The Coronavirus Crisis and Lessons from the New Deal

Pointing out that our fight against the deadly coronavirus is comparable to engaging in a war, Robert Leighninger and Harvey Smith assert in their article shared here that New Deal measures to combat the Great Depression equipped the United States for victory in World War II.

In today’s war, too, we face mass unemployment.   

When it is safe to work again, a Job Guarantee—inspired by the New Deal government job creation model—would, as we argue in “Economic Justice, Jobs, for All, and the Coronavirus Pandemic” (see the lead article of this issue), be the best policy to combat unemployment and speed recovery.  Leighninger and Smith discuss New Deal policies that contributed to victory in the 1940s, policies which, updated to fit 21st century conditions to include universal access to health care, would help us to achieve victory over this pandemic—and a much more egalitarian and healthy society.

Indeed, had we adopted a Job Guarantee featuring New-Deal-type government job creation programs, we would have been much better prepared for combat this 21st century world war.

How the New Deal Won World War II


We have often heard that it wasn’t the New Deal that ended the Great Depression; it was the war. We don’t think that’s true, but rather than resurrect that debate, we’d like to turn it on its head:  The war was won by the New Deal.

Understanding this is helpful to our current challenge. We can mount a comprehensive war against the varied menaces of pandemic, massive unemployment, and environmental collapse because we once did something just as formidable.

We want to frame this argument carefully. We will focus on programs initiated by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to put people to work, revitalize the economy, and end the Great Depression. Programs enacted during the New Deal that were designed specifically to prepare for war will be left out. This is a tricky line to walk. Roosevelt was aware quite early in his administration that a war was likely, and he may have been thinking of the possible benefits that New Deal programs would have for future preparation for war. But all of the early New Deal initiatives and many of the later ones were targeting the Depression. Furthermore, isolationist sentiment was strong enough that it would have been impossible to gain support for anything that might be tainted with militarism. The New Deal would not have been accepted unless it was totally about the Depression.

We also want to leave out anything of which it might be said: “Well, that would have happened anyway, regardless of who was in the White House, once it was apparent that war was coming.” Our argument is that the programs that re-employed the U.S. workforce and re-energized the economy also were vital in providing a solid foundation of experience, personnel, and infrastructure that allowed us to meet, early and effectively, the threat of the Axis Powers and the Japanese Empire. Such programs would not have been initiated by another administration. They would not have happened without the New Deal.


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was designed in 1933 to employ young men adrift in the jobless economy, to support their families, and to restore a ravaged landscape by planting trees, stopping soil erosion, fighting forest fires, building a system of state parks, and enhancing national parks and forests. The boys learned construction skills, learned to cooperate with other young men of diverse backgrounds, furthered their education, and made lasting contributions to our environment across the nation. The camps were supervised by U.S. Army Reserve officers, so the boys learned to follow orders and even perform close-order drill.  Many went on to the armed services even before the war. They were immediately identified by drill sergeants as potential leaders; an instant promotion to corporal was not unusual. Because the Reserve officers had to lead not just through fear of punishment but by inspiring confidence, they were, in the opinion of Gen. George C. Marshall, much better prepared for the range of recruits produced when the draft was imposed. Forty CCC “boys” would earn our highest military award, the Medal of Honor; half of them died in combat. Tossing the coin to begin the 1919 Super Bowl was Hershel “Woody” Williams, who served with the CCC in Montana and then cleared enemy pillboxes with a flamethrower on Iwo Jima.  Gen. Mark Clark said, “…the CCC became a potent factor in enabling us to win the war.”

The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 was created to stabilize the airline industry.  One aspect of this was the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). The Army had little interest and offered no support in getting the bill through the U.S. Congress. Money was borrowed from the National Youth Administration, an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration. By 1940, almost 10,000 pilots and 2,000 instructors had been trained.  The program was open to African Americans.  One of them was Robert J. Friend, who flew 142 missions with fellow Tuskegee Airmen of the Red Tail Squadron.  He was wingman for Benjamin O. Davis, who became the first black Air Force general.  Women were also enrolled, and over a thousand of them became Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASPs). They were vital to the transportation of warplanes from their point of manufacture into the hands of combat pilots.  One of them was Betty Jane Williams, who served 28 years in the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel. These women flew all types of aircraft, including the new B-29, which had a reputation for being hard to handle. The men got over their trepidation once they saw WASPs flying them. Another career Air Force officer (who was also a test pilot), Rear Adm. Edward Feightner, was trained by the CPTP and became an ace flying Hellcats in the Pacific Theater.

Secure communication is essential to combat operations. Language must be encoded. One code that was never cracked by our enemies was the Navajo language. The U.S. Marines used Navajo code talkers to coordinate our troops as they re-took Pacific islands from the Japanese.  Up until the New Deal, Navajo children were sent away to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their native language. The Public Works Administration built day schools on the Navajo reservation allowing students to stay home with their families. John Collier, the New Deal’s commissioner of Indian Affairs, stopped forced assimilation and championed Navajo culture. Thus, the young men who would become code talkers in the 1940s had almost a decade free from suppression of their language. They were able to accept the challenge of turning their language into an unbreakable code. Major Gen. Howard Conner asserted that without the code talkers the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.


