Fellow Analyzes World War II-Era Congress

May 06, 2004

"Congress matters," says Wilson Center Fellow Nancy Beck Young, who is working on an historical account of the role of Congress during wartime.

After writing an award-winning biography on the late Rep. Wright Patman (a Texas congressman from 1929-1976), unanswered questions prompted Young to pursue her current research. Those questions surrounded a long-held myth that Congress during the World War II-era was weak and conciliatory. Young's research confirms the contrary. In fact, Congress developed and influenced wartime policy despite bitter political wrangling over economics, race and gender issues.

Historically, "We tend to focus on the role of the presidency," said Young, "yet lawmakers are closer to voters than the president."

At times, though, Congress did not bow to voter pressure. "Congress retained its New Deal hat into the 1940s even as [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] took his off," said Young, adding that Congress only eliminated programs it considered extraneous. Such New Deal policies as creating Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board, "ensured modernization in the post-war government and the economic miracle."

Young's book will be divided into three sections: economics of war, human rights (and wrongs), and planning for the post-war era. Combining these broad themes within one volume allows for comparison and a more complete picture of the times. She will merge economic themes such human rights failures as not fully integrating women and minorities into employment and military service, and describe how such failures shaped post-war politics.

The economics section will delve into a host of issues from taxation to labor strikes to rationing. Before World War II, the South and West were disadvantaged colonial economies exporting raw goods to factories in the Northeast and Midwest. During the war, the shrewd politics of California and Texas congressmen helped strengthen their states and regions. Texas Rep. Patman, for example, used his clout to get a steel plant and army depot for his otherwise rural district.

In the 1940s, as a rural-to-urban population shift was underway, powerful Southern congressmen were working on parity protection legislation to help farmers cope with price controls. Other lawmakers were busy debating military oversight and whether to outlaw defense plant strikes.

The section on human rights will examine race and gender politics, and the analysis will cut across race and gender lines. For example, the immigration chapter will compare the inadequate response to the Jewish refugees with the repeal of the 60-year-old ban on Chinese immigration. The failure to address the plight of Jews fleeing Europe left countless people at the mercy of the quota system while a lucky few used personal contacts to secure admission to the United States via private bills, but it is unclear how many of those bills passed. Currently, Young is tracking those bills, which also have shed light on how much Congress knew about the dire situation in Europe.

Compared with today, Young said, Congress a half-century ago was more polarized but also had more factions, thereby offering a wider variety of viewpoints.

When asked what lesson her historical research might hold for today's world, Young answered, "Be less afraid of partisanship. It can be productive when geared toward a healthy debate on policy differences."

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