After the Deluge: The Aircraft Industry, the Cold War, and the Making of Rustbelt Politics

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael A. Brenes, Yale University
During World War II, Midwestern-based companies such as Ford, General Motors, and Curtiss-Wright supplied airplanes to build the “arsenal of democracy” that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned to defeat the Axis powers. Jobs in airplane production brought an abundance of good-paying, unionized jobs into the region during the war years, and an influx of unskilled labor into cities in Michigan and Ohio, much of which was African-American and female. But almost immediately after the war, aircraft production left the Midwest for the Sunbelt South. Unemployment and economic stagnation for workers and the region then followed after 1946.

This paper demonstrates that the military-industrial complex’s exodus from the Midwest was the catalyst for the economic tumult and byzantine politics of the electorate in what is now commonly called the “Rustbelt.” The deregulation of the airplane industry after 1945 meant that the military-industrial complex went south to avoid unions and profit from federal policies that encouraged capital flight for defense contractors. Moreover, the onset of the Cold War created a demand for high-tech, experimental weaponry to deter global communism—a project that did not require heavy manufacturing. Blue-collar defense jobs in the Rustbelt declined, and the workforce became whiter and pro-military in its composition. Midwestern aircraft workers then requested the federal government create more defense jobs, and criticized the government’s failure to do so with anti-statist rhetoric and politics. This paper thus argues that the airplane industry’s flight from the Midwest injected militarist tendencies among the Rustbelt electorate, along with contradictory and conflicting attitudes toward the federal government, an anti-elitist discourse, and an aversion toward racial and ethnic inclusion that continues to shape the region’s political culture to the present day.

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