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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

America’s Arsenal of democracy                       Angela Fu


Kevin Starr was born on September 3, 1940. He served in the U.S. Army in West Germany during the 1960s and attended the University of San Francisco and Harvard University. Starr was California State Librarian from 1994 to 2004 and then received a National Humanities Medal in 2006. He is currently a professor at the University of Southern California but has taught or lectured at numerous universities throughout California.



World War II changed the United States as a whole, pulling the nation out of the Great Depression and turning it into a world power, but the war had an especially great impact on the state of California, which Kevin Starr makes a case for in Embattled Dreams, California in War and Peace 1940 – 1950. An influx of displaced Okies, Japanese, and other minorities altered California’s social structure in the 1930s, destabilizing its political system in the 1940s and pushing the state towards the right of the political spectrum. Mobilizing for war, the formerly agricultural California industrialized to accommodate its new defense industry. The existing film industry in Hollywood created anti-Nazi propaganda and abandoned its isolationist message. The new California was a product of the war and “a direct creation of the national will,” but at the same time it helped shape the war and the postwar climate.1

Starr begins his analysis in 1940, when isolationism was still strong in California, and people partied and had fun as a way to ignore ugly realities. While the Depression was by no means over, Californians enjoyed new luxuries and immersed themselves in escapist radio programs and movies, loath to recognize signs of escalation such as the Selective Service Act, the first peacetime draft. Ambivalent towards politics, they accepted Franklin D. Roosevelt as president but turned away from their Democratic governor Culbert Olson, perhaps as a way of “resisting Roosevelt’s interventionism.” 2 They were by no means ignorant of their danger, however, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the majority of the population reacted with fear and instant paranoia of a mainland invasion. Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War led to the Associated Anti-Japanese Leagues, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement, and the segregation of Japanese children in Californian schools in the early twentieth century, decades before internment. California’s blatant racism had been brewing for decades and erupted when Japanese Americans had finally established themselves as normal, hardworking Americans who were an important economic force.

After Californians accepted the necessity of war, they became major contributors to the war effort. Californian Major General George Patton trained soldiers for combat in North Africa at the Desert Training Center in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. The Navy and Marines established their presence in San Diego, Long Beach, and San Francisco, and numerous training centers, bases, and ports of embarkation shuttled servicemen to war in the Pacific. Due to the young age of many soldiers, military life inevitably joined with college life, and soldiers in the Bay Area were able to attend co-ed dances with students from UC Berkeley or find other entertainment in lively San Francisco. For all the partying, servicemen realized that they might not return from war, and this led to the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943, where sailors attacked young Mexican American men, perhaps out of jealously of the self-expression that men free from military service could indulge in. The Mexican government, an ally to the U.S., instantly protested, and Eleanor Roosevelt compared the “race riot against Mexicans” to the “riots against blacks in Detroit,” but strangely enough, no one was hurt in the Zoot Suit Riots which had a carnival-like atmostphere.3 After the removal of Japanese Americans along the Pacific Coast to inland internment camps by Executive Order 9102, Californians who often linked whiteness to loyalty naturally targeted Hispanics, but they also discriminated against blacks who moved for employment in the defense industries. Ironically, discrimination occurred to a lesser extent within the military, and Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans were both highly decorated ethnic groups, greatly honored for their service to a nation that rejected them. With so many men overseas, defense industries turned to women for labor out of necessity, providing conveniences such as day-cares and cafeterias and introducing ergonomics to adapt machinery to women’s physical limits. As many young women moved to the Coast hoping for a shot at Hollywood, aviation became the most glamorous defense industry, highlighted by the fact that Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of Saint Louis was built in San Diego. Before the war ended, developments already pointed at a prosperous postwar environment, and Los Angeles began meeting the housing shortage with middle-class dwellings. The American dream of a car and a home in the suburbs seemed to become a reality in California, now industrialized and independent of the East Coast.

