The 1940s: The “Greatest Generation” Workforce Mobilizes for War

by Carl Fillichio on October 21, 2013 · 2 comments

I’m a firm believer that understanding the past means more than memorizing dates, but there’s a handful any serious student of American history should be able to recite.  Without a doubt, one of them is Dec. 7, 1941 — when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, triggering America’s entry into World War II.

The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of June 22, 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, provides $20 weekly unemployment allowance in addition to counseling, placement services, education and on-the-job training to nearly 10 million veterans between September 1944 and August 1949.

The events of that “date which will live in infamy,” as proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt the next day, had a major impact on America — and its workforce — going forward. And once again, the Department of Labor played a significant role in helping Americans respond to a new reality created overnight.

The department’s Division of Labor Standards, which was created by Secretary Frances Perkins the decade before, and its Women’s Bureau worked to ensure that the improved working conditions achieved in recent years sustained despite labor shortages and soaring demands on production, while its Bureau of Labor Statistics served as the research arm of the Office of Price Administration, the War Labor Board and the Armed Forces.

Appointed by President Truman in 1945, Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach was a World War I veteran and former U.S. Senator.

When the war ended, attention shifted to the needs of those returning from war and their families.  The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of June 22, 1944 — widely known as the G.I. Bill — provided a weekly unemployment allowance, as well as counseling, placement services, education and job training to nearly 10 million veterans between 1944 and 1949.

Frances Perkins remained secretary of labor until Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, at which time she resigned to head the Civil Service Commission. President Harry Truman’s selection to replace her was Lewis Schwellenbach, a World War I veteran and former U.S. senator and federal district judge from Washington state. During Schwellenbach’s tenure, he focused on the rights of individuals with disabilities and veterans and opposed anti-immigrant legislation.  He also oversaw the creation of the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, which to this day works to end child labor abroad, among other global objectives. But Schwellenbach’s term was cut short when he died in office in 1948 at the age of 53.

Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin (May 22, 1901-July 19, 1953) was considered the "Man of Action" for mobilizing American unions post WWII. During the Korean War, he is responsible for wartime labor supply. Tobin also creates the Defense Manpower Administration.

Schwellenbach was succeeded by Massachusetts Gov. Maurice Tobin, who supported the Fair Employment Practices Bill, which aimed to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion or national origin.  He also consolidated various government labor functions and, as part of the Marshall Plan, mobilized American unions in rebuilding Europe.  Whether at home and abroad, by the end of the decade the working men and women of the 1940s — otherwise known as the “greatest generation” — were firmly focused on the future, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity and securing America’s position as a world superpower.

Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years.  To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ron Drach October 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Great blog and interesting history. Thanks

2 Jim Chillers October 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Great historical refresher about the role the U.S. DEepartment played during the war and after at that time.

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