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California State University, Long Beach
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Scope and Content

On the brink of the United States’ entry into World War II, Time-Life magazine mogul Henry Luce called on Americans to rise to the challenge of the emerging “American century” in which American politics, economics, and culture would play a constructive global role. Allied victory and the subsequent emergence of the Cold War kept Luce’s vision alive within the United States. The economic, social, and cultural patterns that developed on the home front during the Cold War shaped the “American century.” Southern California uniquely represents these trends. In the Cold War period, California’s experience and the national experience became increasingly intertwined. The postwar United States cannot be understood without considering the role of California. Southern California has been the primary home for the U.S. aircraft and aerospace industry since the beginning of the 20th century. This pattern grew during the Cold War, and aerospace left its mark on Southern California.

The warm climate of Southern California and access to the ocean and deserts made California a magnet for both the early airplane industry and the armed forces even before World War II. After the war broke out, over 200,000 troops shipped to the Pacific theater of combat through Los Angeles area ports. By mid-war, California’s environment, infrastructure, and energy resources made it one of the major staging zones for the rest of the war. Hundreds of thousands also flocked to aircraft manufacturing jobs at Douglas, Hughes, Lockheed, and Northrop facilities. Fully ten percent of all federal funds spent during the war was poured into California. Nearly half of those funds went to the Los Angeles area, making it one of the most productive industrial regions nationwide. At its peak, the Los Angeles area aircraft industry directly employed over 228,000 workers, with many more in subsidiary industries spread throughout Southern California.

When the war ended, it seemed that Southern California might slump financially as government contracts disappeared. Instead, the emerging Cold War secured Southern California’s economic future. Corporations that had established close working relationships with federal and local government during the war continued to prosper. They were joined by new aerospace companies like Rocketdyne and General Dynamics, with major plants in the Los Angeles area. California received 40% of all government contracts, with the largest concentration going to the greater Los Angeles area. Research and development played a central role in the Cold War aerospace industry. The first think tanks, like RAND Corporation of Santa Monica, began operating in a public-private partnership with the US military. University research supported military-industrial needs as well.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans settled in Southern California in a pattern that came to be known as Sunbelt migration. Home ownership constituted a central component of middle-class aspiration in this era. Federal legislation, especially the Federal Housing Act and the GI Bill, provided guaranteed low-interest loans that made home ownership affordable to millions of Americans. By 1940, Los Angeles led the nation in new Federal Housing Authority homes, and after the war Southern California homeowners outpaced the rest of the nation in taking advantage of federal loan guarantees. In the twenty-five years after the war, the majority of Americans became homeowners for the first time. Given the availability of land and an American preference for single-family homes, the growth of home ownership in Southern California mirrored the larger national trend of suburbanization. Lakewood, California became the model for the changes that were coming to affect much of the nation.

Suburbanization encouraged a renewed sense of domesticity for women that discouraged their participation in the male-dominated culture of aerospace production. Conversely, educated Chinese Americans, excluded from citizenship for decades before World War II, began to find job opportunities in the postwar era, especially after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. African Americans and Latinos fought for a limited number of jobs in these key industries. While some neighborhoods fostered ethnically-diverse working class suburbs, others preserved white exclusivity through restrictive housing covenants. Disillusionment with the unmet promises of California’s version of the American dream fostered both legal challenges and the urban uprisings of the 1960s.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.