Saturday, February 6, 2010

THE RED SCARE: DEFENSE SPENDING IN THE FIFTIES.

In a comment on the page of another Multiply blogger I read a comment about President Eisenhower's warning to "beware of the military and industrial complex"; this threat had already been realized shortly after his term was ended. He had certainly contributed to the anti-communist paranoia that gripped this country for the next twenty-five years or so and led to an immense expenditure of Defense Department funds for projects that later became obsolete. The beginning of the Korean War set off a flurry of activity in the retrofitting of WWII sites for the development of the new weapons to be used in the new war. The current levels of the National Debt cannot be laid solely at the doorstep of Democrats, but should be partly charged off to the fears of the Fifties, mostly perpetuated by the anti-communist fever of the Republicans.

My knowledge of the wild growth of the defense budget at this time  is rooted in personal experience. As a union electrician who served an apprenticeship with the IBEW San Francisco #6 and became a journeyman in 1948,  my husband was aware of  all the high-paying jobs available if one was willing to relocate to a construction site. His first venture was in Sunflower, KS, 28 miles south of Kansas City; a former Hercules Powder plant that was being retrofitted as a solid missile fuel facility. This was in 1951 and we rented a small house in Sunflower Village which had during WWII housed the workers at the powder plant. A California girl I was unprepared for the use of coal for heating, and especially not the use of a huge stove in the middle of the house that had to be stoked with the coal that was provided by the company and delivered once a week. We had sold our first house in Palo Alto and traveled to this job location. I was willing to go along with my husband's restless thirst for new ventures, and having never been outside of California I  was also ready for adventure. Just not in the middle of a former cow pasture on the plains of Kansas. We had two children. A five year old boy and a two year old girl, and they enjoyed the new and very different scenery. This was an enclave of young families; WWII veterans mostly and in their twenties. Friendships were easily formed and there were a lot of places to explore. The Country Club Mall in Kansas City was a new concept, and we enjoyed browsing there with our new found wealth. Wages were high for those willing to work on this job, as they were on all defense jobs. The men worked long hours and the young wives gathered for coffee and conversation, took our children to the movies in a refurbished quonset hut and went on picnics. This was in 1951, the year of the devastating flood in this valley that wiped out Lawrence, Kansas. We left as flood waters lapped at our hub caps.  We had already decided to leave after only four months as there was some inter-union disagreement on the job and a jurisdictional dispute that threatened violence. Many of the workers were "construction gypsies" who traveled from one defense job to another, following the high wages. My husband and his friend had learned that there was a big construction job at Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not yet a state but still a territory, and they had decided to drive to Alaska with two other men. First we returned to California where we rented a house in Palo Alto, and then he flew to Great Falls, Montana to meet the other travelers who were driving there from Missouri. For the first time in my life I was alone, and I didn't like it. My eighteen year old sister jumped at the chance to move in with me while he was gone on his adventure. For adventure it was. Restless after being in New Guinea during the war, many veterans migrated to new places looking for new opportunities. The first job of the burgeoning new defense effort was Eilsen Field Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks. They drove across Canada on the Alcan Highway which at the time was a graded road. It took eleven days for the trip because of heavy rain and wash-outs. They were stopped at the Canadian border and had to unload onto a blanket every item in the car, and demonstrate that each man had at least $300. before they were allowed to enter. This was in July, and the work at Eilsen Field could only be done for about three months because of the onset of winter weather, but the pay was very good. Fairbanks was a boom town going night and day, and two of the men, including my husband got jobs serving drinks at a tavern on week-ends, until the job picked up and they worked on the construction site seven days a week, and twelve hours a day. The land of the midnight sun allowed them to work long hours in the light. This project was intended to have an airbase within striking distance of Russia and for defense against any future invasion by that country. By late September he was back in Palo Alto and working again wiring the multiple housing tracts that were being built to accomodate the influx of families from other states who were arriving in droves for the jobs in the Bay Area Peninsula. This venture, in 1951 was the first of his trips to Alaska. The lure of high wages and adventure led him back to Alaska two more times in the ensuing years. I will write later about his work on the Dew Line system that was built from Alaska to the Yukon.

3 comments:

Denurd said...

We can’t make informed decisions if we don’t understand how we got here from there. What better way to make history come alive then through the eyes of one who lived it? The “Greatest Generation” is now fading from the scene but they are the generation that got us to where we are now. I think America is at a tipping point we can go the way Germany did in the thirties or we can be the beacon of democracy, “a shining city upon a hill”. *

*Ronald Reagan

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

My Dad was a senior officer in the Air Force at the time (early 1950's); he was in charge of putting in several of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line installations in Alaska and Canada at the time. You're correct in stating that there was big money in defense at the time, Eisenhower's warning notwithstanding several years later.

Things have certainly changed!

(My own bet? We're headed the way of Germany. "Wrapped in a flag; carrying a cross", and all that.)

--W

Kittisplace said...

Will your predictions always make my skin crawl; I agree that things do not look good. We have merely changed our enemy from Godless Communists to Islamic Terrorists. Interesting that your Dad was in the Air Force at the same time my husband was working on the construction of the installation on Barter Island, the first of these. I would guess he flew out of Eielson Field, where my husband had also worked on construction projects.