World War II's Home Front: North Dakota and the Nation
World War II had a profound influence on the nation and North Dakota. Although no fighting took place on the American mainland, the war engulfed the nation and state, becoming the focus of all activity between 1942 and 1945. Viewing the nation as a whole, historians have drawn several conclusions about the significant changes that came about as a result of the war.
• The war ended the Great Depression and brought prosperity to the American people. More than 15 million people entered the armed services or the labor force. Unemployment dropped sharply to just over 1 percent. Workers’ wages rose sharply. Per capita manufacturing income doubled. National farm income tripled. Because of its dependence on agriculture, North Dakotans prospered after twenty years of economic woe. Reflecting the national trend, North Dakota’s per capita income tripled. For farmers, the war marked a time that agricultural historians call the “second American agricultural revolution.”
• Americans saw the war in black-and-white terms and agreed with the overriding war aim: Good must win over Evil at any cost. Confident and committed, Americans were willing to do their part to win the war and make the world a better place. North Dakotans did more than their part, leading the nation in per capita purchasing of war bonds and in the collection of war-essential materials.
• Japanese Americans suffered for being a tiny minority who just happened to have come from a nation with which the United States was at war. Japanese accounted for one-tenth of 1% of the American population. Some 47,000 were Issei, Japan-born immigrants who were eligible for citizenship; roughly 80,000 were Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans (native-born citizens) and their children, Sansei. Most of these people lived on the West Coast where some authorities feared they would somehow aid Japan in the war. The head of the Western Defense Command expressed their view: “It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not . . . I don’t want any of them.” In response, the president’s Executive Order 9066 called for the removal of Japanese Americans, citizens and non-citizens, to internment camps. About 110,000 were relocated to ten detention camps in seven western states.
One of these camps was at Fort Lincoln, just south of Bismarck. For the most part, the one hundred Japanese Americans who lived in North Dakota, many of them businesspeople, were not as greatly affected by the war. Yasuko Kato’s beauty shop in Grand Forks was closed three days after Pearl Harbor but was reopened in two weeks. She, like a few others, had to receive permission to leave the state. Why Harry Hayashi was singled out for such capricious and arbitrary treatment is a mystery. Why the government closed his successful Rainbow Gardens in Carrington and interned Hayashi for the duration of the war at Fort Lincoln has no logical explanation. He paid a high price in a hysterical time.
• The war promoted the growth of business. Conversion to a war economy was not easy. The government needed the whole-hearted support of American business. Chrysler agreed to produce tanks; Ford built a gigantic new plant (a mile long, covering almost 70 acres) to assemble airplanes; United States Rubber made 90,000 tons of synthetic rubber a year. The government supported the mobilization with $225 billion.
Defense contracts boomed business nationwide but not in North Dakota. The state received the least of any stateC$9.6 million or .0004 percent. When the War Production Board asked North Dakota officials what the state could do in the war effort, the answer was “produce food” like it always had. The war did very little to promote business in North Dakota, but it did point out that the state needed to diversify its economy. It started officials thinking about ways to accomplish that.
This does not mean that the home front era stimulated no business in North Dakota. Harold Schafer turned an emulsion that was developed to clean warplane windshields into a multimillion dollar company. Andrew Freeman used his engineering training to develop the headbolt heater into Five Star Manufacturing.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.