The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to provide grants and loans for public construction projects that would put people back to work and restart the economy. Much of this work would be undertaken by cities and states building the backbone of our cultural and physical infrastructureschools, hospitals, courthouses, bridges, libraries and other kinds of public amenities. At the beginning of the New Deal those municipal bodies took some time to prepare their proposals. In the meantime, the PWA turned to cabinet departments that already had projects that needed funds. One was the Navy Dept. The PWA provided funding for two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, 20 destroyers, and four submarines. One carrier, the USS Enterprise, and a heavy cruiser, the USS Vincennes, escorted the USS Hornet as it launched the first counter-strike after Pearl Harbor, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo. The Enterprise helped stop the Japanese invasion of New Guinea at the Battle of the Coral Sea and, along with the carrier USS Yorktown, was essential in winning the Battle of Midway. This engagement is regarded by both Americans and Japanese as the turning point in the Pacific War.  The other New Deal vessels played important roles in support of the Guadalcanal campaign, the island-hopping reconquest of the Pacific, the liberation of the Philippines, and final assault on the Japanese homeland.

Airports are essential in the development of military power. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built 350 landing fields and improved many others, extending runways, adding lighting, and building terminals and hangers. Wold-Chamberlain Field, now Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, got three large concrete runways, which enabled it to be the site of the re-fitting of the B-25 Mitchell bombers that conducted the Doolittle Raid. The same field provided training for the Waco gliders used in the D- Day Invasion.  Nearby Holman Field, built entirely by the WPA, re-fitted B-24 Liberator bombers with radar. The PWA was also active in airport construction. They expanded Barksdale Field in Louisiana into a major Army Air Corps base. New Deal infrastructure helped keep soldiers alive. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 supported the construction of four regional experimental laboratories. The British, who had invented penicillin, did not have the facilities for making it available for use by combat medics.  They turned to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which developed the process in their Peoria, Ill., experimental lab.  This probably saved thousands of lives.

One of the biggest investments made by the New Deal in the U.S. economy was in the development of hydroelectric power. Massive dams, built by the PWA and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), provided water and electricity to agricultural, industrial, and research facilities all over the country. They also controlled flooding and improved navigation. Assessing this impact is difficult, but it was undeniably huge. Hoover Dam, called Boulder Dam until 1947, together with Parker Dam, Imperial Dam, the Colorado River Aqueduct (constructed earlier), and the All-American Canal brought water to Los Angeles and turned the Imperial Valley into the “Winter Garden of America.” The Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River provided similar benefits to the Pacific Northwest. The eventual implications for national defense are immense, but two examples will suffice for a beginning. The aluminum industry flourished with the introduction of hydropower, and it is estimated that the electricity from the Grand Coulee dam made the aluminum for about one-third of the planes build during WWII. The atom bomb that ended the war was made possible because of New Deal hydroelectric projects. Oak Ridge, Tenn., needed an enormous amount of electricity, which it got from the TVA, to enrich uranium. The water from the Columbia River dams cooled the nuclear reactors that produced plutonium at Hanford, Wash.


Beyond personnel and infrastructure, the many agencies and organizations spawned by the New Deal gave thousands of people the experience and skills that could be immediately transferred to war activities. Henry Kaiser, Warren Bechtel, and Bechtel’s son Stephen, who collectively had a huge impact on American ship-building, learned how to manage large construction as part of the six companies that built Boulder Dam.  It required working directly with the federal government, cooperating with other contractors, and managing projects the sheer size of which were a new phenomenon in U.S. industry. William Knudsen, who headed General Motors and was tapped by Roosevelt to head war production, had extensive experience dealing with the New Deal from the beginning of the National Recovery Act. When war arrived and industry needed to respond immediately, these years of experience gave the massive mobilization needed to create the “arsenal of democracy,” a giant assist.

Defense projects like Oak Ridge and defense industries around the country needed housing for workers. The Lanham Act of 1940 built it. But this operation rested on years of experience building housing provided by the PWA’s Housing Division, the Resettlement Administration and the United States Housing Administration. The private sector’s lack of experience in this area was displayed by the miserable conditions for workers and their families in places like Henry Ford’s B-26 bomber plant at Willow Run outside Detroit.

Artistic experience was useful to the war effort too. The WPA’s Federal Art Project included thousands of graphic artists who moved immediately to create images promoting enlistment, safety, and security. Soon-to-be famous Abstract Expressionist painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack designed window displays for war training programs. The photographic division of the Farm Security Administration, which used arresting images captured by famous artists like Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn to dramatize the miseries of the Depression, was easily transformed into the Office of War Information


These are all very specific assets that enhanced preparation for war but sprang from programs not intended for that purpose but rather to defeat the Great Depression. We can look beyond them to the general effects of the anti-Depression programs that restored the economy and strengthened the health, safety, and level of education of the U.S. population. When the war came, the United States would have mobilized to defend itself. All of these things might have happened in time. But how many years would it have taken to achieve what the New Deal accomplished in the five years between 1933 and 1938?  By 1938, the New Deal was not only well on the way to ending the Depression, it had already laid the groundwork for the defeat of the Axis Powers and Imperial Japan. The New Deal won World War II. Knowing that, why shouldn’t we be able to devise a comprehensive Green New Deal that reshapes our national policies to confront the war we now face on three fronts: health, employment, and the environment? We have nothing to fear but lack of will.

New Deal scholar Robert Leighninger is a National Jobs for All Network board member. Harvey Smith is chair of the board of the National New Deal Preservation Association and author of Berkeley and the New Deal (Arcadia, 2014).

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