Hunter was in his native New Orleans dealing with a host of accumulated medical problems when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “The goddamned Japs caught me with all my teeth out and a fresh abscess up my rectum—and with a fairly good diverticulitis in the gut I am really working both ends against the middle,” he wrote to Harry Hopkins in a December 15 letter. The two had been good friends when Hopkins headed the WPA, sharing both a social work background and a fondness for the horse track, so the tone of the letter was not unusual. Nor was the fact that Hunter sought Hopkins’s advice. “Should I stay on in WPA?” he asked. “Or should I wangle around for something else in Washington?”
Hunter was ambivalent because he was chafing under the yoke of the Federal Works Agency, under which the WPA had operated since the 1939 reorganization. He held out hope that General Philip B. Fleming, like the late Harrington a construction-oriented army engineer, would recover from an illness and take over the umbrella works agency. The FWA was currently leaderless, John M. Carmody having resigned in November, and to Hunter’s thinking it was “a disgraceful shambles.”
Hopkins replied three days later. His short note had an impatient tone, as if he couldn’t be bothered with trivia now that he had managed Lend-Lease, served as Roosevelt’s personal ambassador to Churchill and Stalin, and was part of the White House inner circle monitoring daily developments in the three theaters of the war. “I think you should stay with the WPA and get your mind off other things,” he wrote. “I think it is extremely important that you get yourself in a mental frame of mind where you have made up your mind that you are going to stay here and stick by this job.”
In fact, Hunter had already fired off telegrams to Stimson and Knox, the war and navy secretaries, on December 8, offering the WPA’s resources for the war effort. “Pending such time as full private employment is possible I assure you that the unemployed want to work for their country on the most essential projects,” he wrote. Another telegram went to state and regional administrators: “State of war demands complete cooperation and effectiveness of WPA. War and navy departments have requested acceleration of work on vital projects and possible deferment of others not essential at this time. You are instructed to close off rapidly as possible all construction projects of nondefense nature using critical materials or labor where they can be effectively used in defense activity.”
The administrators responded quickly. By Christmas, assistant commissioner Florence Kerr, the head of the old Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, now called the Service Division, had turned the toymaking shops that in several cities had built and repaired toys for the children of relief families into sign shops. Paint that had reddened cheeks on dolls now went into arrows pointing to air raid shelters, first-aid stations, and other civil defense emergency facilities. Sewing rooms shifted their output from layette kits for newborns to first-aid packets for shipment to the front. Soon after the new year, the WPA’s archaeology projects started to shut down from coast to coast.
By January 13, with the war just over one month old, Hunter had recovered sufficiently to return to Washington, where he addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Mayflower Hotel. Although his frustrations had continued to mount, he kept them to himself and touted the partnership under which the WPA and the mayors had remodeled their cities. There had been “lasting improvements in every conceivable kind of public facility,” he told them, and he quoted from a posthumous award given to Harrington that called the accumulated work “the greatest peacetime achievement in the history of our country.”
Ever the New Dealer, Hunter went on to warn that “budget balancers” were claiming that the WPA was no longer essential despite the fact that just over 1 million men and women remained on its rolls. “Are people non-essential?” he demanded. “These people…'are not statistics and they are not zombies. They are men and women who are citizens of this democracy. They have not learned how to live happily or patriotically without eating.” He said the unemployed still needed “a chance to sweat in honest work as a part of our democracy.”
But their ranks were rapidly diminishing. In New York City, Colonel Somervell had returned to army service and, promoted to brigadier general, was overseeing the building of the Pentagon. His successor, Major Irving V. A. Huie, reported in February that the city’s WPA was shifting to war work and that the work-relief rolls now stood at 60,684, down from 97,986 a year earlier. Some 20,000 of these were in the Service Division, and by April the division was keying its remaining projects to war and civilian defense programs.
On May 1, the WPA Writers’ Program became the Writers’ Unit of the War Services Division of the WPA. Only forty state offices remained open, and their employees were a collection of middle-aged men and women who were not candidates for military or industrial work. Untrained as writers, they turned out such products as servicemen’s recreational guides to the areas surrounding army training camps. John Dimmock Newsom, the director who had replaced Henry Alsberg, had seen the American Guide series through to completion—the last of the state guides, Oklahoma’s, had been published in January—and he would soon resign and join the army. The Art Project became the Graphic Section of the War Services Division. Mural painters turned to designing camouflage patterns for tanks and ships, and graphic artists now turned out posters urging Americans to patriotism, conservation, and discretion. Music Project bands entertained soldiers in training. Holger Cahill now headed all three arts projects, recast as the Cultural Division.
