Washington Goes to War

FDR signs War Declaration

In 1940, a sleepy Washington, D.C. tried very hard to forget that, in the rest of the developed world, there was a war going on. Washington, D.C. had been designed to be a non-political haven where the divergent views of the nation's population could be debated and molded into laws and policies. As the country struggled to determine its role and responsibilities in an increasingly violent world, life in Washington became a microcosm of the changing national character.

David Brinkley, an American journalist with a long history of covering the city that is the nation's capitol, takes a nostalgic look back at a part of American history not very often discussed. In his book, Washington Goes to War, Mr. Brinkley describes the rapidly evolving Washington, D.C. from a small town, known for its southern backwardness, into the major world power-center which would become as of 1945.


Opening Day

In 1939, Roosevelt's New Deal had done little to alleve the pains of the Great Depression, now entering its tenth year. The results had been, mostly, to increase the federal bureaucracy -- with a large portion being made up of political patrons of the Democratic Party. Mr. Brinkley portrays a city filled with American established citizens (some who could trace their roots to the earliest English settlers in the late 1600's) who prided themselves as the keepers of the nation's capitol. The resistance of this set to the arrival of the populist "New Dealers" was intense and at times hostile. The ultimate revenge came with the elaborate parties which were given throughout the war and where many of the world's most popular and influencial persons would circulate.

These were the end times for the old guard of Washington and Brinkley's great anecdotes sheds light upon the nostalgic affections of an overly affluent and removed group of people. The newcomers were simply overwhelming the old guards of Washington. By 1941, the city population was growing at a rate of 50,000 per year. (Chapter 5) Between the New Deal and military programs Washington was providing on of the country's first "Boom Town" environments. As news of the jobs spread, people came from all over the country to reap the benefits.

The influx of workers changed the District's demographic makeup. The city was becoming more urban, more liberal, and less "southern". Washington was quickly becoming a modern city with all of its modern problems:

Racial Tensions:

1939 Marion Anderson is not permited by the DAR to sing in concert. Mrs. Roosevelt arranges for her to give a public recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday -- 75,000 people attend. 1943, the Congress takes up a bill to repeal the poll tax which was set up by southern Democrats to keep Blacks out of the electoral process. The issue split the Democratic party and the City and Nation would witness ugly racist rhetoric on the floor of the Senate.

Housing Shortages:

As new people came to Washington in such large numbers, the ability to provide decent housing was nearly impossible. What little space was available went for extremely high prices and often for sub-standard conditions.


The nation's capitol was historically a slow, small town type of city. By 1941 the rising crime rate and homicides led the magazine Newsweek to label Washington, D.C. "the Murder Capitol of the Nation!" -- a label that will return to the District in the 1980's.

The Political Scene

FDR Before Congress

Mr. Brinkley gives numerous stories about the political environment in Washington. The practices of the Congress, long the center of political life in the Capitol, was being usurped by the President as war activity gave more power and authority to the Commander-in-Chief. The legislature had to take a backseat to the workings of the executive branch and the military and the reality of a loss of power was difficult to accept.


Senator Robert Taft of Ohio seems to have represented the sentiment of the Congress. Mr. Brinkley tells how President Roosevelt suggested that Congress might be more useful to the country if it adjurned and members returned home to help with civil defense matters. "I'll be goddamned if I'll bow to Roosevelt and stand on a street corner as an air raid warden with a tin hat, flashlight and a bucket of sand." Taft, the son of a former President and Supreme Court Justice, was insistant on the matter of continuing political discourse even in the face of external threat. He was recorded on the Senate floor stating, "Criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government." (p.202)

The Press:

David Brinkley is a veteran of the press corps. His entire life has been devoted to journalism. He is perhaps one of America's most trusted newspersons. His stories of press coverage of Washington during this period is vital to understanding the changing nature of American government. This is the period when the radio becomes a news medium. The days of the power publishers, such as Hearst and McCormick, were coming to an end. Their ability to be the source of the nation's news was being overtaken by the faster coverage provided by radio. The new president was beginning a new era of presidential information dissemination. FDR was the first president to give daily news conferences and allow radio microphones to carry the event directly to the people. He gave fireside chats which allowed FDR to go around the newspapers and bring his message directly to the people. But the closeness of the press to the White House which FDR created was the beginning of a marriage of convenience which would never end.

The Bureaucracy:

In 1941, the army alone grew from 7,000 civilian workers to 41,000 and took up 23 buildings in Washington. The government gave in and devoted $35 million to build the Pentagon in Arlington, VA; but even then the military required more space. Other parts of the government were equally stressed. The departments responsible for New Deal programs were taking up more space as well. These agencies fought one another over every available space, dollar and piece of equipment. At the head of these agencies, with acronyms too numerous to remember, were the infamous "Dollar-a-year" men FDR recruited from an elite pool of wealthy businessmen. As the bureaucracy grew the executive branch increased its power over the workings of the government. Mr. Brinkley's book seems to suggest this time as the beginning of big government and the Republican parties fight to eliminate it.

The evolution of Washington, D.C. is an interesting study in the growth of an urban area and the birth of a global superpower. The story of Washington, D.C. is the story of the United States coming of age in a world which would never be the same. "Washington Goes to War" is an accounting of how a sleepy backwater port on the Potomac River turned into a national and international capitol.


Washington DC, 1940
by Thomas McAvoy, from FDRL

FDR inauguration
1941, from FDRL

Washington DC, 1940
by Thomas McAvoy, from FDRL

view from Washington Monument
1930, from FDRL

FDR and King of England
June, 1939, from FDRL

view from Washington Monument
1930, from FDRL

written by Don DeAngelo at the University of San Diego

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