Learning to Live in Our “New Times”: Lessons from the Homefront of World War II

The nation’s eldest National Park Service Ranger, Betty Reid Soskin has much to teach us.

“What we are dealing with now, ever since about 1970, is the history and culture of this country. It’s now possible to revisit almost any era in this nation – the heroic places, the contemplative places, the scenic wonders, the shameful places, and the painful places, in order to own that history so that we may process it in order to forgive ourselves in order that we may all be able to move into a more compassionate future.” (from Betty Reid Soskin’s acceptance speech at the California Studies Association for the Carey McWilliams Award to a writer, scholar or artist who lives up to the best tradition of McWilliams’ work. )

A great challenge…

It’s about a month since the national elections.  Everyone I know has been reflecting on the outcome, its causes, and what to do.

I think we’d all agree that the answers to these questions are complex, and indeed we must study and learn as much as possible to inform the way forward.  The way forward is ultimately what is going to matter for all of us, especially for our children and our children’s children.  Failure is not an option.
Betty Reid Soskin is the nation’s eldest National Park Service Ranger.  She serves at the little known Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.  Betty served as a clerk in the Boilermakers Union on the site of the Henry Kaiser Shipyards in the early 1940’s, where the National Historical Park stands today.

I   met her on my first visit to the National Park in 2007.  I will never forget the powerful emotion of listening to her story.

On that site Henry Kaiser, at the request of President Roosevelt built the largest shipyard in the nation, and with a workforce of more than 100,000  women, and later African-American men and women,  747 Liberty Ships were built.  This unprecedented industrial accomplishment is credited with being a key factor in winning the War of the Pacific.  Today Betty  provides a personal  link to the living history of the “revolution” that occurred in that profound collective experience in our history.

Betty tells the real story of both Rosie the Riveter and the African-American workforce. The City of Richmond was segregated, the unions were segregated, and of course all the women were treated as though they would never develop the welding and other skills necessary in shipbuilding, even as they became expert in the crafts.  Betty talks about how these struggles were as mean-spirited as one can imagine.  She talks about how the word “apprentice” was stamped on all union membership cards of African-American workers, ensuring that they would not find work when the war ended, even though they had the skill to be a machinist or other skilled laborer.

Betty also talks about the pride and solidarity of the African-American community in the shipyards and their devotion to winning the war.  The National Park also provides little known history about social innovation:  the Richmond shipyards had the first on-site day care centers, on site clinics, and it was the place where the preventative health system of Kaiser Permanente proved successful.

In many ways the National Park Memorial stands as a real conscience for the nation:  we can never lose sight of the struggles we must fight, and as we do, we also must have a vision for a great outcome for all.  Indeed, the Richmond Shipyard was created to win a war.  But Betty goes much further when she states: “we must learn from this place and apply its lessons for peace and for the building of a just society”.

In a small film which she made about her experience, she says the following:

 There are times in history when the rate of change was so fast that events outpaced our ability to hold them long enough to learn their lessons; or to make connections with the past that should have been preserved for our children.”

This week we experienced  the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the most horrific war in human history. It is impossible to judge yet how the current moment and our near future defined by our current political, economic, and social reality compares.  As Betty says, “events outpace our ability to hold them long enough to learn their lessons”.

The  incoming administration presents a threat to tens of millions of people of color and our most vulnerable among us.  The incoming administration is full of new executive  appointments who have stated that they wish to undo what remains of our tattered safety net, to undo the strides we have been making toward reducing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and to appoint judges to our highest court and to lower federal courts who would undo basic rights of women and  all workers.

These threats from the new administration are accompanied  by  a powerful and determined Congress to make disastrous decisions about  national revenue, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Important debates are raging about how to respond to and organize  against these  existential threats as well as how to build a new vision and organization for the future.

The workers at the Richmond Shipyards struggled against racial and gender discrimination that was open and virulent. These struggles not only expressed the outrage against these institutional crimes against people’s dignity and opportunity, but also provided the means for a whole generation of new industrial workers to experience leadership, organization, and shared pride.

The auxiliaries of the segregated unions raised the equivalent of $1 million in today’s dollars in war bonds; the unions themselves provided opportunities for leadership by some African-Americans who had been previously excluded from union office; and several of the Liberty Ships built by this new workforce were named for great African-Americans and leaders of world liberation including a ship that went into battle named for Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Millions of women, “The Rosies”, entered the workforce for the first time.  This experience paved the way for the women’s struggles of the post-War period.  The romanticism and mythology of the gleeful image of Rosie the Riveter gave way  to a reality of the post-war generation that began the fight for gender equality in all walks of life that reached its height in the 1960s and 1970s and continues today. The  newly found work experience in the War effort and  the sense of freedom that came from it was a major turning point in the nation’s history.

The War was the overarching cause as workers struggled.  The War provided the opportunity for work and for struggle.

Today, how we define the overarching themes for social progress will have the same effect on the nature of struggle as did the experience inside the Richmond Shipyard and in the home front plants of World War II across the nation.  Betty Reid Soskin has taught us that we will likely be overwhelmed by the crush of the contemporary moment and not spend enough time thinking of what our struggles means for the future.

We also know from history that progressive struggles and success from those struggles can be overwhelmed by those who oppose them.  These struggles are not like the weather. They don’t just come and go in “natural cycles”.

To have a new and sustainable era of social justice requires innovation in the way we create the roots of that social justice.  Income inequality and climate change are front and center, inextricably linked to economic and social justice.  This in itself requires new thinking and new forms of organization.

The Rosie the Riveter World War II National Homefront Park is the only  national memorial  in the nation devoted to  the civilian workforce that won the War.  Without that workforce, no army or navy or airforce or marines could have won the battles that they courageously fought. The workforce had two jobs:  to build the ships AND to defeat segregation and discrimination. What will be the unifying themes for the battles to be fought on behalf of social justice and the saving of our planet today and for the generations to come?

There is much to be debated and discussed to answer these questions.  Can we find a unifying replacement of War to achieve a just society?

We must.







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