The Great Plains During World War II


When the war ended, many defense plants began canceling contracts and closed. Men and women soon returned from the military and sought jobs. Employees of various war-related state and federal agencies lost their jobs. City and town planners struggled to provide housing and city services as the men and women from the armed services returned home from the military. Many business men and women and farmers feared a post-war economic recession. Gasoline rationing abruptly ended but worn tires kept many drivers off the roads. Great Plains residents had felt discriminated against by the federal government in relation to gasoline rationing, and they believed that they had sacrificed more than others. Food rations also soon ended. Bank deposits and agricultural production had expanded during the war, and Great Plains residents had considerable disposable income to spend on a host of goods that they had been unable to purchase during the war because of rationing or unavailability. Everyone hoped the good times would continue with the peace. Only time would tell.

Table 1

Personal Income
Great Plains States

Total Income in Millions of Dollars / Per Capita Income in Dollars

1940 1948 1940 1948
Colorado 615 1,810 544 1,433
Kansas 756 2,523 423 1,333
North Dakota 218 813 340 1,401
South Dakota 231 916 360 1,497
Oklahoma 851 2,390 366 1,144
New Mexico 198 655 373 1,084
Wyoming 151 429 606 1,595
Montana 316 876 566 1,616
Nebraska 573 1,909 890 1,814

¹Texas is not included in this table because so much of the state is not part of the Great Plains, and most of the income from defense industries came from beyond the Plains.

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, pp. 242-45

During the war most of the workers for the defense industries came from the farms and small towns in the Great Plains. In may areas the population loss occurred quickly, with California an ever popular destination for men and women seeking high paying, steady jobs. The war also increased urbanization in the region, particularly in the aircraft manufacturing towns of Wichita, Oklahoma City, and Dallas. Still, when the war ended, the major federal contracts and funds remained in the Far West not the Great Plains. In the Great Plains, farming and agricultural services industries continued as the mainstay of the economy. Defense industry contracts largely disappeared and residents often confronted loss of income while they adjusted to a peacetime economy. Essentially, the Great Plains was an agricultural region when the war began and it remained so when peace returned. The war could not change the dictates of geography.

Table 2

[In Thousands]

1939 1945 Percent Change
Colorado 1,120 1,071 -4.3
Kansas 1,824 1,793 -1.6
Montana 555 446 -19.0
Nebraska 1,318 1,230 -6.6
New Mexico 523 515 -1.5
North Dakota 644 510 -20.0
Oklahoma 2,333 2,195 -5.9
South Dakota 645 539 -16.0
Wyoming 248 252 +1.5
Texas² 6,360 6,708 +5.4
California 6,785 9,073 +25.0

¹Excludes members of the armed forces

²Includes state population not in the Great Plains

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949), 31.

Often isolationist when the war began in 1939, the people of the Great Plains became staunch supporters of the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They embraced the wartime economy and welcomed high paying jobs. They dealt with social and economic change that proved disruptive to their lives, but few wanted to return to the economic conditions of the 1930s no matter whether they lived in the cities or on the farms.


[Money in Thousands]

1939 1947
Number of Workers Value Added By Manufacturer¹ Number of Workers Value Added By Manufacturer
Colorado 23,388 90,330 44,153 286,774
Kansas 30,935 117,391 59,363 461,061
Montana 8,802 38,828 13,606 92,258
Nebraska 18,416 68,139 37,338 260,658
New Mexico 3,219 8,640 6,349 53,486
North Dakota 2,605 10,984 3,823 29,461
South Dakota 5,421 19,619 8,062 51,398
Oklahoma 27,642 101,782 44,302 341,027
Wyoming 3,351 15,336 4,285 34,957
Texas² 125,115 448,523 242,014 1,727,464
California 271,290 1,122,545 530,283 3,994,981

¹Value of manufactured products less cost of materials

²Includes figures for region not in the Great Plains

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing office, 1949), 805.

For most residents of the Great Plains, World War II was an indelible, transforming moment. It would be their central reference point for the remainder of their lives. Those who came after them would see the war years as a defining social, cultural, and economic moment in the history of the Great Plains. They were correct. After the war, life in the region would never be the same as it had been prior to the German invasion of Poland and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.