimates reckoned it would take the German army no more than three months to defeat its Soviet counterpart and occupy its territory as far east as Leningrad, Moscow, and Ukraine. Hitler aimed to feed his troops from the Soviet breadbasket and add its industrial production to his war machine. But he never anticipated that Russian civilians by the many thousands, including women volunteers, would take up shovels (albeit at gunpoint) to help dig anti-tank defenses on the fringes of Leningrad and Moscow, or that the Red Army would prove tenacious and resilient in defending its territory until the winter turned the tide against the invaders, just as it had against Napoleon in 1812.
Hitler’s turn to the east added a new leaf to Harry Hopkins’s portfolio as Roosevelt’s unofficial ambassador to the Allies. By the end of July, after returning to England for new discussions with Churchill, he was on his way by flying boat and transport plane to Moscow to meet with Soviet premier Josef Stalin on the president’s behalf. He returned with requests for aluminum, rifles, and anti-aircraft guns. The “arsenal of democracy” was now arming not only itself and the British Commonwealth but its new ally the Soviet Union.
The increasing demands of war production drove unemployment down still further. It would drop below 10 percent for 1941, the first time since 1929 that it had reached single digits. The number of jobless was 5.3 million, down from 13 to 15 million when Roosevelt took office. Hunter spoke to the press again on September 26. He said in opening, “The WPA is really getting out of the news these days.”
“Yes. Too much war,” said one of the reporters.
The commissioner announced that WPA enrollment now stood at its lowest level ever, 1,034,629 workers in the United States and Puerto Rico. He was operating under a budget of $875 million for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 1942, a drop of $500 million from the year before and the first time the emergency relief appropriation had fallen below $1 billion. Still, there were more than a million eligible people for whom there were no WPA jobs, and he expected the need to spike again after the first of the year, as it usually did when seasonal employment dropped.
Of the million-plus remaining on the WPA rolls, about one-third—334,000—were working on defense projects. Some 90 percent of these were construction workers on the still-to-be-completed roads and airports. The white-collar component included teachers called on by the Selective Service System to teach draftees to read and write at the fourth-grade level after the army discovered that some 90,000 of its draftees, primarily from southern states, were illiterate. As Hunter pointed out, WPA-paid teachers had already taught the basics of literacy to 1 million people in its adult education classes, so “90,000 more wouldn’t be much of a bite to take.” He also noted that a full quota of 50,000 WPA-paid workers were now training in 266 defense-related factories, and while they were eligible for government pay for a training period of up to eight weeks, most were moving off the WPA payroll and onto the plants’ payrolls in two and a half weeks.
It was time to give WPA workers a raise, Hunter said. Their pay had not changed since the 1939 reorganization, ranging from $31 to $94 a week depending on the region of the country and the job, while hourly pay for industrial workers had increased 15 percent and weekly pay, factoring in overtime, had increased 32 percent over the same period. This was pushing prices up—7.5 percent in the general cost of living and 15 percent in food costs—and he said he would increase wages 10 percent in the next thirty days.
He made a further point, one that anticipated a sea change in the face of American manufacturing. Paul McNutt, who headed the Federal Security Agency that included the U.S. Employment Service, had pointed out that many of the parts assembly and other jobs at arms plants could be done by women as well as men, but that manufacturers were reluctant to hire them. Hunter concurred. “There are not many manufacturers willing to accept women in defense industries,” he said, adding that he wanted to do more to train women and move them into defense jobs. He was not asked about, and did not address, anti-black discrimination by defense contractors, which persisted despite Roosevelt’s executive order of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in the defense industry and the federal government on the basis of “race, creed, color, or national origin.”
Six weeks later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched their sneak attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a day, Roosevelt said famously, “that will live in infamy.” It was also a day that swept aside many of the assumptions that had existed until then, the resistance to women (though not to African Americans) in defense plants being one. It erased the idea that America could hide behind its oceans; the America First Committee, the last bastion of isolationism, would dissolve within a single week. And with the United States at war, in swift succession, against Japan and then Germany and Italy, it was a day that foretold the end of the WPA.