Published Date

February 23, 2002

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series

From Constructing a Postwar World: Background and Context


Mediating the Postwar World

As important as the ideological differences were, the convergence in the normative outlook of the board and the military, seems equally important. The pamphlets addressing postwar domestic issues all share the same underlying premise, holding up an ideal that was essentially white, heterosexual, and upper middle class. It is not surprising that the target audience is clearly enlisted men who were young, white, and male. To make the point explicit, the authors often use the device of injecting a Private (sometimes promoted to Sergeant) Pro and Private Con on different sides of an issue (in the pamphlet on war marriages, they are called Private Hasty and Private Wait). In every instance where this device is used, their differences are viewed by an omnipotent narrator as arising, at least in part, from ignorance of the “facts.”44 But whatever the differences, the omnipotent narrator typically aligns with certain norms and ideals.

Figure 1

Apart from their general exclusion as participants in the discussion, women are typically depicted in domestic, maternal, or sexualized roles. Given the largely male military audience, it’s hardly surprising that pamphlets treating the subject of women directly—Do You Want Your Wife to Work after the War? and Can Wartime Marriages Work?—present them in highly objectified terms, as a problem to be solved. However, throughout the pamphlets women are often depicted as disturbing domestic harmony—in a pamphlet on consumer credit, for instance, women are depicted as potential spendthrifts who threaten to plunge the family into debt (Figure 1). And despite the pro-and-con debate on whether working women should return to the home after the war, the pamphlets typically depict only male figures as workers, producers, and managers.

While the texts express a measure of ambivalence about the future role of women, the images in the pamphlets, prepared by military artists, are less ambivalent. In a wide variety of pamphlets, women are depicted in sexualized contexts ranging from the young Eskimo woman casting an appraising glance over three single G.I.’s (in a pamphlet encouraging young men to move to Alaska), or the bare-breasted women in a pamphlet on the Pacific Islands, and the happy mother of triplets in the pamphlet on working women.45

Equally striking in the pamphlets is the near total absence of people of color except in exoticized settings like the Pacific Islands. The only mentions of African Americans appear in the pamphlet on crime and in a picture of black sharecroppers in the pamphlet on farming.46 In this the pamphlets reflect the characteristics and the attitudes of their audience, most of whom felt that African Americans needed no further benefits in the postwar world.47

Despite this dearth of treatment, the members of the Historical Services Board clearly thought of themselves as progressive on the issue of race. In 1944 the board’s military liaison, Donald Goodrich, proposed a pamphlet on the issue of minorities in the United States, specifically intended for troops in segregated units. The board rejected the proposal after a great deal of deliberation, since the military wanted the pamphlet to be framed by a discussion of the superior treatment of American minorities in comparison to minorities in Germany. Thomas K. Ford, assistant director of the project, objected that “there is no getting around the fact that the Nazi racism theories and practices cannot be disproved and disapproved without at the same time doing the same for indigenous American racism.”48 The AHA’s executive director seconded this response, noting that “the Board could sponsor no pamphlet that was not realistic and objective and in consonance with such a study as that by [Gunnar] Myrdal.49

It would be a mistake to dwell overlong on what is excluded or marginalized in the pamphlets, since the overt intentions of the pamphlets are just as intriguing. Middle-class economic roles are generally privileged throughout the pamphlets, as (typically men) are directed toward business or other forms of white-collar work, such as business and civil service careers. There are a few exceptions to this norm, including an entire pamphlet devoted to farming and a few asides in the pamphlet encouraging men to move to Alaska, where they could “use their hands.”50 However, even in pamphlets that don’t address a specific career, this orientation toward a middle-class norm recurs throughout the pamphlets. In the pamphlets on postwar housing and borrowing, for instance, the ideal is a single-family suburban home—a class ideal that is reinforced by images of white men in suit and tie pondering their future dwelling.51 And throughout, the pamphlets emphasize individual striving and economic achievement as key measures of success in the postwar world.52

The pamphlets privilege a white upper-middle-class lifestyle throughout, and place a particular accent on the veterans returning to a golden future as consumers of a plethora of new goods. This has a particularly technological accent in the series, as pamphlets prepare them for purchases of new radios, televisions, cars, and even private planes.53 This image of technological opportunities reflects the culture of the time, as a review of the periodical literature reveals a profusion of stories of technological progress in support of the war effort, supported by advertising from war-related industries who plowed some of their war profits back into ads that promoted their own technological creations on behalf of the war effort.54

The significant level of technological hubris is suggested most clearly in the pamphlet Will There Be a Plane in Every Garage? which cautions against expecting that the title proposal will come to pass, while nevertheless leaving open the possibility. The authors note that “until private planes can do everything that automobiles can do, and fly as well, they will not displace the automobile.”55 This is reinforced visually with pictures of a father returning home from work in the family helicopter. The postwar world envisioned by the pamphlets offered not only near limitless possibilities for personal economic progress, but intimately tied the notion of personal progress to vast new levels of consumer opportunities made possible by technological progress.