May 1 also saw the departure of Hunter from the WPA. Fleming now headed the Federal Works Agency, but he had insisted on imposing administrative authority over the WPA, increasing Hunter’s frustration. He had written Hopkins in March to say the situation “stinks” and that he was unwilling to follow orders from “irresponsible and incompetent people.” Hopkins arranged an appointment with the president, at which an anguished Hunter repeated the charges of incompetence and interference, but Roosevelt’s attention was elsewhere. There was no indication at that point that he intended to dissolve the WPA, but he gave Hunter no encouragement. In his resignation letter, Hunter said it was “embarrassing for me to continue as WPA Commissioner,” and called for “major changes” in the FWA.
November brought midterm election losses for the Democrats, who saw their margin in the House diminish to thirteen votes. The low turnout benefited the Republicans, but so did a lack of progress in the war; American marines had a toehold on Guadalcanal in the Pacific but could not dislodge the Japanese, and American forces had yet to engage German or Italian forces anywhere, either in North Africa or in Europe, though an invasion of North Africa was imminent.
At the time of the election, WPA employment stood at 354,619, roughly 10 percent of its maximum in 1938. Unemployment nationwide was under 5 percent. The WPA had lost the rationale for its existence.
Roosevelt dropped the hammer a month later. On December 4, he wrote to Fleming as Federal Works Agency administrator and acting commissioner of the WPA. They had obviously discussed the letter’s contents beforehand. It was valedictory in tone:
By building airports, schools, highways and parks; by making huge quantities of clothing for the unfortunate; by serving millions of lunches to school children; by almost immeasurable kinds and quantities of service the Work Projects Administration has reached a creative hand into every county in this nation. It has added to the national wealth, has repaired the wastage of depression and has strengthened the country to bear the burden of war. By employing eight millions of Americans, with thirty millions of dependents, it has brought to these people renewed hope and courage. It has maintained and increased their working skills; and it has enabled them once more to take their rightful places in public or in private employment….
With these considerations in mind, I agree that you should direct the prompt liquidation of the affairs of the Work Projects Adminstration, thereby conserving a large amount of the funds appropriated to this organization. This will necessitate closing out all project operations in many states by February 1, 1943, and in other states as soon thereafter as feasible. By taking this action there will be no need to provide project funds for the Work Projects Administration in the budget for the next fiscal year.
I am proud of the Work Projects Administration organization. It has displayed courage and determination in the face of uninformed criticism. The knowledge and experience of this organization will be of great assistance in the consideration of a well-rounded public works program for the post war period.
With the satisfaction of a good job well done and with a high sense of integrity, the Work Projects Administration has asked for and earned an honorable discharge.
The news was sandwiched between columns of war coverage: U.S. marines fighting the fanatic Japanese for every inch of Guadalcanal; the army linked with British and Commonwealth forces now advancing against Germany’s General Erwin Rommel on the sands of North Africa and American bombers targeting Axis targets in Italy; the Red Army in the process of breaking the German siege of Stalingrad. Editorials commended the WPA and said that it should rest in peace, not to be revived. Letters to the White House offered praise and condemnation, as they always had. The Toledo Small Business Men’s Association noted “with interest and pleasure your abolishment of the WPA.” A hotel owner in Mitchell, South Dakota, wrote that the end of the agency “leaves a good taste in the public’s mouths.” A WPA recreation supervisor in Independence, Missouri, thanked the president “for the opportunity that I have had of working with some of the finest people that I have ever met or known.” A widow in Oxford, Mississippi, also offered thanks “for giving to the little person like myself a chance to work and try and make an honest living for myself and family. Of course I am referring to that wonderful program W.P.A.”
It spiraled to its end swiftly. Evidence of its presence began to disappear from the American landscape. This accelerated in February 1943 when Fleming ordered that the familiar red, white, and blue signs that marked its projects be taken down and processed for scrap to aid the war effort.
By May 1 WPA offices had shut down in thirty states and New York City. The entire project roll then stood at 37,000. The administrative staff, itself once numbering 36,000, was a skeletal 250, and news reports said employees were leaving daily for private jobs or other work in government. And those who remained were tying up loose ends, balancing accounts, and microfilming files that would provide, if anyone ever cared to look, a record of the most extensive and egalitarian jobs program ever seen in a democracy.