The beginning of World War II in Europe in 1939 was a major factor in ending the Great Depression in Connecticut. Warring powers were in great need of the kinds of products which the state was able to produce. After America entered the war in late 1941, productivity of airplanes, propellers, brass goods, small arms, submarines, and other goods of war pushed Connecticut into enormous industrial expansion. Older industrial centers won new life and grew enormously to meet the needs of war. By 1942, joblessness had disappeared, and labor shortages were readily apparent in Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Groton, and Bridgeport.
War in Europe and American defense policies brought great changes to Connecticut. Jobs were plentiful, there was much overtime. Real wages grew rapidly. Electric Boat in Groton produced submarines for the American government; three in 1939, five in 1940, six in 1941, and later had as many as twenty subs in various stages of construction at one time. Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford more than quintupled its work force. Hamilton Standard expanded its propeller production into several locations. Bridgeport boomed. Areas of prefabricated housing projects were built for workers, and all over the state, workers began to commute longer distances to get to their jobs.
Connecticut in 1940 was less concerned about politics than in gaining benefits from the new-found prosperity. Manufacturing employment drew workers from rural areas of Connecticut and from northern New England states, creating housing shortages around industrial centers. 130,000 new people moved into Connecticut between 1940 and 1943, two thirds of them into the Hartford and Groton areas. 24
After America entered the war, the military draft called thousands of young men into the services. State and federal governments established rationing programs for tires, gasoline, and food. Connecticut’s rationing program was headed by Chester Bowles, an advertising executive who had retired at forty, and later headed the federal Office of Price Administration. Bowles made a concerted effort to involve people from both parties in establishing and running ration boards in every town in the state. In 1942, Bowles began a practice of making frequent radio talks on a statewide hookup to explain the program of rationing, a practice he carried over when he ran for Governor in 1948. Cooperation of people in Connecticut on rationing was generally good, but some black markets flourished, especially in gasoline and meat. Rent controls were not an outstanding success in Connecticut. Once the people realized the need for rationing, they accepted it in good spirit, and their reaction was generally supportive.
Governor Baldwin created a State Council for Defense in 1940 to guide the state’s transition from Depression into defense preparations and to make long range plans for development of Connecticut’s resources. The Connecticut Development Commission had been created in 1939 to promote economic development and tourism in the state through government sponsored promotions, but was sidetracked by rapid industrial growth and wartime demands.
The situation of Connecticut in wartime accelerated opportunities for women and minority groups. Italian-born residents who had not become citizens were declared enemy aliens, and could not work in defense industries, causing a sharp increase in new citizens. But American born citizens of Italian descent had no employment problems as demands for workers soared. Women were the largest single source for new workers, and although the Connecticut Manufacturers Association repeatedly urged employment of women, some employers were reluctant to hire them.
By the end of 1942, forty percent of manufacturing jobs in Connecticut were held by women, twice the percentage of 1939. Blacks made up three percent of the population, and were generally employed in menial jobs or in agriculture. Racism was the general rule in Connecticut employment, with some firms refusing to employ black workers. The general opinion was that blacks were best suited for work in tobacco or some form of agriculture. Blacks were hired for the first time by Pratt and Whitney in 1941, in part because of federal pressure for fair employment practices.
Rent controls, rent control rollbacks, housing and labor shortages continued to haunt Connecticut during the war years. Schools were disrupted as teachers moved into lucrative jobs in industry. Social problems increased among young people as fathers were drafted and mothers went to work. During the war years 1939-1945, Connecticut was a busy, fully employed state, beset by consumer shortages and rationing, strongly oriented toward doing its part to win the war.
World War II, as World War I, brought great changes for those traditionally out of power. Connecticut women were first allowed to sit on juries through action of the 1937 General Assembly. A woman was first selected for state-wide office in 1938 when Republicans nominated Helen Lewis of Stratford for Secretary of the State. When Lewis drowned during the Hurricane of 1938, the Republican State Committee replaced her with Sarah Crawford of Westport, who won the election. 30 Clare Booth Luce of Greenwich, a Republican, won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1942 and 1944, and her sharp tongue and partisanship made her memorable. Democrat Chase Going Woodhouse of New London was Secretary of the State and won election to Congress in 1944 and 1948. With one exception, women have been elected Secretary of the State since 1938.
Raymond Baldwin was Governor of Connecticut 1939-41 and 1943-46. He was considered a liberal Republican who increased the role of state government to achieve worthwhile programs. He created an interracial commission to further job opportunities for blacks, started a Defense Council later called a War Council to coordinate state efforts for defense and war, did much to ease town welfare costs through state action, and generally enhanced the state’s role. Baldwin also encouraged planting of wartime Victory Gardens, and in his third term, appointed a postwar planning board for Connecticut, headed by Yale President Charles Seymour. This non-partisan group evolved the ‘Connecticut Plan’ to deal with anticipated post-war difficulties. Baldwin also made regular radio broadcasts to the people during his years in office to keep them informed of what the state was doing.
But in spite of planning, within ten days after VJ Day in August, 1945, 73,000 workers were laid off in Connecticut, and within a month, unemployment rose to 90,000. In September 1945, there were sixty percent as many manufacturing jobs in the state as there had been at the wartime peak.
LESSON PLAN TWO:
Connecticut in Wartime
World War II provided a second great common experience for those who lived through it. War in Europe was from 1939 until 1945, and America entered the war late in 1941. But Connecticut was affected by war orders from Europe before the first draft calls. One of our senators (Danaher) was strongly isolationist, although a majority of the people did not appear to hold that position. Anyone whose memory goes back to first hand experiences in World War II will have to be past forty, and since it involved so many people, anyone who lived through the period, regardless of age, will have some memories of it.
Ask if any of the students have any World War II artifacts in their houses—helmets, flags, battle ribbons, ration books, or wartime publications. Were any of their parents in the service? (Try to make sure it was the right war.) Military people love to talk about their experiences, and will at almost any opportunity. Those who worked on the home front or who remained at home may have memories which need prodding but which offer glimpses of those who worked in the Connecticut defense plants when they grew into war industries.
1. What kind of things were you doing between 1939 and 1945?
2. Where did you work? What kind of a job was it? What was your company making? What kind of hours did you work? What was it like getting back and forth to work?
3. How did rationing work for you? What things were hardest to buy under rationing? Were there any other shortages of consumer goods? What happened to prices? Did the Office of Price Administration work well? Was there a black market in your neighborhood?
4. Did you take part in Civil Defense drills, or were you an airplane spotter? Did you save cooking fat and toothpaste tubes?
5. What was life like in your neighborhood with so many men gone into the service?
6. Were there any dissenters from the war that you heard about? What did they do? What did people say about them?
7. What was it like where you were on VE Day? On VJ Day?
8. What was your biggest worry for the time after the war?
9. What was it like to find a place to live in Connecticut during and right after the war?
10. What happened to prices and jobs when the war ended?
Findings by the students may be brought together in a class discussion that might fill several class periods. Comparisons can be made with our way of life today, or even during the Viet Nam War. Don’t lose the artifacts students will bring in—catalogue them as they arrive.