End of World War II was dawn of new era of military spending in Northwest

Sep 2, 2020, 9:52 AM | Updated: 10:56 am
World War II...
Signing of the Japanese surrender document aboard the U.S.S. "Missouri" in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945. Gen. Douglas MacArthur is shown broadcasting the ceremonies as Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed for the emperor Hirohito. (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

It was 75 years ago on Sept. 2, when General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender to end World War II in Tokyo Bay aboard the Battleship Missouri.

While World War II was officially over, it was also the dawn of an era of massive military spending in the Northwest thanks, in large part, to a trio of powerful Democratic lawmakers: Warren Magnuson, Henry M. Scoop Jackson, and Tom Foley, who brought home the defense funding, pork and otherwise.

So says Christopher P. Foss, who teaches history at WSU Vancouver and who authored a new book published by OSU Press called “Facing the World: Defense Spending and International Trade in the Pacific Northwest Since World War II.”

The surrender was a momentous occasion – marking the end of six years of global war, including nearly four years for the United States – and KIRO Radio carried much of it live on an otherwise quiet, late summer Saturday evening in Seattle 75 years ago.

After the surrender ceremony from Tokyo, the magic of radio took listeners to Washington, D.C., for a speech by the Commander-in-Chief. In his brief remarks, President Truman focused at one point on the role of wartime production in making the Allied victory possible:

This is a victory of more than arms alone. This is a victory of liberty over tyranny. From our war plants rolled the tanks and planes which blasted their way to the heart of our enemies; from our shipyards sprang the ships which bridged all the oceans of the world for our weapons and supplies; from our farms came the food and fiber for our armies and navies and for our Allies in all the corners of the earth; from our mines and factories came the raw materials and the finished products which gave us the equipment to overcome our enemies. But back of it all were the will and spirit and determination of a free people — who know what freedom is, and who know that it is worth whatever price they had to pay to preserve it.

The “price they had to pay” meant the wounded and the dead, of course, but it could also be applied to the massive and enthusiastic spending of tax dollars on military payroll and defense contracting that helped end the Great Depression, and helped rev up American manufacturing in support of the war effort.

In Washington state, manufacturers like Boeing, Paccar, Todd Shipyards, and dozens of smaller companies did hundreds of millions of dollars of wartime work as part of the all-out effort for victory. With a war on, there wasn’t much in the way of questioning the need for all those planes, tanks, and ships, as private business worked closely with the military to site plants, recruit workers, and focus on meeting ambitious production goals.

Once World War II was over, says Chris Foss, the military spending in Washington from the late 1940s to the 1990s might now seem like it was inevitable. But Foss says much of it was because of the political power of our Democratic lawmakers – and long stretches of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Over those decades, defense spending in Washington meant construction, expansion, staffing and maintenance of installations such as Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County (now combined as JBLM); Fairchild Air Force Base west of Spokane; the Bremerton Navy Yard and Trident sub base in Kitsap County; the Everett Navy base in Snohomish County; Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Island County, and other smaller facilities distributed around the state.

And defense spending, of course, also meant contracts with Boeing and other private businesses building weapons and other equipment for military use.

Foss says it’s no coincidence that as the seniority of two particular Washington state Democratic lawmakers – Warren Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson – grew in those early years of the Cold War, so, too, did military spending here in Washington.

“In 1945 when the war ends, Magnuson is in his first year in the Senate, so he has no seniority there. Scoop is in his fourth year in the house. So he has a little bit, but not a ton,” Foss said.

“Scoop finally gets to the Senate in 1953 and Magnuson finally chairs the Commerce Committee in 1955,” Foss continued. “Scoop doesn’t chair [the] Energy and Natural Resources [Committee] until 1961.”

The bottom line?

“Washington’s ability to get the pork, to really get more funding for military installations, tracks along really nicely with the growth and seniority of the two senators,” Foss said.

Foss points to the massive nuclear project at Hanford, which was built during World War II to refine the plutonium that was ultimately used in the first atomic bomb tested at Trinity, New Mexico, and the bomb detonated over Nagasaki.

