Farming In The 1940s

WWII Causes a Revolution in Farming

Everything changed on Dec. 7, 1941.

WWII bombingEverything changed on the American farm – and around the world for that matter – when America entered World War II. A European war that began in 1939 became a world war. Life for individuals all around the world changed. Even far from the fighting, in the middle of the North American continent at York, Nebraska, people knew that their lives and livelihoods had changed.

  • The war finally brought an end to the Great Depression. People were willing pay more in taxes and buy war bonds to support the war effort. Federal spending helped factories. There was greater demand for farm products, and American farmers shouldered the load of feeding the world.
  • Life at home became the “Home Front” where daily existence became part of the war effort. Basic commodities like sugar and gasoline were rationed to support the war. Military bases sprang up in rural areas.
  • The war caused a revolution in productivity on the farm and finally brought an end to the horse-drawn era of farming. More and more farm workers left for the cities or the Army, and a tractor became the only way to get things done on the farm.
  • The beginning of the war coincided with the end of the 1930s drought, but farmers remembered the dry years and more and more irrigation systems were built.
  • Finally, the war effort produced new technologies that after the war revolutionized agriculture as well as urban and rural life. New technology created an explosion in productivity as farmers could do much more work in fewer and fewer hours.

play me iconThe unprovoked attack was so tramatic to the nation that almost overnight people abandoned their traditional trend toward isolating themselves from “foreign wars.” War had come home. One measure of that shift in the nation is how popular culture responded. Newsreels and Hollywood movies took up the cause. Patriotic songs were instantly popular. Even blues artists like Dr. Clayton wrote remarkably astute political songs like “Pearl Harbor Blues.”

Everything changed again in 1945.
When the war ended, first in Europe in May and then in Japan in September, the world made a swift and sometimes painful transition to a peacetime economy. War industries tried to find civilian uses for the technologies they had developed. In the process they revolutionized agriculture. Service men and women returned home with new skills and knowledge. Social groups, like minorities and women, began demanding civil rights and equity. Everything changed once again.

Because life changed because of World War II, people who lived through it have vivid memories of when it started. On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor – a tiny speck in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean – became a household name all around the globe.


chenaultholthusJames Chenault (left) was a young man in California, and he remembers people running up and down the street yelling, “War! War!” His family was so afraid of the possibility that Japan would invade California that they made plans to return to Nebraska.

Kelly Holthus (right) was around eight years old when the news came, but he remembers it “just like it happened yesterday.” He knew it was “something big” when all the parents from his rural neighborhood gathered at the one-room school to talk about the events.

schmidtharryGordon Schmidt and John Steingard (left) remember that people knew immediately the country was at war and how it would be “open season on the Japs.” The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor brought out a strain of ugly racial hatred and distrust in the U.S.

Harry Hankel (right) was already in the Army and expecting to get out in two months. Wrong. But he knew that the news about Pearl Harbor meant he would remain in the Army for the duration of the war. Even though he had signed up one year, but “I was in for four years and seven months.”

geerytadaDon Geery (left) heard the news over their battery-powered radio. Rural electric lines had not reached their house yet. “My father had his ear down to that radio and was telling us what was going on,” Don says. “There was never any doubt in anybody’s mind that – what the United States and our allies had to do.”

Kaz Tada (right) was a second generation American of Japanese descent, and his life was changed by Pearl Harbor. Despite the fact that Kaz was an American citizen, the attack put him and his family under suspicion. The authorities “jumped right in there, and they confiscated our short-wave radios and cameras,” Kaz says. “And then the funds of the Isei [first generation Japanese-American immigrants] were frozen, almost immediately.” Kaz’ father owned a grocery store and not longer had access to his bank account. In addition, Kaz’ grandfather, who had been an army officer in Japan, was arrested by the FBI, shipped to Montana and eventually sent back to Japan.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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