by Bernard K. Means
As today is officially Veteran’s Day, I thought I’d focus on how New Deal archaeology—and archaeologists—were affected by World War II. The impact of World War II on New Deal archeology was felt well before the war actually began—especially relative to American involvement. At the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) presidency, Congress was extremely isolationistic, having viewed America’s involvement in the Great War as misguided at best. Consequently, the legislation that originally authorized the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 prohibited the spending of any funds related to the military. Throughout the second half of the 1930s, FDR increasingly challenged these isolationistic tendencies and noted that conflicts in Asia and Europe would eventually embroil the U.S.—and threaten the freedom of Americans if they were not prepared.
As the 1930s closed, FDR began to direct WPA funds to military preparations and the National Youth Administration turned to job-training programs focused on American aviation mechanics. By the end of 1940, New Deal funds were increasingly tied up with preparing for the inevitable global conflict—meaning that fewer monies were available for archaeology. FDR proved prescient when the U.S. entered World War II following the horrific Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps not already involved with war preparations were closed or used for another war-related purpose. Some CCC camps were transformed into military training camps, while others were used during World War II to house conscientious objectors enrolled in the Civilian Public Service. In the latter case, the conscientious objectors effectively acted as a continuation of the CCC, performing similar tasks. Other CCC camps were eventually transformed into prisoner-of-war camps.
Of course, the work relief archaeologists themselves became directly involved in World War II. Some became soldiers in either Europe or Asia, and no small number lost their lives. Even those that returned to the U.S. did not necessarily return to archaeology—even if that had been their main focus of study during the Great Depression.
Additional details on the impact of World War II on New Deal archaeology is available soon in my chapter “’Alphabet Soup’ and American Archaeology” in Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America.