By Sarah Shonyo
Once again in the 1940s, the world was engulfed in a catastrophic war, and many of those who fought it and worked in the factories during those years are still with us, hailed as the "greatest generation."
Tens of thousands of Minnesotans contributed to the war effort, overseas and at home. The state’s farms and factories went to work full-tilt, bringing a definite end to the Depression era of the ‘30s. Previously unknown companies suddenly were termed "defense industries" and retooled their product lines to turn out everything from ammunition to ships. Fort Snelling played host to newly drafted recruits — 300,000 in all — after the Selective Service Act was passed in 1940. Recruits were given a physical exam and the Army General Qualification Test to determine which branch they would serve.
Women at home joined the labor force as well as the military, in one of the great transformations of American social life.
The Second World War eventually claimed the lives of 6,255 Minnesotans, and for all the jobs and payrolls created by the war effort, it was a time of great tragedy and anxiety for the state.
Minnesota played key role
Less than a year into a new decade, Minnesotans received a reality check regarding the state’s infamous weather. The Armistice Day holiday, Nov. 11, 1940, was unseasonably mild; duck hunters were out in droves on account of the warm weather. A few hours later, weather conditions took a turn for the worse and Minnesota was buried underneath one of the worst weather disasters of the 20th century. By Nov. 12, what’s now known as the Armistice Day blizzard claimed 49 Minnesotan lives and 150 lives nation-wide.
After the storm, the U.S. Weather Bureau responded to criticism of its lack of foresight, eventually resulting an upgrade for the Twin Cities station.
A year later, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was drawn into its next and greatest challenge. Minnesota had many key industries that became important parts of the war effort; plants in 14 southern Minnesota communities, for example, processed locally grown hemp for use in heavy-duty rope for the Army and Navy. Other companies underwent more drastic changes. A refrigerator firm produced doors for large ships, an artificial limb company made parachute folding tools, and a hearing-aid company made airplane signaling devices.
Honeywell and Cargill both grew into major multinational companies in part because of wartime contracts. Defense contracts brought $1.6 billion to the state, ranking 18th of 48 in the nation.
Even Mayo Clinic offered its research services to the U.S. government for a nominal fee of $1 per year during the war. Huge advances in aviation medicine were made through this research, including the development of the anti-blackout suit, or "G" suit.
‘Capital of anti semitism’
While Minnesota’s economy was improving, its openness to other cultures apparently was not. Minneapolis gained a reputation as a center of anti semitism a journalist described it as "the capital of anti semitism in the United States" in 1946. Jews were excluded from organizations such as the Minneapolis Automobile Association and the Minneapolis Athletic Club. Jewish physicians had trouble finding residency placements, which led to the development of Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Jewish Council was founded in 1939 to address anti semitism, but it wasn’t until the election of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey in 1945 that a high-ranking city official set out to eliminate anti semitism in the state. Humphrey appointed a Mayor’s Council on Human Relations that introduced ordinances to encourage civil rights and religious equality in Minneapolis. Soon, Minnesota’s religious community leaders became involved. Ministers, rabbis and community officers, for example, combined efforts to prevent anti semitic leader Gerald L.K. Smith from using city-owned halls to spread his message of intolerance.
Rise of DFL and Humphrey
Early in Humphrey’s political career, while still a professor of political science at Macalester College, he was an instrumental force behind the 1944 political merger of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the Democratic Party.
"Farmer-Labor leaders were skeptical, if not outright hostile," said Humphrey in his book, "The Education of a Public Man." "They said (the merger) had been tried before and it was just a dream that couldn’t be accomplished. I was both naïve and determined. A fusion was necessary if the liberals were to win in Minnesota…"
Humphrey closed the 1940s on a powerful note. His famous address at the 1948 Democratic National Convention secured his place as a champion of civil rights. That same year, Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate, further legitimizing his pro-civil rights goals and setting the scene for more progressive action in the 1950s.
Sarah Shonyo is a Rochester freelance writer.