Diane M. T. North. California at War: The State and the People during World War I. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 496 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2646-5.
Reviewed by Eileen Wallis (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona)
Published on H-California (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Khal Schneider
Diane M. T. North’s California at War: The State and the People during World War I fills an important gap in the existing historiography of California and of World War I. North argues that understanding the regional impact of the war helps contextualize the origins of the United States’ twenty-first-century security state. California’s rapid growth and ethnic and racial diversity in the early twentieth century, North writes, makes it particularly fertile ground for exploring these issues. The war effort in California built on the Progressive reform tradition already established in the state, and particularly on the state’s existing networks of activists and reformers.
Part 1 tells the stories of California men who served in the war and of six California women who went overseas to serve in a range of different capacities. North is frank about the limits of surviving primary sources. The individuals she covers are mainly white and college-educated. She is nonetheless able to create an interesting profile of Californians who served their country during this transformational global conflict.
Part 2 is the heart of the book and ties directly into North’s interest in the security state. That development was, she argues, in part rooted in the close relationship that developed out of necessity between the federal government and the state government in this era. “Washington and California, in conjunction with local communities,” North writes, “worked together to promote economic development and redirect production to meet wartime needs” (p. 147). Scholarship on the transformative impact of World War II on California is already well developed. This book ably demonstrates how World War I also affected every segment of the economy, from fishing to manufacturing. The World War I economic boom had a dark side, however. It increased the cost of living at a time when most Californians, particularly working-class ones, were already struggling to get by. It also further accelerated the corporate and agricultural consolidation that had been underway in the state since the late nineteenth century. Chapter 6 examines the state during the influenza pandemic. Civilians largely ignored state officials’ attempts to limit public assembly and end the spread of misinformation about influenza. California’s efforts to halt the progress of the disease thus failed, temporarily hamstringing the war effort.
Perhaps the most valuable contribution of North’s study is her examination of the wide range of voluntary civilian organizations that sprang up across the state. Every Californian not serving abroad, it seems, wanted to contribute to the war effort. Civil defense Home Guard branches appeared, including one in Los Angeles provided by the Famous Players-Lasky studio and director Cecil B. DeMille. Civilian volunteer units could also be quite intrusive into the lives of their fellow Californians. Progressive-era organizations devoted to the Americanization of immigrants, for example, redoubled their efforts during the war. California’s branches of the American Protective League (APL) proved particularly destructive. Made up of volunteers who carried out domestic spying with the blessing of the US Department of Justice, the APL targeted everyone from enemy aliens to suspected saboteurs through the “corrosive power of rumor and hearsay” (p. 235). By the end of the war, the Los Angeles branch of the APL alone claimed to have conducted more than 15,000 investigations (p. 234). As “a hybrid, private-public association, [the American Protective League] represented a transitional stage in the development of the national security state” (p. 246).
California also experienced waves of vigilantism, particularly against residents of German descent. Community schools forbade the teaching of the German language. Even the University of California was not immune. Faculty, staff, and students were required to take loyalty oaths and a number of faculty perceived as “disloyal” lost their jobs. Political and law enforcement attacks on Socialists and trade unionists, and on the International Workers of the World (IWW) in particular, accelerated. In the overheated atmosphere of the wartime home front, California authorities at all levels proved quick to push civil liberties and due process aside in favor of criminal syndicalism laws. Nor did the end of World War I end such conflicts. Indeed, the immediate postwar era in California was marked both by economic setbacks as the economy slumped and by continued racial and ethnic hostility. A minority of concerned Californians responded by founding both the Northern and Southern California branches of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the early 1920s.
In California at War, North has constructed an in-depth study of this pivotal period in California history. The book expands our regional understanding of America during World War I and deepens our understanding of the social, economic, and political impacts of war.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-california.
Eileen Wallis. Review of North, Diane M. T., California at War: The State and the People during World War I.
H-California, H-Net Reviews.
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