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World War II and the West

The year 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of America’s entry into World War II. Accordingly, the Bill Lane Center for the American West sponsored a series of programs during the 2016-2017 academic year, focusing on World War II’s impact on the American West. Programming culminated on May 3, 2017 with a keynote address by the New York Times columnist Timothy Egan and a two-day scholarly conference held May 4-5, 2017 on “World War II and the West it Wrought.” We intend to publish the conference proceedings.

Few episodes in United States history were more transformative than World War II, and in no region did it bring greater change than in the West. The war touched off a second and massive “westward movement” that made California the most populous state by the early 1960s and set the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest alike on paths to unprecedented growth. It ignited a quarter century boom that redefined the West as the nation’s most economically dynamic region and turned Silicon Valley and the Puget Sound region into the world’s innovation capitals. Post-war westerners, like other Americans in that era, strongly supported government spending for public-sector goods and services, conspicuously including the inter-state highway system that helped to end the West’s historic isolation and the public universities – the University of California system pre-eminent among them – that ushered millions of Americans into a newly affluent middle class. Post-war westerners also pioneered the explosive growth of suburbs, where a majority of all Americans lived by century’s end. Amidst widely shared prosperity, westerners also made significant strides toward greater racial and gender equality in the post-war decades, even as they struggled to come to grips with the environmental consequences of their region’s phenomenal development.

Increasingly, scholars are asking in what ways the war and post-war years  – in the West and in the nation at large – can be understood as a platform upon which future generations can continue to build. The 75th anniversary of America’s entry into World War II provides an excellent occasion to reflect upon this dramatic historical moment and especially the newly energized West that the war helped to shape. In the region most transfigured by the war, what changes proved most consequential? Most durable or most ephemeral? Most commendable or regrettable? Ultimately, how does the history of World War II and the West it wrought offer instruction about the past and future of the larger American republic of which it is a part?

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