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The United Service Organizations for National Defense, Inc. (USO) and the YWCA
Introduction: As the United States prepared to enter World War II, the general public and many leading social service agencies voiced the need for expanded social services in coordination with the U.S. military. In 1940, General George Marshall also called for social services for the military. The USO was founded in 1941 in response to a request from President Roosevelt to provide morale and recreation services to U.S. uniformed military personnel. Roosevelt was elected as its honorary chairman. Discussions among the military, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Salvation Army, the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the National Council of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of the United States (YMCA), and the National Catholic Community Service resulted in the establishment of the United Service Organizations for National Defense Inc. (USO) in New York City on February 4, 1941. In the following month, the National Traveler’s Aid Association joined the organization and, thus, these groups became the six primary member agencies of the USO.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt said he wanted “these private organizations to handle the on-leave recreation of the men in the armed forces.” According to historian Emily Yellin, “The government was to build the buildings and the USO was to raise private funds to carry out its main mission: boosting the morale of the military.” 1 After being formed in 1941, in response to World War II, “USO centers were established quickly… in churches, barns, railroad cars, museums, castles, beach clubs, and log cabins.2
During World War II the USO became the “home away from home” for service men and women. The USO club was a place to go for dances and social events, for movies and music, for a quiet place to talk or write a letter home, or for a free cup of coffee and an egg. The USO began a tradition of entertaining the troops that continues today. Involvement in the USO was one of the many ways in which the nation had come together to support the war effort, with nearly 1.5 million Americans having volunteered their services in some way. After it was disbanded in 1947, it was revived in 1950 for the Korean War.
The organization became particularly famous for its live performances called Camp Shows, through which the entertainment industry helped boost the morale of its servicemen and women. Hollywood in general was eager to show its patriotism, and many famous celebrities joined the ranks of USO entertainers. They entertained in military bases at home and overseas, sometimes placing their own lives in danger, by traveling or performing under hazardous conditions.
The war stimulated the growth of the USO, and by 1943 the USO had eighty-eight facilities abroad and approximately one hundred service centers in the United States. In March 1944, the USO reached its peak number of service centers with 3,035 clubs. That year, the USO began its hospital program in which artists sketched wounded patients and started the USO camp shows at Veterans Administration hospitals; it evolved into one of the USO’s most popular programs.
With the end of the war in 1945 the USO curtailed its operations. On December 31, 1947 all USO operations ceased and in January 1948 the USO dissolved and in February overseas operations ceased. However, this cessation proved to be short-lived and one year later President Harry Truman reinstated the USO, but by early 1950 the USO shut down again because it had trouble securing funding. With the Korean War looming, government defense officials, the National Social Welfare Assembly, the six USO member agencies, and the USO-affiliated but now independent Camp Shows, Inc. pushed to reestablish the USO permanently on March 27, 1951. The “new” or “second” USO joined the United Defense Fund, Inc. to help raise funds.
When the Korean War ended in 1953, this did not signal the demise of the USO as the end of World War II had. Instead the USO expanded in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, the USO strengthened their fund raising, public relations, and social services. With the military buildup in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, the USO began a new era. All USO facilities became racially integrated in 1963. In addition, an outside ad hoc survey committee evaluated USO operations in 1962. The committee, chaired by Dr. John A. Hannah, president of Michigan State University, presented its findings to the executive committee of the USO. In 1964, the USO adopted many recommendations for drastic USO curtailments, limiting USO service centers to only the largest U.S. military communities. Unlike the shrinking number of domestic service centers, USO services expanded in the 1960s in Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand. When the hostilities in Southeast Asia ended, the USO focused on helping returning soldiers adjust to postwar life and expanding domestic community services, including substance abuse and minority services programs.
YWCA Participation. As suggested above, the National Board of the YWCA was intimately involved with USO operations since the pre-World War II era. Before direct U.S. involvement in the war, the YWCA had supported its own National Defense Program, which distributed clothing and supplies to refugees in Europe and supported all Allied efforts short of war. From the beginning, the YWCA insisted that USO programs address women’s needs, not merely as an adjunct of men’s programs but as independent services for female war production workers. In March 1942, the National Board of the YWCA accorded “division” status to USO activities; it formed a USO Division Committee with subcommittees on personnel, finance, and counseling.
Generally regional and headquarters YWCA staff worked together in local USO clubs, attempting to avoid conflict by limiting staff division or hierarchy and by focusing on mutual concerns and goals. Moving beyond the traditional YWCA areas of emphasis (housing, food service, casework, employment, placement, and vocational training), the YWCA focused on race relations in YWCA service centers and in the larger service community. During the 1940s and 1950s, the YWCA opposed the USO’s policy of operating racially segregated clubs.
In 1947, when the USO officially ended operations, the YWCA and the other USO member agencies continued operating service centers and providing services to the military with USO funds. Generally there was no break in services between the “first” and “second” USO’s. In July 1948, the six member agencies (YWCA, YMCA, SA, JWB, NCCS, and NTAA) formed a reactivated Conference of Executives. At this time, the president of the National Board of the YWCA, Mrs. Arthur Forrest Anderson, informed all community YWCA’s of the reorganization of the “new” or “second” USO.
During the 1950s, the YWCA continued to operate service centers with the USO, providing services to people in the armed forces, their families, and workers in the defense industries. The YWCA’s specific areas of expertise included working with service women and junior volunteers. The YWCA recruited, trained, and used thousands of teenagers in USO clubs or in on-post programs and helped the U.S. military with women’s issues. Within local communities, spouses of service personnel looked to the YWCA for assistance. According to servicemen of the time, YWCA involvement in USO clubs gave clubs a “homelike, caring” atmosphere.
The USO expanded its overseas services during the 1960s, while reducing its domestic programs. During this time, local affiliates on occasion worked against the national organization as local leadership changed frequently and thus was at times unappreciative of the national organization. Local and national service organizations competed intensely for local community funds. In 1961 a struggle arose between the USO and its member agencies, which now included the original six members and the Camp Shows, Inc. At issue were the control of administrative operations and the balance between service programs and entertainment activities. The YWCA and other member agencies wanted to have more control over operations abroad and to reduce USO responsibility for entertainment shows. Most important, the YWCA and other member agencies wanted the USO to establish clear priorities. To accomplish this, the USO promoted the national ad hoc surveys, mentioned above. In the 1970s, YWCA and USO began to reduce their services overseas and again focused more on domestic services for returning military personnel.
1. Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II, Simon and Schuster (2005)
2. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Note: This history relies heavily on the essay titled, “United Service Organization, Inc. (USO),” in Peter Romanofsky’s Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions: Social Service Organizations , volume 2, 1978.)
Source: YWCA National Board/United Service Organization Records. Historical Note. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.