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Administrative Histories of U.S. Civilian Agencies: World War II

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Introduction: Administrative Histories of World War II Civilian Agencies of the Federal Government

Introduction: Administrative Histories of World War II Civilian Agencies of the Federal Government

During the past three decades the historical perspective of the Second World War has been formed primarily by countless works on the military and diplomatic events of this period in history. Few studies have been made of the civilian agencies which were charged with the awesome tasks and responsibilities of managing a nation at total war.

The Administrative Histories of World War II Civilian Agencies of the Federal Government were originally produced under the Second World War History Program of the Federal Government. The histories were initially the work of the War Records Section of the Division of Administrative Management of the Bureau of the Budget. In March 1942 the program evolved into the Committee on Records of War Administration.

Members of the Committee were well-known historians, economists and political scientists. Among them were Guy Stanton Ford, editor of the American Historical Review and former president of the University of Minnesota; Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., past president of the American Historical Association and professor of history at Harvard University; Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the United States; Archibald MacLeish, Library of Congress; and George A. Graham, professor of politics at Princeton University.

Although thirty years have passed since the end of the Second World War, there is a striking element of timeliness in this material due to the current course of national and world events. While the causes are different we still contend with serious inflationary pressures, oil and fuel shortages and consequent discussions of rationing, dislocations in manufacturing and in the labor force, and the myriad of other problems affecting nearly every important activity in the nation.

The histories produced by the Committee detail the measures taken by civilian agencies to meet "the most stupendous set of problems in the management of public activities that the country has ever faced." Problems we must contend with in the contemporary world were multiplied a thousand-fold by the exigencies of war. The growth of war production and problems in price stabilization, transportation and shipping, manpower, rationing, federal housing and the allocation of raw materials demanded prompt coordination with scores of other wartime activities. In addition, the histories offer valuable insight into the development of agencies devoted expressly to the regulation of the country at war, including alien property and war assets, censorship, civilian defense, community war services, defense-related education, scientific research for the war effort, and public health during wartime.

The Research Publications (now Primary Source Microfilm, an imprint of the Gale Group) microfilm collection consists of histories of these governmental agencies, whose influence and authority over the civilian sector were unprecedented in American history. Many of the histories were produced only in "process" form or typescript, and were distributed sparingly, frequently only within their originating agencies. Some of the histories were actually published, but most of this material is long out of print.

Since the end of the war the histories have lain dormant in their various forms, and their usage has been limited by their obscurity. The histories were not generally or readily accessible to the scholar, and probably many historians were even unaware of their existence.

In assembling these 423 histories for the collection, Research Publications, Inc. (now Primary Source Microfilm, an imprint of the Gale Group) makes possible the rediscovery of this important record of the nations administrative response to the crisis of war. President Truman stressed the necessity for such a record:

"I would like to see soon after the war is over an objective account of how problems of administration were handled. Both failures and successes should be analyzed. The development of governmental administration can be greatly aided by such investigation.

This information will probably be most useful within the government, but a final report to the American people of wartime administration also seems highly appropriate. I hope that you will give particular attention to the ways in which our administrative experience during World War II can be turned to practical use in the future. Experience is a stern teacher; we must not forget the lessons so dearly bought."

Much of the important--and timely--material in this collection fell within the jurisdiction of not one but several agencies. Even when researching a narrow subject such as petroleum, the scholar will find, for example, that the U.S. Petroleum Administration for War histories, which range from a history still in typescript to printed histories several hundred pages each, provide just one of the sources of research material on the crisis management of petroleum. Also accessible to him are administrative histories dealing with the production, supply and allocation of petroleum compiled by the U.S. War Production Board, the U.S. Tariff Commission, and the Bureau of the Budget.