Sunday, September 7, 2014

How the New Deal Helped Win World War II (part 3 of 10): The CCC Helped Mobilize the Nation

(WPA poster by artist Albert M. Bender, made in Chicago, 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In the American Experience/ PBS documentary The Civilian Conservation Corps (2009), veteran Houston Pritchett described how his experience in the CCC prepared him for military service: "Nobody had to tell you how to make a bed, and how it should be done. How to clean your clothes. And they didn't have to tell you that if the man tell you to go do something, you didn't ask questions, you do it. The CCC made me a man. Made me respect discipline, and how to work and get along with people."

(FDR and some of his New Deal colleagues are surrounded by FDR's forest army--the Civilian Conservation Corps. This photo was taken in Virginia, 1933. Provided courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

In an interesting journal article (citation below), military historian and author Charles E. Heller (Ph.D. University of Massachusetts-Amherst / Col. Ret. U.S. Army Reserve) wrote, "...the CCC better prepared the U.S. Army for the challenge of mobilizing for war by providing [a] pretrained officer and NCO leadership base that helped to win the Second World War."

Heller explains that the U.S. Army was only the seventeenth largest in the world before the war, but was able to expand from 187 thousand to 8 million "in a relatively short time." Heller's research describes why men who went through the CCC program were often quickly promoted to sergeants in the Army. In sum, the physical fitness, education, work ethic, interpersonal skills, discipline, and leadership skills that the men acquired in the CCC set them apart from other draftees and volunteers. Hence, the CCC veterans were able to help the Army mobilize because they were, in very short order, ready to assume leadership positions.

Heller quotes General Mark Clark, the commander of the Allied Fifth Army during World War II: "To my way of thinking the CCC...became a potent factor in enabling us to win WW-II...though we did not realize it at the time, we were training Non-Commissioned Officers."

Heller also points out that CCC veterans who did not serve in the armed forces often took their enhanced work ethic & skills into the defense industries (thereby still improving America's war-readiness). Further, the CCC gave Army Reserve officers (men who volunteered to lead CCC camps) experience that helped them later on. For example, after serving as a commander in the CCC, Captain Burdwell H. Shipe volunteered for active duty in 1940 and was assigned to Fort Meade (Maryland). Shipe was ordered to prepare 150 new Army inductees: "I knew exactly what to do and where to go to get what I needed because of my CCC experience."

(Charles E. Heller, "The U.S. Army, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Leadership for World War II, 1933-1942," Armed Forces & Society, April 2010, vol. 36, no. 3, 439-453.)                 

(A nice 7-minute presentation on the Civilian Conservation Corps, from Iowa Public Television. Includes lots of interesting old footage, as well as recollections from CCC veterans. You can adjust the resolution by using the gear tool in the lower right-hand corner of the video player. Original YouTube link: 

In Perry H. Merrill's book Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps (1981), many CCC veterans explained how their time in the CCC prepared them for military service. Here are a few of the recollections:

"When I left there in 1940, I felt that the 3C's had done more for me than I could have learned in a good trade. Soon I joined the Army and came out as a technical sergeant."
--Arlington Kane

"I would not take anything for the experience and help that I received during my five years as a member. I feel that I benefited from it when I went into the service."
--Unnamed CCC veteran from Oklahoma

"There was a 3/4 ton Bay City Shovel...I learned how to run heavy equipment...When I got in the army, I worked at the Boston shipyard running a crane, so that is where that little Bay City Shovel started me in the CCC."
--Robert Hartwell

"I credit my experience in the CCC with my fast promotions when I suddenly found myself in the U.S. Army in 1941. Because of my camp life experiences I was made barracks leader my first day in the army, acting corporal all during basic training and promoted to First Sergeant on the thirteenth month. I stayed in the army for a total of 22 years and retired in 1962 in the grade of Major of Engineers."
--J.D. English, Jr.

(CCC enrollees not only worked in the forests, but also worked in shops and gained skills operating machinery. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.) 

Will we learn from the history of the CCC, forests & parks, and World War II? 

In his article about the Army, the CCC, and leadership, Heller wrote of the CCC boys: "They represented a full spectrum of American youth ranging from college students to boys who had not completed high school...The one thing they had in common was unemployment." In the American Experience/PBS documentary The Civilian Conservation Corps, journalist & author Jonathan Alter said, "The CCC Corps members came from very different backgrounds...The only thing they had in common was that they were poor."

Unemployed and poor.

Today, the unemployed and poor have been labeled by many politicians, political commentators, and radio show hosts as "takers," "free loaders," "lazy pigs," and people "who do not know how to do a day's work." (And when we tried to create a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans, Republicans blocked it.)

The same type of insults were leveled against the poor and unemployed during the Great Depression. Many of those with jobs simply could not understand how those without jobs could have possibly ended up in that situation. "It must have been their lazy, immoral, or unskilled characteristics!" (Like today, many people chose to blame the individuals rather than the structural problems within the economy. Today, structural problems include job outsourcing, machines replacing workers, wide-scale corporate lawlessness, and discrimination against the long-term unemployed.)

A great thing happened when FDR and his New Deal colleagues created the CCC and gave the unemployed opportunities instead of insults: Three billion trees were planted, large areas of forest were protected from fire, 800 state parks were developed (that we still enjoy today, by the way), and the men of the CCC helped us win the war by filling important leadership roles and, in many cases, sacrificing their lives.

So, what are your thoughts? Is it more productive to cast the unemployed as "parasites," or is it more productive to give them work opportunities? This is an important question, because unemployment rates for young adults are still in the double-digits.

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