Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity

Review: Gilford on Archibald

Katherine Archibald. Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity. With new introduction by Eric Arnesen and Alex Lichtenstein. Originally published by University of California Press, 1947. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. lxxxii + 244 pp. Photographs by Dorothea Lange, bibliographical references, index. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07386-1.

Reviewed for H-Maritime by Stephen Gilford, Independent Scholar

Rosie Revisited

In the midst of World War II, twenty-six-year old Katherine Archibald, a recent PhD graduate of the University of California's department of social institutions, left her ivory tower to work in the Moore Shipyards in San Francisco. Wartime Shipyard is a memoir of that two year period of her life. Enriched by her ethnographic approach and female perspective, she describes a deeply cynical workforce, distrustful of their unions, their bosses, and the political leadership of the country. Wartime Shipyard is a disturbing alternative view to the widely held belief that Pearl Harbor welded America's workforce into a monolithic and smoothly functioning industrial machine lubricated by the enthusiastic and often selfless patriotism of the workers on the home front. Archibald describes her years as a shipbuilder as a kind of pilgrimage by an academic liberal, who "for the first time was brought actually into contact with the working masses of America, to whom I had long since given my theoretical sympathies" (p. 5). What she learned surprised her: "Where I had confidently expected unity of purpose and activity, I found only antagonism and turmoil" (p. 6). Instead of finding a unified worker class, she found divisiveness.

A thoughtful essay by Eric Arnesen and Alex Lichtenstein, written sixty years after the original publication of the work, forms the introduction to this edition of Wartime Shipyard and provides a valuable context for the specifics of Archibald's personal experience. This introduction emphasizes how government and industry valued a sense of "we're all in this together" among home front workers. Although this is the rosy, or Rosie, view that has imprinted itself in the public mind, it was definitely not what Archibald saw in the workforce of which she was a part. Her view is corroborated by Arnesen and Lichtenstein in a quote from California historian Kevin Starr (Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1946 [2002]) that sums up the essence of Archibald's book: "'By 1943, the United States was at war with itself as well as with the Axis powers as the mobilization of American society for war was bringing into close contact disparate groups of Americans who feared, distrusted, even hated each other'" (p. lv).