Smoothing the Bumps: Planning for Postwar Reconversion
Fighting the Dreaded Postwar Unemployment Threat
Even as Oregon and the nation were ramping up industrial production to fight the Axis in the early days of World War II, planners were at work envisioning a postwar future for the state. Officials sought to avoid the dangerously ragged postwar period that had followed World War I during which unemployment spiked and the hopes of many veterans were dashed, leading to social upheaval. As World War II raged on, the private sector, often through industry and trade associations, looked into their crystal balls for clues to postwar development opportunities. And the public sector explored ways to bridge the transition period between a nation fully mobilized for war and one reconverted to a thriving peacetime economy.
A new state commission begins planning
Early in the war, numerous state agencies planned individually for the postwar period. But hoping for a more coordinated approach, incoming Governor Earl Snell asked the Legislature in 1943 to create a body that would explore state needs and opportunities at a more systematic and comprehensive level. The Legislature responded by forming the Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission, giving it a broad mandate to plan not only for the immediate reconversion period after the war, but also to study and make recommendations for the longterm development of Oregon. The 15-member commission (also known as a committee) included what was billed as a "cross section of the state" consisting of members from "capital and labor, scientists and businessmen" in addition to the heads of several state agencies and the chairmen of the Legislature's House and Senate ways and means committees. The day-to-day activities of the commission were carried out by John W. Kelly, who served as executive director. Kelly, a former newspaper political writer, kept a steady stream of analysis, reports, and recommendations flowing during the next five years.(1)
Specifically, the Legislature called on the commission to consider a number of subjects. Its most immediate mandate was to "explore ways and means of avoiding or minimizing the social and economic disruption and unsettled condition" that could come with the end of the war. Closely related to this, the commission was required to plan a program to "absorb and assimilate into civilian business, pursuits and employment the demobilized men and women of the armed forces and men and women released from war industries." The Legislature also wanted a strategy for keeping existing industries and businesses operating and for attracting new ones. Moreover, the commission was to conduct surveys and develop plans for "a long range program of public works and improvements."(2)
Identifying the employment problem
The commission first focused its attention on the transition to peacetime. According to John Kelly, "the Number One problem of the committee of 15 is to see that the boys who return are provided with suitable jobs." But in the summer of 1943 Kelly could only use an "estimate of 150,000 Oregon boys as a guess" since "the actual number is a military secret." He also made other estimates since it was important to have some idea of the number of individuals who would need to be assimilated back into the Oregon society and economy. Thus, based on the overall military service numbers, Kelly guessed that "there will be 15,000 casualties among the Oregon boys, for this is a war of blood and tears." He anticipated that about 10,000 to 15,000 would return to their interrupted college educations. Noting that a great many of the returning veterans would possess few applicable peacetime skills or experience since they entered the armed forces right out of high school, Kelly cautioned against easy solutions: "It is foolish to think that a returned veteran can be picked up and placed on a farm, dairy ranch or irrigated land if the veteran has no knowledge of farming. This would leave him stranded. Farming is a technical business and must be learned the hard way."(3)
Kelly also made guesses about the number of workers affected by the transition from war industries to the peacetime economy, although he was once again aiming at a moving target. For example, while citing assurances from the Federal Maritime Commission that Portland's shipyard industry would continue in some form after the war, he still expressed deep concerns that "the shipyards will fold up long before the war is over and Oregon will find upon its hands the army of workers who will expect to be taken care of." He foresaw a future in which there would be "no need of a day shift, a swing shift, and a graveyard shift. One shift will be ample...with 8000 or less workers. The rest of the workers in the industry, possibly 110,000, will have to live upon their unemployment compensation benefits." Kelly also speculated about the tens of thousands of workers who came to Oregon seeking jobs during the war, including, among others, the "hill billies from the south imported and trained to work on dairy farms." He went on to loosely categorize others as he anticipated the future:
"What will these thousands do? No one knows. Thousands will take their savings and return to their respective homes; others will decide to settle in Oregon and take advantage of the opportunities of this glorious state and still others will remain because they have wasted their pay checks and cannot leave. These latter will become charges on the public; they will be the professional reliefers you will have to support with your tax money as they create slum conditions."(4)
