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Wisconsin in the Mid-20th Century

The automobile, electric appliances and other new technology expanded business opportunities during the 1920s. To fuel that growth, many companies borrowed money from banks. Throughout the 1920s factory production and stock prices both continued to rise as more and more people bought new goods and a share in the profits being made from them. But on October 29, 1929, many more investors tried to sell stock than tried to buy new shares. Stock prices tumbled far below what investors had paid and, within hours, people who owned great wealth on paper were unable to pay back their loans. Many tried to sell stock to raise cash, which further lowered prices; in only 90 days the stock market lost 40 percent of its value and $26 billion of wealth disappeared.

Sidebar: Edwin Witte

Often referred to as the "father of the Social Security Act," University of Wisconsin economist Edwin Witte (1887-1960) developed the original plan for Social Security while serving on President Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security in 1934. Read more...

Social Security Administration

By 1930 many businesses lacked the funds to continue manufacturing goods and paying workers. Employees were laid off, which left them unable to buy things or repay loans. Banks began to owe more money than they had; when this leaked out, depositors rushed to withdraw their cash and, in 1932 and 1933, banks collapsed by the thousands. By the mid-1930s the nation contained millions of unemployed workers, parents unable to feed their children, retirees with savings wiped out, senior citizens with no means of support, and businesses bankrupted or paralyzed. In four short years, America had gone from a society bursting with optimistic growth to one mired in despondent poverty.

In Wisconsin, factories closed, wages dropped and unemployment swelled. Milwaukee was especially hard hit: between 1929 and 1933 the number of people with jobs fell by 75 percent, with 20 percent receiving direct welfare payments from the county. Wisconsin's small black community was especially devastated: nearly half of black workers were still unemployed in 1940, compared to only 13 percent of whites. Farmers suffered a dramatic decline in income as prices fell when, adding insult to injury, a severe drought settled onto the Midwest and further crippled Wisconsin agriculture.

Wisconsin Progressive leaders tried to help. Under Governor Philip La Follette, son of Robert La Follette, the Legislature enacted the country's first unemployment compensation law in 1932 and approved public works projects such as a forestry program in northern Wisconsin. During La Follette's second and third terms (1935-1939), he promoted a program of social and economic legislation that came to be known as Wisconsin's "Little New Deal." La Follette's program established state agencies that responded to particular needs in Wisconsin, including the Wisconsin Development Authority, which provided cheaper power, heat, and light to citizens.

On the federal level, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed University of Wisconsin economists Arthur Altmeyer and Edwin Witte to draft a plan to care for the unemployed, the elderly and disabled, and others who could not work. They created the Social Security program we know today. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), designed to simultaneously reduce unemployment and preserve natural resources, employed 92,000 young men in Wisconsin to plant the forests and build the bridges, beaches and trails we still enjoy in our state parks. New Deal programs for farmers were less effective, however. When the Agricultural Adjustment Act tried to raise prices by asking farmers to destroy crops to reduce supply, small farmers saw little benefit. In the spring of 1933 dairymen in the Fox River Valley went on strike, withholding milk, closing down cheese factories and barricading roads in hopes of raising prices.

Roosevelt's success on the national level helped to temporarily discredit the Republican Party and led Wisconsin Progressives, particularly Governor La Follette and his brother, Senator Robert La Follette, Jr., to organize a separate Progressive Party in 1934. They called for an improved conservation program, the distribution of milk as a public utility, the initiative and referendum on the national level, and a popular referendum on war — the last, a vestige of Progressive opposition to World War I. Both La Follettes ran under the slogan "Run with the La Follettes and win" and win they did, because when the votes were counted, the Progressives controlled the state Legislature and sent seven men to Congress. Governor Phil La Follette's attempt to launch a National Progressive Party in 1938 ended in failure and his defeat to Republican, Julius P. Heil, who systematically dismantled the state agencies created under La Follette's "Little New Deal." Senator La Follette disbanded the Progressive Party in 1946, rejoining the Republicans, and tried without success to keep the Senate seat he had held since his father's death in 1925. The demise of the Progressive Party and the defeat of both La Follettes marked the end of the La Follette era in Wisconsin.

The suffering caused by the Depression led to intense social conflict during the 1930s. Across the political spectrum, from communists on the left to fascists on the right, ideologues thought they understood who was to blame and what should be done. Factory workers, faced with falling wages and rising layoffs, organized more tightly; in Milwaukee, strikes increased sevenfold during 1933-34. When Kohler Company employees tried to organize a union, the company refused to bargain, leading to a strike and violence that left two people dead and 47 wounded on July 27, 1934. Although government efforts relieved some of the suffering, only U.S. entry into World War II finally brought the economy back to health.

