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Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 321-338

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Experimental Social Policymaking During World War II: The United Service Organizations (USO) and American War-Community Services (AWCS) 1

Gretchen Knapp

Winning the war on the home front and overseas meant that citizens of different races, religions, and ethnic appellations needed to work together peacefully in the "arsenal of democracy." Prior to America's entrance into the war, community leaders recognized that selected social problems must be addressed in order to promote domestic harmony and boost urgently needed defense production in war communities. 2 Instead of viewing the war years as distracting community interest from social problems, social welfare organizations pressed localities to acknowledge and act to alleviate ongoing difficulties that presented themselves, sometimes in dramatic fashion, as serious obstacles to the war effort. Race riots in Harlem and Detroit, the "zoot-suit" struggles on the West Coast, "khaki-wacky" girls who chased after servicemen, the erosion of child labor laws, significant population shifts across the nation, and a record number of teenage dropouts highlighted the structural cracks in American society. Clear understanding of the expedient nature of wartime social work mobilized efforts to establish national and local strategies that would enable wartime programs to continue into the postwar era. 3

As a result, temporary power-sharing coalitions comprised of representatives from various interest groups developed policies and programs to resolve or ameliorate social problems arising from the war. This led to the creation of two experimental social policymaking organizations, one familiar; the other, all but unknown: the USO, or United Service Organizations in 1941 and American War-Community Services, Inc. (AWCS) in 1943. 4 Today, the "real" USO is often confused with its entertainment-oriented counterpart, USO-Camp Shows, which provided Bob Hope and other celebrities, music, theater, and sports demonstrations to servicemen in army [End Page 321] camps, naval stations, and hospitals. Originally an autonomous enterprise, USO-Camp Shows became affiliated with the USO only for the purposes of financing and administration because of governmental insistence, and its objectives were entirely different. 5

This less-well-known domestic USO was an experiment not only in social policymaking but also in church-state relations. To establish and administer the USO, national religious organizations received federal funding, violating the separation of church and state. 6 American War-Community Services, on the other hand, was a small but ambitious pilot program devised and utilized by Community Chests & Councils to expedite fund-raising and social change.

Both the USO and AWCS began as voluntary cooperative programs comprised of national social welfare agencies that offered their services to local communities targeted by the federal government. While the USO included six mainly religious social welfare agencies devoted to providing recreation for service personnel and defense workers, the AWCS brought together six mostly secular agencies to provide crisis management for emergency situations. 7 Nor were both joint operations completely alike: the USO was a glamorous, high-powered, short-term program furnished by imported leadership and funds, while the AWCS was a much less spectacular long-range program based on the local community's eventual assumption of responsibility for leadership and financing. 8

By the fall of 1940, representatives of five national religious social welfare organizations were meeting regularly to discuss their mission in the war. As participants in World War I's United War Work Drive, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), 9 the Salvation Army, and the National Catholic Community Services (NCCS) sought to plan a comprehensive program, jointly administered and financed in conjunction with the federal government. 10 The disturbing memory of haphazard, sporadic services provided to members of the armed services during World War I by independent agencies spurred the five organizations to cooperative action. The United War Work Drive of 1918 had been united only in terms of fund-raising. USO member agencies in 1940 expanded the terms of joint operation to include planning, programming, and training. The United...


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