Here’s an amazing fact about the South: in 1940, two thirds of Southerners lived in small hamlets of less than 2,500 people. Fewer Southerners were employed in manufacturing than in 1910. By 1960, most Southerners lived in urban areas and worked in commerce or services. The root cause of this abrupt transformation was World War II and Cold War military spending.
The following excerpt comes from James C. Cobb’s The South and America Since World War II:
“The southern states also enjoyed a substantial boost from cold war military expansion in the region. Here again politically astute southern congressional perennials used their seniority and skill to transform the nation’s least democratic region into the arsenal of American democracy. No southern politician proved more adept at maximizing the local bang of the defense buck than Congressman L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, who used his position on the House Armed Services Committee to, as one journalist put it, “transmogrify Charleston into a microcosm of military industrial civilization.” For his district alone Rivers procured both air and naval bases, a missile maintenance center, a naval shipyard, a submarine training station, a naval hospital, a mine warfare center, a Coast Guard station, and the Sixth Naval District headquarters. Not surprisingly, defense contractors McDonnell-Douglas, Avco, General Electric, and Lockhead opened plants in Rivers’s district while he chaired the committee. Some guessed that as much as one-third of the income and half the employment of his constituents was defense related. Across the river in Georgia, Representative Carl Vinson worked with powerful Senator Richard B. Russell to bring in fifteen military installations and make the U.S. Defense Department the state’s largest employer.
Primarily because of the sheer number of military bases it boasted, the South led the nation in defense salary expenditures by the mid-1950s. The nondefense jobs generated by southern military installations fell primarily in the lower paying service sector, however. The region lagged behind California and other areas in the value of typical defense contracts, with a large portion of the South’s production contracts centering on such rudimentary items as food, textiles, tobacco, and coal rather than high technology, high-dollar necessities purchased from suppliers elsewhere in the nation. Even so, the military and civilian salaries paid by the federal government accounted by themselves for roughly one of every ten dollars of personal income in the South in 1955. Defense expenditures were primarily responsible for the fact that by 1960 the South provided only 12 percent of federal tax revenue but received 25 percent of all federal spending. The federal government accounted for more than 20 percent of income growth in Mississippi from 1952 to 1962 and for at least 10 percent or more of such growth in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.”
It wasn’t free-market capitalism that brought about the Sunbelt. It was an unprecedented level of state and federal intervention in the Southern economy. The federal government pumped capital into the South through New Deal, World War II and Cold War spending. During the Great Depression, Southern state and local governments began poaching industries from the North by repressing unions and essentially subsidizing the opening of factories here, which has continued down to the present day.
“Offered ostensibly as a means of assuring the speedy movement of troops across the national expanse, the Federal Highway Defense Act of 1956 triggered a profusion of interstate highways in the region. Atlanta and other cities that were located at the juncture of two or three of these superhighways stood to benefit enormously, of course. So, too, however did remote and formerly well-nigh inaccessible areas of the South. Now southbound manufacturers eager to escape the higher taxes and greater likelihood of unionization in large urban locations could fan out across a countryside brimming with eager, docile, fresh-off-the-farm workers, not to mention grateful local officials offering free land and buildings and promising minimal taxation and interference with their community’s new benefactors.”
It was the federal government that built much of the infrastructure here like the TVA that produced cheap electricity in the Upper South which spurred industrialization and above all else the interstates that funneled commerce into ballooning metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Dallas. This formula of low taxes, low regulation and state subsidies of industrialization combined with the highest possible levels of military spending is essentially a national development strategy.
The Southern national development strategy has worked too: the South has become wealthy and urban and has been closing the gap with the North. The problem is that all this new wealth, all these new cities, all these new highways has replicated in the South all the problems of the North. It made the South attractive to Third World immigrants who began pouring into the country after the Immigration Act of 1965. It made the South attractive to millions of Northern transplants who began moving here in a reversal of the traditional pattern of millions of Southerners moving to the North and West. The lack of an income tax and the air conditioner has pulled millions of Northern transplants to Florida.
The interstates fully integrated the South into the American mainstream. Down from the North came the branch plants of Northern corporations, the Northern managers who ran those plants, Northern workers who moved to the South in pursuit of jobs and a better climate, not to mention the mainstream American culture of fast food restaurants, strip malls, big box stores and cookie cutter suburbs that replaced organic communities. In the span of a generation, we built our big cities and moved into the metros and their suburbs to live our anonymous lives in pursuit of the American dream of shopping and individual self expression. It only cost us our identity, our culture, our communities and likely our future.
The South of the Great Depression went from being poor in terms of material well being, but rich in identity, culture, community, faith, spirit and cohesion to the South of the Sunbelt which is rich in material well being, but poor in identity, culture, community, faith, spirit and cohesion.