When It All Really Started

September 23, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- We have become accustomed to think that it was in the 1960s that all change began in America. But Doris Kearns Goodwin stresses a different idea in her big new book, ''No Ordinary Time,'' subtitled ''Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.'' She thinks that we may have our eye on the wrong decade: Insofar as social history has clean starting points, it was the 1940s, and World War II, that shaped the America we see today.

It is a plausible case, told in a highly engaging narrative. Drawn simply, it looks something like this:

The Nazis ended the ''phony war'' in 1940 and attacked Western Europe. Stumbling at first, with President Roosevelt trying to arouse public support for intervention, America soon began building ''the arsenal of democracy'' to aid the Allies. In five years, incredibly, that arsenal would produce 300,000 airplanes, 100,000 tanks, 90,000 warships and 5,000 cargo ships.

Roosevelt's administration had made only minimal headway against the Great Depression -- a 1939 unemployment rate of 17 percent -- but by the war's end 16 million Americans had served in the military.

That meant women had to go to work. Their protector was Eleanor Roosevelt, who emerges as a more full-bodied character than the magisterial and almost mystical FDR.

Eleanor is an unhappy liberal grind, always badgering her husband, but my, how she works at her causes! She wanted the new working women well treated, and campaigned for pay equity with men and on-site nurseries, among a raft of other liberal causes. (Sixty percent of the workers in the Kaiser Shipyard in Seattle were female.)

And in 1946, when the GIs came home, America suddenly had the highest divorce rate in the world. It was the beginning of the rise of the ''FHH'' (female-headed household) that plagues us today.

The roots of the modern civil-rights movement also stem from those war years, again with Eleanor pushing the hardest. (The joke in Washington was that FDR prayed each night, ''Dear God, please make Eleanor a little tired.'')

Racial progress occurred in both the military and in the factories. It was gradual, often nasty and controversial, but powerful and inexorable. By war's end blacks were working in war plants next to whites. In the military, they moved from stevedores and waiters to paratroopers and tankmen. That's not the way it was when the war began. (Full integration of the military came later, during the Truman administration.)

But it was FDR who was president, making the final calls. He had a choice whether to let free-enterprise businesses do the producing, or have the government run the war effort. He placed most of his bets on business, often against the advice of some liberal advisers. What happened was a tonic for American industry. Re-inspirited, it became the most productive force in the world, which it remains today.

Of course, war is essentially a government enterprise, and the costs and magnitude of government during the war took another giant bound upward. It was a trend that was to continue.

The era is predictive in another way. Eleanor Roosevelt had a pet homestead community, Arthurdale, in West Virginia. Under her prod, the federal government had provided for the construction of a school, a community center and new farmhouses. Later there were subsidized nursery schools, craft shops and a variety of other projects.

It didn't work. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes: ''So dependent on her [Eleanor] had the homesteaders become that when their school bus broke down they sent it to the White House garage for repairs. . . . She now recognized a frightful loss of initiative.'' Later Eleanor told a confidant, ''They seemed to feel the solution to all their problems was to turn to government.''

Civil rights, women's rights, more government, enterprise economics, an activist liberal first lady, international assertiveness, more government, and on rare occasions, even from Eleanor Roosevelt, a dim view of too much government. Sound familiar? It should.

And so we go, in another extraordinary time, marching into the future, trying to solve, or refine, the progress and related problems that surfaced a half-century ago.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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