This time there was little opposition to war because Nazi victories and the threat of fascism justified U.S. participation to nearly all Wisconsin residents. Defense spending quickly produced contracts for local businesses, which received orders worth $4.6 billion during the war. Workers were badly needed, and wages and prices rose. Farmers, who had intentionally slowed production a few years earlier, now increased it to supply dairy products, vegetables, eggs and meat to the military. To meet the military demand, farmers desperately needed workers and brought in thousands of field hands from Mexico. More than 13,000 German prisoners of war were also used in the fields during 1944-45. Manitowoc, Sturgeon Bay and Superior turned out submarines and other ships; the Badger Ordinance Works near Baraboo quickly grew into one of the largest ammunition manufacturers in the world. To produce all these goods, Wisconsin women staffed assembly lines and factory floors in place of men who had gone to the battlefield. Before the war, Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company had employed only 144 women (3 percent of its workers); by the end of the war women constituted nearly 25 percent of its workforce. Women workers encountered problems never faced by the men they replaced, including childcare and lower wages for the same work.

During the war roughly 320,000 Wisconsin soldiers served in the armed forces, many receiving basic training at Camp McCoy in Monroe County. Most were draftees who served in units with men from around the nation. More than 8,000 died, and another 13,000 were wounded in combat. Approximately 9,000 Wisconsin women served in the military, usually as nurses but also as parachute riggers, cryptographers, weather observers and pilots. On the home front, daily shortages of food, gasoline and other essentials were part of everyone's life.

Sidebar: Dickey Chapelle

Photojournalist Dickey Chapelle (1919-1965) became one of the first female war correspondents, covering World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. Read more...

WHI 11541

When the war ended, two unrelated developments altered the state's culture dramatically. First, a vocal anti-communist movement led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) undermined the state's progressive and socialist traditions. Secondly, tens of thousands of African Americans, including many veterans who had lived outside the segregated South for the first time during the war, moved to Wisconsin.

In the late 1940s, as Europe divided into communist and capitalist camps, many Americans grew nervous. Because communism placed tight restrictions on personal liberty and required government ownership of business, it threatened the American ideals of personal liberty and free enterprise. Communist expansion in Eastern Europe and Korea fueled Americans' anxiety that their way of life was under attack. Senator McCarthy made headlines when he announced in 1950 that 205 communists were working in the State Department, and he began a public campaign to eliminate the supposed communist infiltration of government.

Easily re-elected in 1952, McCarthy was chosen chair of a Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee. He expanded his mandate to expose communists and their sympathizers wherever they might be found in American life. His subcommittee interrogated more than 500 people when merely being accused of having been a communist or "fellow traveler" was enough to ruin a career. Although McCarthy and his staff often refused to reveal their sources of information, many witnesses, fearful of being named communist sympathizers themselves, joined in the Red Scare hysteria. Eventually, TV commentator Edward R. Murrow successfully exposed McCarthy's tactics and publicly denounced his actions; in December 1954 the Senate officially censured him for "conduct unbecoming a senator." By then, however, most citizens had rejected the political beliefs that had been mainstream in Wisconsin a generation earlier, and were committed to fighting leftists from Southeast Asia to Latin America.

The Democratic Party emerged from the Second World War to become a player in Wisconsin politics for the first time in the 20th century. It was founded largely by former Progressive Party leaders and the New Deal Democrats who engineered victories in local elections throughout the 1950s, challenging the state's long Republican majority. When Democrat William Proxmire won a special 1957 election to fill the seat of Senator McCarthy, it signaled a change in Wisconsin politics that reflected the increasing political power of the state's urban populations. The election of Democrat Gaylord Nelson as governor in 1958 and then Senator in 1962 confirmed that the party had achieved statewide support, buoyed by organized labor and dissatisfaction with Republican farm policies. In 1965 Democrats gained a majority in the state Assembly for only the second time since the 1930s.

In the two decades following World War II, the first large migration of black citizens to Wisconsin occurred. Between 1940 and 1960 the state's African-American population multiplied from 12,000 to 75,000 as people migrated from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Although black farmers had lived in rural Wisconsin for a century, these new residents were mainly concentrated in a few urban areas: in 1960 nearly 90 percent lived in Milwaukee, Beloit, Madison, Racine or Kenosha.

During and after the war, the demand for labor and the efforts of the Milwaukee Urban League opened thousands of industrial jobs to these new black residents. Although those jobs allowed some African Americans to join the property-owning middle class, discrimination confined most of them within narrow bounds, especially in Milwaukee. In 1946, for example, 90 percent of neighborhoods platted in the city since 1910 — nearly the entire housing market — legally prohibited the sale of property to African Americans. These provisions created such deeply segregated neighborhoods, schools and services that Milwaukee grew into one of America's most segregated cities.

Next Section: Later 20th-Century Wisconsin

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