In the summer of 1939, during a brief moment of optimism between the Depression and a world war, Americans browsing the newsstands found a striking issue of Life magazine. The June 5 cover showed the Statue of Liberty against a deep blue sky and proclaimed a special issue on “America’s Future,” full of imaginings about where society was heading. The celebration of a nation recovering from economic crisis clearly appealed to my father, a mid-level civil servant in a New Deal agency, who not only bought a copy but saved and passed it on to me.
Revisiting these predictions today are useful, because President Trump’s vision of “Making America Great Again” involves reviving the very things that Life’s editors saw as aspirations and prospects for the future. They projected a nation that would be technologically advanced, prosperous, unified and self-contained. Today, these expectations reveal both the foundations for the “great prosperity” of the post-World War II generation and blind spots that leave us grappling with problems that were already apparent eight decades ago.
In Life’s United States of 1939, the wheels of industry and commerce were humming, forging a better, more prosperous America. Infrastructure and resource development were front and center, from the opening photo spread to the Camel cigarette ad on the back cover showing engineers building the All-American Canal from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley. The General Motors Futurama at the New York World’s Fair merited a seven-page spread with its promise of fast multi-lane freeways to connect the nation.
The magazine depicted opportunity abounding in the Pacific Northwest. The lead story showed readers how irrigated agriculture, the timber industry and Grand Coulee Dam (“The mightiest thing ever built by a man/To run the great factories and water the land,” Woodie Guthrie would soon sing) were spurring advancement. Other stories highlighted new materials and products like aluminum, nylon and television. The most telling image was Mrs. Minnie Howard Yandle of Yacolt, Wash., who had equipped her house with an electric washing machine, vacuum cleaner, iron, radio and lamps and was optimistically waiting for power to arrive from the Bonneville Dam.
Refreshing to modern eyes concerned about a fractured America, the issue was optimistic about developments throughout the nation. It extolled the glories of America’s expansion across the continent. Among the positive signs touted: a growing economy in Montana, progressive educational reform in Missouri and fine arts cultivation in Iowa. In an era when regional literature was flourishing and the Federal Writers Project was publishing state guides that highlighted local history and culture, coastal elites saw these states as partners in progress rather than backwaters or “flyover country.”
Life’s examples seemed to promise a future in which Americans — at least white Americans — shared common values and aspirations. It was a narrative that gained strength during World War II and reached its peak in the 1950s.
This interconnected sense of the United States helped explain the special edition’s boasts about the nation’s self sufficiency and uniqueness. A two-page graphic spread detailed the way that the country out-produced every other nation in coal, iron, cotton, petroleum, copper, electric power and corn, although second to the USSR in wheat. The text noted that the United States was “so basically different from the rest of the world’s nations that it can hardly be compared with them.”
From our current perspective, however, there were problems with this upbeat messaging. Missing was any awareness of the negative consequences of some of the developments touted. We know now that the Columbia River dams, for example, devastated salmon runs and native fisheries, while massive freeways disrupted wildlife corridors and destroyed city neighborhoods, even as they have proven wildly inadequate for our car-driven society.
The text that accompanied a photo shoot keyed to “The Grapes of Wrath” was also the only place to directly acknowledge the intractable problem of poverty in late 1930s America, by referencing Franklin Roosevelt’s challenge to help the one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. It would be two decades before sociologist Michael Harrington challenged the narrative of inclusive prosperity with “The Other America,” and the United States took additional steps toward greater equity with the War on Poverty (a project that remains far from complete).
Racial awareness was also missing. Among hundreds of white faces in the picture spreads is one single African American, a playwright among the artists, writers and painters at the University of Iowa’s School of Fine Arts. There are plenty of Native Americans in the double-page pictorial map of American expansion, but their images are largely confined to battles and wars — Tippecanoe, Little Big Horn, Seminole War — plus a single peaceful Native American in the Southwest (erroneously seated in front of a teepee, where a hogan or pueblo would be correct). The pictorial map depicting America in 1939 also showed a few Native Americans in teepees and two black laborers among its dozens upon dozens of vignette images.
This lack of awareness was a premonition of how the racial gaps that existed in 1939 would soon undermine the wartime facade of inclusiveness, from Japanese American incarceration to military segregation. It also presaged the racial exclusiveness that would animate a strand of our politics up to and including the current MAGA movement.
The editors also erred by failing to comprehend the potential benefits of the globalization that would underpin the prosperity of the post-war era. The issue had a whiff of the isolationist America First organization. The statistics extolling American production even came from a new book by Stuart Chase, “The New Western Front,” promoted as “a stirring plea for United States isolation.”
For all these flaws, Life’s editors did capture one of the core drivers of American success: the public sector. Public schools and public universities were already making American life better. So too were federal agencies generating electricity, improving crops and building more livable cities.
Today, despite their desire to resurrect the prosperity and culture of the era that Life saw coming, those clamoring to make America great again work to diminish the public sector. They’ve failed to learn the lesson evident in the Life feature: a strong public sector can help build widespread prosperity and success.
In fact, it’s not the champions of making America great again who best capture the hopeful features of Life’s vision. Instead, it’s those extolling programs like the Green New Deal, which adds social inclusiveness and environmental goals to the older vision of shared prosperity for all Americans. The result is a 21st-century vision that could bring Americans together and create a fairer, more just version of the society rhapsodized about in the special edition of Life.