Yet, others probably would leave the workforce without causing major disruptions according to Kelly. He claimed that most of the women workers "will return to their domestic duties instead of seeking new jobs in the industrial world. They answered the urgent call of their country until the end of the war and having served well are content to once more become housekeepers. Their appearance in the industrial world was an adventure and they have no desire to follow it as a career." Likewise, Kelly saw about 10,000 Oregon workers who were 65-years-old or older leaving the workforce after the war: "These will have their social security numbers [retirement pension benefits] and will not compete for jobs with younger men." Moreover, he counted an "army of youngsters" consisting of about 7,000 mostly soon to be unemployed high school age workers who simply would "resume their education in high schools or college." Finally, Kelly anticipated that thousands of people who flocked to Portland from other parts of Oregon for war industry jobs would return to their shops and farms that they were compelled by the economy to "abandon temporarily."(5)
Despite the view that many former war workers would naturally be absorbed back into the state's farms, shops, schools, and domestic life, there was still a potential for dangerously high unemployment and social disruption. Thus, in addition to providing unemployment insurance benefits to out of work Oregonians in the wake of the war, the commission also developed a strategy to employ thousands in public works projects. But officials stressed that the health of the private sector was of the utmost importance: "Employment must be stabilized by free enterprise; public works are intended to supplement private industry and serve as a stop-gap." So, beginning in 1943, the commission began "building a stockpile of worthwhile projects of public works which can be activated quickly to provide employment as necessity demands." The projects involved all levels of government from massive federal dam projects to additional classrooms in small schoolhouses.(6)
Over time, cities, counties, school districts, and other governmental entities submitted their proposals. One of the first problems was to educate many local government officials about the potential problem as Kelly noted in a radio address to the Oregon Federation of Women's Clubs in 1943: "In a period when everyone was advertising for help and offering high wages it was difficult to convince the administrative bodies of counties and municipalities that there may be dark days ahead and that inevitably war work would cease and a period of widespread unemployment likely would ensue." At the time, only 17 of 36 counties had submitted their proposals while only 29 of 192 cities had responded. Still, Kelly was encouraged by statements that "with or without federal assistance the counties intend to fly with their own wings and retain control of the projects and not permit dictation from some bureau in Washington D.C."(7)
Public works proposals
There was no shortage of projects to implement even if funding and supply problems often delayed work. The biggest spender, not surprisingly, was the federal government with huge amounts earmarked for dams such as those in the highly promoted Willamette Valley Project as well as projects on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. These works promised thousands of construction jobs as well as manifest benefits derived from flood control, navigation, irrigation, and hydro-electric power. Other anticipated federal projects added tens of millions of dollars to potential payrolls. Reforestation of timber lands that were badly overcut during the war would "require the greatest tree planting program ever undertaken in this State." Grazing restoration in central and eastern Oregon was estimated to have the potential to employ 10,000 men. Reclamation work promised not only the initial jobs but also large areas newly suited for farmland on the Deschutes Reclamation Project in central Oregon, the Long Tom Project in Lane County, and others. Calls were also heard to greatly expand veterans' hospitals as waves of injured and disabled veterans flowed back to the home front.(8)
State plans were made for a number of projects around Oregon. Officials proposed improvements, repairs, and expansions of numerous institutional buildings such as the state hospital and state penitentiary. The Oregon State System of Higher Education responded to the request for projects by submitting an ambitious ten-year building program that would cost 12 million dollars. The plans called for new buildings, classrooms, dormitories, laboratories and other improvements on college campuses around the state. The Oregon State Highway Commission proposed spending 60 million dollars over a three-year period. By late 1943, the highway commission had toured the state conferring with counties on project priorities and highway department engineers already had completed surveys and blueprints. Officials said that they could start highway projects within a couple of weeks. Of course, John Kelly didn't want any illusions about the nature of much of this work: "This is not a fancy program, but one of physical labor. It will require a strong back. Experience in driving trucks, bulldozers and pick and shovel work." Kelly estimated that highway projects could directly employ 5,000 workers for three years, although he acknowledged that "not all the veterans, however, can do this pick and shovel labor and not all will wish to, but it will be a job until something better shows up."(9)