Hanford grew during the first few decades of the Cold War, but even that growth wasn’t necessarily inevitable. Chris Foss says that in the 1960s, Hanford might have even been shut down, were it not for Scoop Jackson.

“Would Hanford have withered up and gone away?” Foss said. “There certainly is a possibility. There was a lot of pressure from within other quarters in Washington, D.C., to wind up Hanford and maybe focus on nuclear fuel production in other parts of the country.”

But community leaders in the cities around Hanford convinced Senator Jackson that the nuclear project was essential to their economic health, and Scoop came through. One drawback, Foss says, is that Hanford became a hotbed of toxic waste, with untold decades of work still ahead to clean it up.

And even though Senators Jackson and Magnuson were powerful, Foss says, they weren’t entirely unstoppable in their quest to fund projects in the Evergreen State. One major defeat for Jackson in particular was when Congress killed funding for Boeing’s SST – the supersonic transport – which sent this region into an economic tailspin 50 years ago.

“Scoop really wanted the SST badly to succeed,” Foss said. “And there’s a tape of him talking to Lyndon Johnson on one of the LBJ Presidential Tapes in 1967. Scoop [is] trying to get federal funding for the SST through Congress, and Scoop is very confident, but LBJ [can be heard on the tape] warning Scoop, ‘No, you don’t have the votes.’”

“That failure doesn’t seem to stick to him, though,” Foss said. “And I think it’s because there are so many other things that he does … and eventually Boeing does come back.”

One of those “many other things” was getting federal support for the 1974 Spokane World’s Fair, which Foss describes as a form of tangential Cold War pork. For this effort in the 509, Senator Jackson worked closely with Representative Tom Foley of Spokane – who Foss considers the third powerful Democratic lawmaker from Washington – to put the Inland Empire spectacle into Cold War context.

“Foley and Jackson said, ‘We want to have a legitimate World’s Fair. We’ve had one in Seattle, and 1962 was a spectacular success, not only for the region, but for the nation, in terms of our Cold War contest against the Soviet Union, really highlighting the good works of the United States [in] science and technology,’” Foss said, describing how the Washington lawmakers appealed to their colleagues in Congress for financial support of the 1974 fair.

Foss says Foley and Jackson sold the Spokane event as “an environmental world’s fair [that will] highlight the cleanliness of the Pacific Northwest,” which coincided with the nascent ecology movement of the early 1970s.

And Congress came through with $11.5 million for a federal pavilion at the Spokane World’s Fair, which was given to the city after the fair, and which remains a popular attraction in Riverfront Park.

The golden age of federal defense spending in Washington began to fade with the election of 1980. The Cold War wasn’t over, but the Senate was becoming more conservative. Support for defense projects here remained strong throughout the Reagan years, but the mood – and the cast of characters — was changing.

Senator Magnuson was defeated in a reelection bid by Republican former State Attorney General Slade Gorton as part of the Reagan landslide of 1980. Scoop Jackson passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in September 1983, and Republican former governor Dan Evans was appointed by Governor John Spellman to fill the open seat, and then won a special election for the remaining five years of the term.

By that autumn of 1983, Representative Tom Foley was the only remaining member of Foss’ power trio still in office, and his was still a rising star. Foley became Speaker of the House in 1989, and Foss says that in this role, Foley was key to preventing closure of Fairchild Air Force Base in 1993.

“Foley makes an impassioned plea along with [Senator] Slade Gorton [and Senator] Patty Murray … there’s a whole delegation from the Northwest that testifies before the Base Closing and Realignment Commission,” Foss said.

Fairchild survived, but Foley would not.

A year later – in the midterm elections of 1994 when Democrats lost the majority in the House – it was, ironically Chris Foss says, voters in the precincts around the base who rejected Foley by the biggest margins, sending Republican George Nethercutt to Congress in his place.

Meanwhile, defense spending is still a factor in Washington’s diversified economy. In a Department of Defense report for fiscal year 2017, Washington was ranked sixth among other states in defense spending with $15.2 billion. California was first with $49 billion; Wyoming was last with $393.6 million.

Freedom, it seems, is still worth whatever price we have to pay to preserve it.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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End of World War II was dawn of new era of military spending in Northwest