Starr makes constant reference to Hollywood, and he devotes chapter six to the role of stars and the film industry in the war. Bob Hope became Hollywood’s main spokesman for the war, and Bette Davis organized the Hollywood Canteen where servicemen could meet actors and actresses. Although the rich and famous tried to throw themselves one hundred percent behind the war effort, the public became disenchanted with propaganda films by 1944, including Hollywood Canteen where stars condescended to mingle with soldiers, and resented the war of privilege where actors and producers automatically received safe officer positions. In total 26,000 Californians died in the war, but hundreds of thousands of veterans settled in California, including those who fell in love with the freewheeling atmosphere of the hospitable Bay Area. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, gave health care, home loans, unemployment insurance, education, and more to veterans so that in 1946, more than half of the students at USC were veterans, and 43% at UCLA in 1947 were as well.4 Many veterans settled comfortably in the suburbs, buying simple massed-produced houses, but behind the veil of contentment, people were still uneasy about the rise in youth delinquency due to the absence of parents and the rise of organized crime. One Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia after a dark film by Raymond Chandler, was found mutilated in LA in 1947, just one of the many murders that the public became immune to. Starr uses her case in chapter eight to emphasize the anonymity and cruelty of life in the big cities, where mobsters became respected figures and intellectuals lamented the fakeness and grimness of life.

Representative of the contradictions in California, three-term governor Earl Warren was a family man who showed off his photogenic Kennedy-like family, but at the same time he was a hardened prosecutor and crime fighter. Warren was a professed Republican, but due to the practice of cross-filing where a candidate can enter both party primaries regardless of his own political beliefs, in a way he was a unified Party of One. Using mass media to widen his campaigns, he reached individuals in a nonpartisan way, attracting minorities and unions, imitating Roosevelt’s New Deal, and creating his own brand of progressivism. In chapter ten, Starr discusses conservative conservatives involved in the anti-Communist crusade. The House Un-American Activities Committee attacked Hollywood for its Communist affiliations, and the Tenney Committee led by Senator John Tenney accused the UC system of being too sympathetic to Communism. Richard Nixon of Southern California brought down the “pink lady” Helen Gahagan Douglas. The Communist Party in California was very open and produced optimistic literature anticipating the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but the state as a whole veered sharply to the right in light of the Cold War, though not one of the seven hundred individuals blacklisted by Tenney was so much as indicted because he carelessly named prominent Californians and made unreasonable accusations. 5 Starr concludes the eleventh and final chapter on a hopeful note by mentioning Warren again, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the most liberal Justices in history, Warren presided over Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, causing Republican Eisenhower to regret the appointment. However, Warren helped reverse the illogical hysteria in California and the nation that accompanied the end of World War II which he at one time had contributed to.

Though he often appears to digress, Starr’s tangents actually relate closely to his thesis that not only was California changed by the war, it also shaped the war and people’s perception of the war. Starr analyzes California in relation to the world and doesn’t isolate events from their time period in an effort to show cause-and-effect relationships. He mentions California’s effects on foreign policy, such as the embarrassment the state brought on the nation by its racism and its role in escalating the war, claiming that “the White California crusade had poisoned the well between Japan and the United States” and perhaps led to Pearl Harbor. 6 Listing important figures from California such as Patton, Hearst, Nixon, and Warren and many others associated with Hollywood, Starr backs up his claim that the Golden State’s influence on the entire nation was proportional to its great size. Ultimately, he shows how California reflected the American dream despite some of its less memorable aspects.

Throughout the book, Starr makes it clear that he is a New Left historian, concerned with racism, women’s rights, and the repressiveness of anti-Communist sentiment. Born 1940 in San Francisco, Starr was California State Librarian and is currently Professor of History at USC, partially explaining his preoccupation with developments in colleges. He served as a lieutenant in West Germany around the time of the Vietnam War and has authored six books in his series, Americans and the California Dream, dealing with California in different time periods from 1850 to 1950. With clear knowledge of Californian history, he often makes reference to events outside the time range of World War II that still contribute to his narrative. Very sympathetic to the plight of minorities, Starr attempts to be impartial but does evaluate some events from his personal point of view, calling the deportation of Japanese Americans “one of the most egregious violations of civil rights in American history.” 7 He mildly censures HUAC and government reactions to mass hysteria, sharing the disillusionment of most Americans today.

Embattled Dreams received relatively favorable reviews from critics including Benjamin Schwarz. Schwarz notes that Starr “covers such disparate subjects” and “stresses continuities, rather than abrupt change.” 8 He congratulates Starr’s understanding of The Folks and his emphasis on Earl Warren, but he feels that the absence of any mention of Billy Graham’s influence on religion in California is inexcusable. Eric Schine delivers a glowing review emphasizing Starr’s summary of the social revolution in California. Though he feels that “Starr sometimes overindulges” with detailed anecdotes, “such brief lapses are a small price to pay” since Starr more than adequately analyzes California’s role in the American experience. 9 Though each reviewer finds a small flaw in the book, both feel that it is a worthwhile read that accurately sums up Californian influence during World War II.