Eventually, public works proposals flowed into the postwar commission from counties, cities, school districts, and other local governments. Kelly stressed to local governments that the commission was not a "dictatorial agency" and that it had neither "the authority nor desire to impose its will upon anyone" in relation to local projects. He waxed that "no one knows better than the residents of a municipality or county what its needs are." Still, it became clear that many of the smaller governments lacked the expertise or competent engineers to perform practical planning. This lack of technical consultants made it difficult to determine whether or not a project was feasible, to estimate costs, and to prepare blueprints. But in spite of the hurdles, surveys and correspondence with local governments revealed plenty of ideas for growth in many communities that had suffered through the stagnation of the Depression. Counties often aimed to build or improve county roads or replace aging courthouses. Cities looked to pave more streets, add sidewalks, install sewers and sewage treatment plants, or renovate city halls. Meanwhile, school districts sought to repair or add to school houses. In fact, many districts planned on a bigger scale, such as in Bandon, Eugene, and elsewhere, where officials wanted to build entirely new high schools and other school facilities such as playgrounds and gymnasiums.(10)
Seeing the results
Many of John Kelly's assumptions and predictions proved to be correct in the years after the guns fell silent in August 1945. As he relished to point out, doomsayers were wrong about the certainty of massive unemployment in the postwar period. Instead, and at least partially because of the actions of the postwar commission and other government agencies, "the unemployment load was not unduly burdensome." As Kelly predicted, about 40 percent of workers from other states returned home, although they did receive millions of dollars in unemployment benefit checks from Oregon. Meanwhile, "housewives withdrew from the labor pool; elderly workers had their social security; [and] young people resumed their schooling." The state's unemployment fund saw heavy drains for a few months but then recovered as job openings rapidly appeared. The distribution of jobs during this period created some problems since many of the unemployed workers refused to leave their Portland area housing and unemployment benefits, no matter how modest, for jobs in other areas of the state with chronic housing shortages. The housing shortages were made worse by widespread shortages of materials from bathtubs to wiring as American industry struggled to reconvert from producing helmets and hand grenades to refrigerators and radios.(11)
Much of the rising economic tide came with the help of public spending in the state. A 1946 postwar commission report pegged the estimated cost of government postwar programs in Oregon at over 800 million dollars, a staggering sum at the time. While not all of these projects actually made it to completion, a significant number did, which in turn triggered more hiring by construction contractors and other private sector businesses. At the same time, according to the postwar commission's third biennial report, "practically every incorprated [sic] town in the state is attempting to provide services to meet [the] demands of the new population. This means additional police and fire protection, paving and sidewalk maintenance, more street lights and teachers." The report noted that even with the agonizingly chronic shortage of new automobiles, there still was one passenger car for every three people, leading to the proclamation that "the horse and buggy days are gone forever and the hitching rack has been replaced by the [parking] meter."(13)
1. Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 1945-1946, Page 212; Statement on Postwar Program, circa 1943. Folder 6, Box 3, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
2. Oregon Laws, Oregon Legislative Assembly, Chapter 63, 1943, Pages 67-69.
3. "Oregon War Dads Speech," by John W. Kelly, August 5, 1943. Governor Snell Folder 2, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
5. "Post War Unemployment," Radio Transcript by John W. Kelly, September 29, 1943. Governor Snell Folder 2, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
6. Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 1945-1946, Page 212.
7. "Oregon Federation of Women's Clubs--Radio," Transcript by John W. Kelly, circa September, 1943. Governor Snell Folder, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
8. "Status of Projects," Government Spending Estimate, February 27, 1945. Postwar Reports Folder, Box 4, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA; "Post War Unemployment," Radio Transcript by John W. Kelly, September 29, 1943. Governor Snell Folder 2, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
9. "...Ten-Year Building Program," Oregon State System of Higher Education, circa June 1944. Higher Education Folder, Box 1, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA; "Post War Unemployment," Radio Transcript by John W. Kelly, September 29, 1943. Governor Snell Folder 2, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA; "Oregon War Dads Speech," by John W. Kelly, August 5, 1943. Governor Snell Folder 2, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA; Letter from John Kelly to Marshall Dana, August 16, 1943. Power Folder, Box 4, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
10. "Oregon Federation of Women's Clubs--Radio," Transcript by John W. Kelly, circa September, 1943. Governor Snell Folder, Box 2, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA; Spending Summaries, Post-War Readjustment and Development Committee Exhibits, 1943-1944. Folder 3, Box 8, Oregon Legislative Assembly Records, OSA.
11. Second Biennial Report, Oregon Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission, 1946. Pages 32-33.
12. Third Biennial Report, Oregon Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission, 1948. Pages 6-10.
13. Ibid.; Second Biennial Report, Oregon Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission, 1946. Page 5.