In Committed to Victory: The Kentucky Homefront during World War II, Richard E. Holl argues that World War II transformed Kentucky’s economy, increased urbanization, confirmed political arrangements solidified during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and encouraged black Kentuckians to challenge the racial status quo. “All in all,” he stresses, “World War II propelled Kentucky along new historical pathways, leaving the state a fundamentally different place, but one that would not have to wait long before confronting fresh challenges” (p. 7). Indeed, Holl shows that these changes also brought reactionary backlashes, making certain that postwar Kentucky would see further social and cultural upheaval. First conceived as an answer to a gap in twentieth-century Kentucky historiography, Committed to Victory resonates with breadth, depth, and insight.
As Holl sees it, one of the biggest changes that World War II brought to Kentucky was increased industrial production for the war effort. This uptick was due to geography and politics. Holl argues that “Kentucky was well situated geographically to get war work. At the beginning of the conflict, the federal government required that defense plants be located at least two hundred miles from any coastline or international boundary” (p. 17). Louisville was an ideal [End Page 413] location for war production because the Falls City boasted land to build factories, labor to work in them, managers to oversee them, and a dense network of railways to transports materials in and out. Kentucky’s senators, A. B. “Happy” Chandler and Alben Barkley, mounted an intense lobbying campaign to make certain Louisville’s merits were appreciated by the Roosevelt administration.
Holl shows that Kentucky’s political lobbying and favorable geography paid off. Kentucky had nearly two hundred thousand people employed in war industries by 1944, with sixty thousand women doing their part as well. Almost 4 percent of Kentucky’s black population—over twelve thousand black men—found war work too. These developments necessarily challenged Kentucky’s gendered and racial status quo because before America’s entry in World War II, Kentucky’s women faced limited social and material possibilities, confined to domestic work, teaching, and secretarial employment. Black Kentuckians had struggled against seventy years of Jim Crow prejudice that locked them into cycles of agrarian work, economic dependence, and vicious racism. World War II altered both of these paradigms because the war industries needed to secure victory required more labor than white men alone could provide. Further, Americans deployed a rhetoric of universal freedom and the rights of mankind as opposed to Axis fascism, and these ideas carried an explosive potential for social unrest for a Kentucky society that was based on racial and gender hierarchy.
However, despite the expanding possibilities for women and African Americans, politics in the Bluegrass State did not change very much during World War II. Holl wryly points out that “apparently Kentuckians never entertained the possibility that partisan politics be suspended for the sake of unity during the fight” (p. 129). Instead, cronyism, corruption, and a cold, partisan eye for the main chance at the expense of one’s political enemies dictated how Kentucky’s politicians handled government contracts and expenditures. Thus, Kentucky’s war-time political culture differed little from the eras immediately preceding or succeeding World War II. [End Page 414]
Readers might wonder at the speed with which Kentuckians seemed ready to abandon the egalitarian possibilities of the war years. Were these social and cultural changes an aberration or as deeply felt as Holl’s research suggests? Also, how widespread can we say the war effort’s impact was if much of the war industry was centered in and around Louisville? Why were many white Kentuckians so willing to embrace a retreat on racial progress or gender equality? Finally, how did the war effort effect Kentucky’s religious communities and religious culture, if at all?
Those quibbles aside, Richard E. Holl’s Committed to Victory: The Kentucky Homefront during World War II is a good book. Holl shows that change came suddenly to Kentucky...