When California Came of Age

By Eric Schine


California in War and Peace, 1940-1950

By Kevin Starr

Oxford University Press -- 386pp -- $37.50

From the moment in 1848 when prospectors struck gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California has held a special place in the American psyche: a dreamscape for winter-weary Easterners, an Eden of sunshine, orange groves, and palm trees. But more than anything else, California has always been a destination, the end of the road for Westward migration--where a visionary or a drifter could create a vast fortune or remake a broken life. And yet, for all its allure, California has often failed to deliver the good life to those who poured in. Instead, many have found despair in the rootlessness and isolation of tawdry cities and ticky-tacky suburbs that seem to spring up overnight.

Exploring that enigmatic blend of dreams and hardscrabble reality has been Kevin Starr's lifework in his brilliant and epic social and cultural history of the state. It has been nearly 30 years since Starr published Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, his study of California's regional identity as it emerged from the Gold Rush. In this sixth volume, Embattled Dreams, California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, Starr, who is the state librarian and also a professor of history at the University of Southern California, tackles an equally rich subject. He recounts how California was transformed by the sweeping events of World War II and the early days of the Cold War.

Starr's interest is never just regional but encompasses the role of the Golden State in the broader American experience. For California wasn't just changed by the events of the 1940s. It played a huge part in influencing the outcome of those events. Before the war, the state--even more than the rest of the country--was isolated from the conflicts and turmoil across the seas. Californians, Starr writes, "drifted through 1940 as in a haze of distraction," focused on their favorite radio game shows, big band dance halls, and the pursuit of outdoor living.

If Pearl Harbor was a harsh wake-up call for the country, drawing the U.S. into war, it was a time of mass hysteria for California. Many in the state believed their cities would be attacked next. Citizens, gripped with anxieties that seem eerily familiar in the wake of September 11, were quick to spot Japanese war planes where none existed. Search beams lit up the night in San Francisco. Anti-aircraft artillery guarding Los Angeles blasted the empty sky.

Far more difficult to fathom is the rounding up of California's Japanese-American population. Some 110,000 men, women, and children were packed off to spend the war years behind barbed wire in remote internment camps. Businesses were destroyed, property confiscated, and families torn apart. Indeed, long before Pearl Harbor, California's antipathy toward Japan had hardened into a palpable racism and paranoia. State laws were enacted to restrict Japanese land ownership, and a U.S. Senator from California warned that intermarriage between Japanese and whites would result in a "mongrel and degenerate population." Starr believes that California's anti-Japanese crusade so inflamed Tokyo that it contributed to Japan's decision to attack.

The war also galvanized the state in good ways. Hollywood did its bit with Frank Capra's Why We Fight documentaries. Bob Hope rallied the boys abroad, as did Marlene Dietrich, who once nearly sparked a riot among sex-starved soldiers. Back home, California's massive mobilization moved the state, formerly a manufacturing backwater, into the vanguard of American industry. Today's aerospace industry was born as Lockheed, Northrop, and Douglas Aircraft churned out tens of thousands of planes a year. Henry J. Kaiser and others performed similar feats in shipbuilding.

Starr takes us inside humming factories to witness a social revolution, as more men and women worked side by side. At first, weapons makers were nervous, insisting women wear baggy denim outfits and warning them not to mingle. That hopeless strategy soon gave way to morale-boosting dances and modeling jobs--creating a launchpad for Douglas Aircraft worker Norma Jean Baker, later Marilyn Monroe.

The industry also provided large-scale employment for African Americans, who flocked to the state. Along with the jobs often came subsidized housing, free medical care, and meals served up in cafeterias seating 2,000 workers at a time. Writes Starr: "For a few brief years in shipbuilding and aviation,...California showed forth the possibilities of an industrial culture keyed to worker creativity, productivity and self-esteem."

Tireless enthusiasm is one of Starr's great assets. He fills a vast canvas with graceful writing, providing a dash of biography or a discussion of a popular book or movie here, a treatment of architectural trends there. Sexual mores, famous murder cases, racial tensions, class divisions, and Hollywood gossip--Starr puts it all to use. Yet, with his voracious appetite, Starr sometimes overindulges. Do we really need to know all about Governor Earl Warren's father's struggles as a boy in Minnesota?

Still, such brief lapses are a small price to pay in exchange for a journey into Kevin Starr's California. He winds up with a frightening account of Cold War politics and how Richard Nixon and others rode the Red Scare to prominence, even as they destroyed careers and lives in the process.

Starr has plenty of great material ahead of him. One can imagine how he'll go to town on Ronald Reagan, Disneyland, the Beach Boys, the Summer of Love, Silicon Valley, Mike Milken, and O.J. Simpson. Bring it on, Kevin Starr.

Associate Editor Schine lived in California from 1988 to 1997

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