Starr is quite the master at blowing up a small detail so that it represents an entire aspect of Californian culture. Each of his chapters takes its name from an anecdote; chapter nine “Honey Bear,” for example, is the nickname of Warren’s youngest daughter and as a chapter name refers to Warren’s use of his family in the media as “the very emblem and spirit of California.” 10 Although such connections may be a bit of a stretch, the chapter titles reflect the content and anecdotes in those chapters and show how Starr can build an argument from the most insignificant of events. As Schine notices, these little stories sometimes become too long and beside the point, but the use of cultural references and descriptions of individuals lend credibility to Starr’s thesis and add a dash of color to a history book, though several biographies could have been made more concise. Starr could have made greater reference to World War II and put less emphasis on Hollywood, but as the title suggests, he analyzes the entire decade and looks at history as an ongoing process, where to ignore one point of view is to lose focus of the subject.

Starr’s emphasis is the pervasive influence of California on the rest of the nation, and he makes short shrift of the East Coast’s effect on the West, only saying that the war made California industrialized and independent, implying that agricultural California had depended on the East for manufactured goods. The only ways the East has an impact of California, according to Starr, is through the national government in Washington, D.C. Franklin Roosevelt issued several Executive Orders for Japanese internment and fair employment practices, and in 1950 the California National Guard of ten thousand men was “called to active duty and nationalized”  for “the global conflict with Communism.” 11 HUAC also affected California in its persecution of stars such as the Hollywood Ten and the pressure it placed on the UC Regents to create a loyalty oath for its faculty. The migration of Okies and blacks to California from the East and Midwest for work in the defense industries changed the social and economic structure prior to World War II. In a way, the East thus made California distinctive from the rest of the country by creating a fluid society of vagrants, and the return of veterans increased the population and worsened the housing and transportation crises which still exist today. Before the war, Californians would have been content staying in agriculture, but industrialization and the social revolution that accompanied it changed people’s aspirations and expectations.

As the mainland state most vulnerable to Japanese attack, California served as the largest homeland military base for the U.S. In February 1942 “Commander [Kozo] Nishino and his submarine were capable of…the shelling, strafing, and torpedoing of [the] American city” Santa Barbara.12 California was certainly in the most danger, and its large population of Japanese Americans heightened anti-Japanese and generally xenophobic sentiment that affected foreign policy and hurt the reputation of the United States in the eyes of its allies. The Sunshine State produced Nixon, one of the leaders in the anti-Communist movement, but at the same time it was a favorite target of HUAC. Physically protecting the nation by building aircrafts, ships, and weapons and training soldiers, California also provided a morale boost by being the nation’s propaganda center. No other state had such a great part in determining national culture and the outcome of the war, and no other state so perfectly embodied the American dream.

Events in the East had some effect on the West, but ultimately lifestyle changes in California created disproportionate changes for the nation as a whole. World War II was perhaps “an intensification of prior developments rather than a beginning”: the Great Depression brought the Okies to California and the war merely led to their assimilation, Californians generally already hated the Japanese as inassimilable economic competitors and the war was an excuse to remove a longtime enemy. 13 The defense industry modernized California and altered the nature of its economy and its relationship with the East, and the people it attracted disrupted the more liberal political institutions, allowing the rise of zealous opponents to Communism just as Governor Warren was introducing socialist policies. Hollywood came to be a channel of expression for Americans and a representative for the war. The war changed California beyond recognition, but one role it could not change was that of the final destination of Manifest Destiny, the promised land where Americans had the best chance of finding the perfect, idyllic life.


1. Starr, Kevin. Embattled Dreams, California in War and Peace 1940 – 1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ix.

2. Starr, Kevin. 24.

3. Starr, Kevin. 111.

4. Starr, Kevin. 191.

5. Starr, Kevin. 307

6. Starr, Kevin. 37.

7. Starr, Kevin. 37.

8. Schwarz, Benjamin. “California Transformed.” Atlantic Monthly May 2002. 01 June 2008

< http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200205/schwarz>.

9. Schine, Eric. “When California Came of Age.” BusinessWeek 13 May 2002. 01 June 2008


10. Starr, Kevin. 241.

11. Starr, Kevin. 308-309.

12. Starr, Kevin. 35.

13. Starr, Kevin. vii.