When we think of the Second World War in the United States, images of booming war industries and factories come to mind. The national narrative goes that as Americans went abroad to put down fascism, the need for weapons of war drove an economic boom that pulled the US from the grips of the Great Depression.
This is one of the many topics covered in historian Tracy Campbell’s 2020 book, The Year of Peril: America in 1942. In the book, the author highlights how this pervasive story of World War II’s impact on the home front economy misses the mark.
As an example, Campbell turns to the situation facing those living in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania in the early months of 1942. We’ve already written about the January 1942 closing of the Williamstown Colliery in our hometown HERE. Campbell takes a wider look at the economic woes facing Schuylkill and Northumberland county mining communities in the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Not all Americans were thriving in the war economy. Some regions were in as dire shape as they had been in the depths of the Depression. In the Pennsylvania counties of Northumberland and Schuylkill, out-of-work coal miners appeared before the Federal Anthracite Investigating Committee to describe what had befallen “the forgotten people of America.”
The region’s anthracite coal production had decreased by half since the Depression, and whereas 160,000 miners had once worked in the mines, by 1942 that number was fewer than 90,000.
Tax receipts had dwindled, hundreds of homes were foreclosed, and some teachers had gone eight months without being paid. In Mahanoy City, residents described how they were losing their battle against bankruptcy and were close to “obliteration.”
Public school systems were breaking down in Northumberland County as teachers prepared to strike for back wages, and a local minister, the Rev. Joseph J. Petrovitz, declared that “communism was feeding lavishly upon the widespread discontent.”
Two suggestions came from the hearings: the government should bring war industries to the area, and it should curtail its use of oil in favor of coal. “We are not asking for money for not mining coal,” said a local banker. “We are asking for an opportunity to work.”
In this passage, we also see the main thesis that Campbell supports throughout the book: that the story we tell ourselves about how the war united the nation is largely wrong. The same divides that exist in our society in the 21st century faced Americans in the 1940s. And by reckoning with these realities, that there wasn’t some mythical time in our past when everything was hunky-dory, we might recognize the ways that Americans acted together during that “year of peril” to accomplish difficult objectives and set a course toward winning the largest and deadliest conflict in human history.
Featured Image: Miners and soldiers together at a colliery in the Coal Region in October 1942. This was part of a campaign in late 1942 to mobilize the Coal Region to support the war effort. – Library of Congress