Figure 2

The pamphlets also privilege a middle-America view of the world, which is probably not surprising given that the staff of the project were all from the Midwest (with most coming from Minnesota).56 In discussions of the lived environment of the postwar world, for instance, urban settings are represented almost exclusively as sites of danger and crime, which are juxtaposed with rural and “hometown” settings, which are depicted as places of opportunity and community.57 In Is a Crime Wave Coming? the authors lay out the social science data on urban crime rates, but generally ignore issues of crime and disorder outside of the city. To reinforce the implications of the data, the pamphlet’s images are typically urban, dark, and intentionally disturbing, in a way that viscerally connects crime to the urban environment (see Figure 2). This is in sharp contrast to the pamphlet on hometown life, which is filled with idyllic images of small towns that are lighter aesthetically, and in tone and spirit. This reinforces a narrative that emphasizes optimism and the nurturing environment of small-town life, noting that, “Going home will not mean going back but going forward from wherever you and your community find yourselves when victory comes.”58

This notion of forward progress is extended to the political level, as the pamphlets are clearly aligned with the early New Deal vision of America. Throughout, they reassure veterans by emphasizing planning and interventions by the government at the local, state, and federal level. Beyond the obvious issue of benefits in the G.I. Bill and the benefits provided for education and housing,59 the accent in most of the pamphlets is on the amount of planning and preparation for their return. This extends down to the local level, in the pamphlet on hometowns, which offers a number of small-town models of planning boards preparing for jobs, housing, and veterans services.60

Next section: Reception

  1. Cf Do You Want Your Wife to Work After the War? (EM 30, 1944) and Can War Marriages Last? (EM 31, 1944). []
  2. What Has Alaska to Offer Postwar Pioneers? (EM 20, 1944), ii–iii and What Will Become of the Pacific Islands after the War? (EM 45, 1945), 8 and inside back cover. []
  3. Shall I Take Up Farming? (EM 35, 1945), 19. []
  4. Stouffer et al., American Soldier. []
  5. Thomas K. Ford, unpublished memo, “Comment on the Manuscript about Race Question,” 28 March 1944, Box 384, AHA Papers. []
  6. Guy Stanton Ford to Theodore C. Blegen, 30 March 1944, Box 384, AHA Papers. []
  7. What Has Alaska to Offer? 8. []
  8. Shall I Build a House after the War? (EM 32, 1945). []
  9. C.f., What Will Your Town Be Like? (EM 33, 1945); Shall I Go into Business for Myself? (EM 39, 1946). []
  10. Does It Pay To Borrow? (EM 36, 1944); Will There Be a Plane in Every Garage? (EM 37, 1945); What Is the Future of Television? (EM 27, 1945); and How Far Should Government Control Radio? (EM 28, 1945). []
  11. My review of Newsweek and Business Week turned up regular featured items on new scientific and technological advances in almost every issue between 1943 and 1945. Similarly, each issue contained at least three or four advertisements from business promoting their inventions of radar and new types of steel. The significance of the military in promoting a general (as opposed to purely military) technological optimism in this way, seems like an interesting avenue of further inquiry. []
  12. Will There Be a Plane in Every Garage? 3. []
  13. “G.I. ‘Think-Pieces’ Get Start Here,” Minneapolis Tribune, 19 August 1945, 3, which notes that in addition to Blegen, Guy Stanton Ford was the former president of the University of Minnesota and Thomas K. Ford had been an editorial writer on the Tribune. Estimate of other authors’ Minnesota connections based an incomplete list provided to the AHA Council in Box 382, AHA Papers. []
  14. What Will Your Town Be Like? []
  15. What Will Your Town Be Like? 5. []
  16. Should I Go Back to School? (EM 34, 1945); and Shall I Build a House after the War? (EM 32, 1945). []
  17. What Will Your Town Be Like? 1–3, 13ff. []
Robert B. Townsend
Robert B. Townsend

American Academy of Arts & Sciences