Millennium Series: 1940s and 1950s

Scott Fehrenbacher
Continuing our millennium series, Scott Fehrenbacher discusses the "war years" as the most economically and culturally transformational decades of the century.

"We are now in this war. We are all in it -- all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history." Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his war broadcast to the nation on December 9, 1941.

For years, historians have broken economic history into two categories: pre World War II and post World War II economies. More than any single event, World War II transformed our economy from its manufacturing base to enormous cultural implications that laid the groundwork for the economic makeup of the rest of the century.

While the unprecedented buildup in the industrial and manufacturing capacity of the country had a tremendous impact on our economy, the two most important economic components of World War II, and perhaps of the century, were actually cultural in nature.

During the war, as American men left for war, America's women were called upon to support the war effort through entering the work force in manufacturing plants and support jobs across the nation. In fact, the increase of women in the work force was greater in the war years than the increase in the previous four decades combined. Between 1940 and 1944, five million women entered the workforce for the first time.

This massive wartime shift caused a tremendous change in the income families had at their disposal and in the way Americans viewed the traditional family structure. In 1940, over 44% of adults in America were not in the workforce. Many of them were stay-at-home mothers raising children. After World War II, this percentage has been in a perpetual decline. The reality of a two-income family began. Disposable incomes raised, and the seeds of the consumer revolution were planted. Ever since, the way children are raised in American homes, and the time that American parents have with their children, has been altered.

In addition to the advent of the modern two-income family, another tremendous impact resulted from the post World War II GI bill. Originally known as "the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944", and signed into law on June 22, 1944, the GI bill became the first active democratization of higher education in America. No longer were college degrees the domain only of the wealthy. Prior to World War II, only about 5% of the population held college degrees. Once the war was over, tens of thousands of returning soldiers took advantage of the GI bill and pursued college educations. Of course, this transformed the American economy in many significant ways from the makeup of the workforce to the higher average wage expanding the tax base. Today, almost 30% of the nation holds a college degree.

Beyond these two specific World War II related events, the 40's and 50's decades resulted in other economically important events.

The National Defense and Interstate Highway Act of 1956 signed into law during the Eisenhower administration transformed the country by creating 42,000 miles of roadway that linked nearly every American city of more than 100,000 people. President Eisenhower said "its impact on the American economy..was beyond calculation."

In fact, the national interstate system transformed many of America's foundational industries and companies such as the big three automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - now Daimler Chrysler) and oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, Mobil, Texaco and Chevron. Even today in the information age, one out of every seven jobs in America is still related to the auto industry.

Indeed, the interstate system even shifted the way Americans viewed their every day life. Fast food companies were born as Americans provided a familiar refuge for those traveling on the new roadways. Fast food companies built near the interstate systems prospered while many locally owned and out-of-the way cafes died.

In 1947, a scientist named William Shockley at the famous Bell Labs unveiled a revolutionary signal regulator called a transistor. Before the transistor, electronic devices relied on large and bulky components that minimized the value of electronic gear. The Bell Labs team had set out to find a less bulky way to amplify the sound traveling over their phone lines. As the pioneer in electronic miniaturization, the transistor became the root of the semiconductor industry later to flourish in the Silicon Valley and hence, today's information economy.

Finally, one of the most significant economic events of the century took place on October 4, 1957. This was the day that the Soviet Union stunned the world with the successful launch of the first space satellite -- Sputnik 1. The economic consequences of the launch were not understood at the time, but it has since led to the global dependence of space-based communication systems.

As an example of our modern dependence on satellite technology, when the Galaxy IV satellite failed in 1998, nearly 90% of all the pagers in America were useless. Television channels were out and pay-at-the-pump services at gas stations were dead. Today, over 500 active satellites are in orbit and deliver communications to the world. The Internet age of tomorrow was born in the satellite communications age that made it possible.

Between 1940 and 1960, America was transformed to the world economic and military power, the fabric of American families had changed forever, the delivery and transportation systems to support the new era of consumerism were built, and the underpinnings of today's information and technology age were set. Clearly, the "war years" were the transforming decades for the American economy in this century.

To read yesterday's article on the significance of the 1920s and 1930s, click here. Also, be sure to give us your vote on the most significant decade of the century by using our Century survey. Or enter your own opinions on the matter in our Forums discussion.