Soldiers of the Nation, Chapter 5, Excerpt


Education, Industrialization, and Decolonization

The Battlefields of World War II

After two years, the War Department has given Puerto Rican Americans the same opportunities as any other American, to enter the United States Army and fight for the nation as well as to obtain such benefits as could certainly be of advantage to the underpaid, inadequately educated Puerto Rican, who has little opportunity to improve himself. Puerto Ricans, it is stated, will now be able to enter the army and have their lots improved learning trades that will not enable them to help win victory, but will afford them a means to a better livelihood after the war, thus benefiting themselves and raising the standards of their communities and of Puerto Rico.

—Editorial, Puerto Rico World Journal

With the end of the Second World War in sight, U.S. congressmen discussing a bill to make the office of the governor of Puerto Rico subject to election could not help but wonder what impact this measure would have on helping to modernize and democratize the island. Puerto Rican and continental Americans residing on the island testified before Congress that through their willingness to support and participate in the war effort, the Puerto Ricans, especially the tens of thousands who joined the U.S. military, had shown they could be trusted to carry out both tasks.2 Congressmen were notably worried about the possibility that the returning soldiers might cause unrest on the island if reemployment opportunities were not readily available. Those testifying on the matter were quick to stress the need to create economic opportunities, but they also pointed out that political development was necessary and ultimately linked to the returning Puerto Rican soldiers and the peaceful decolonization of the island.3

Echoing the island’s press, Elmer Ellsworth, a continental American and insular senator, stated: “The GI Bill will help them [the Puerto Rican veterans] in the creation of a better Puerto Rico.”4 That better Puerto Rico, however, had to offer more than economic opportunities. A congressman asked: “Will the [1944 governor] bill alleviate tensions in Puerto Rico and ease the comeback of Puerto Rican soldiers?” Jesús T. Piñero, a leader of the Popular Democratic Party, promptly answered: “That is the urgency of the bill, so the boys feel that some steps have been taken in the right direction.”5

World War II was a catalyst for socioeconomic and political change in Puerto Rico. With the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to transfer the island from the War Department to the Interior Department on March 1934, no major changes to Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the metropolis had occurred since 1917, when Congress imposed U.S. citizenship on the Puerto Ricans and created an elective insular legislature through the Jones Act.6 War yet again highlighted the strategic importance of the island and provided for faster negotiation between the metropolis and the colony. The years preceding the U.S. entrance into World War II were marked by economic distress and political instability in Puerto Rico. In fact, a shooting war between the Nacionalistas and the militarized Puerto Rican police briefly threatened to become a full military affair. By 1939, however, the colonial administration had gained the upper hand over the Nacionalistas. Puerto Rico did not become the dreaded “Ireland of the Caribbean.”7 Still, the political violence that reigned in Puerto Rico in the 1930s forced the federal government to take a closer look at the island’s socioeconomic and political situation. The winds of war, even before the juggernaut of the German and Japanese militaries became apparent and the United States slowly started to ready itself for war, made continental politicians more open to finding solutions to the island’s plight and to avoiding a repetition of the 1930s. Thus, war brought the promise of political and economic advancement by rekindling Puerto Rico’s strategic value. Once more the Puerto Ricans were called to arms and responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. Different projects of decolonization and modernization, which included the revitalization of the economy and the Puerto Ricans’ regeneration through military service, rested on the roles these soldiers were about to play.

Politicians and opinion makers sought to advance projects through military collaboration and participation. The United States first tried to secure stability and the loyalty of the Puerto Ricans by bringing measures of relief via federal projects and then by allowing their mass entry into the military. The idea of Americanization and modernization through military service and public education made a strong comeback as war engulfed Europe. Concurrently, the United States became more inclined to grant a higher degree of self-government to Puerto Rico, since it would serve to support FDR’s narrative of a war fought for freedom while also serving to quench political unrest on the island.

Federal plans, however, had to compete with those of local politicians. Aware of Puerto Rico’s military and diplomatic relevance, Luis Muñoz Marín, leading the Popular Democratic Party, followed a strategy that supported the war effort, linked the Allies’ narratives of a war fought for the preservation of democracy and freedom to the Populares’ own programs, and made the socioeconomic restructuring of the island a priority while using the participation of Puerto Rican soldiers in the war and the island’s strategic position as leverage to extract political concessions. Historian Jorge Rodríguez Beruff has recently discussed how U.S. military strategy dominated White House policy-making toward the island even before the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Moreover, he has shown that Muñoz Marín supported FDR’s domestic and foreign policies and equated them to the Populares’ reformist agenda.8 Further, as the war was coming to an end, Muñoz Marín and the Populares tried to secure veterans benefits so these men and women could attempt to change the dire socioeconomic condition of the island. Muñoz Marín’s strategy was threefold: supporting the war effort and avoiding the status issue to regain Washington’s trust; using the participation of Puerto Rican soldiers in the war and the island’s strategic position to barter political concessions; and using the soldiers’ benefits and training to advance the socioeconomic restructuration of the island.

Betting on the returning soldiers to lead the march to a modern industrial Puerto Rico and as a key to further the decolonization project was but the logical extension of the role played by the military during the war. Historian José L. Bolívar Fresneda has demonstrated that during the period 1939–48 instead of state or national capitalism—as most of the historiography on the period argues—a military economy dominated the island and served as a transitional phase between agrarian and industrial Puerto Rico. He has shown that military expenditures on the island (in particular funds assigned to the construction of military installations) and repatriated rum excise taxes saved Muñoz Marín and the Populares during the critical years of 1942–44 and were responsible for the creation of the infrastructure needed to industrialize Puerto Rico in the postwar years. It also created a pool of more than 50,000 men who trained and worked on modern construction and building industries for the first time. They would prove essential during the industrialization phase.9

The military economy created the right conditions for social change, economic development, and political progress.10 But the key to postwar development was the mass military mobilization of Puerto Ricans, and it would prove essential to the Populares’ reconstruction and decolonization plans. The role of the soldiers went beyond offering economic relief and the promise of future development. When Muñoz Marín called the Puerto Ricans to arms, he did not appeal to their sense of duty as “Americans’ or “U.S. citizens,” as was the case during World War I.11 Instead he appealed to the virility of the Puerto Rican men who would join with others, including the United States, to defend their rights and freedoms. As Rodríguez Beruff has argued, Muñoz Marín saw war as emancipatory. In similar fashion to how Pedro Albizu Campos and countless champions of independence had perceived war, he saw the people of Puerto Rico as valiant, and combat as an opportunity to face hardships that would strengthen their virility.12 Thus the Puerto Rican peasants and agrarian workers turned soldier were expected to bring more than economic respite or technical knowledge. These soldiers were also supposed to erase a colonial inferiority complex by showing that they could bear the same burden as any other man.

This chapter analyzes two very different projects. On the one hand, the metropolis sought to show Puerto Ricans that they were regarded as American as any continental, which would generate loyalty to the metropolis and simultaneously enhance the United States’ image as emerging leader of the free world. On the other hand, the dominant political leader during this period tried to use military participation to advance the decolonization of the island by obtaining concessions from the metropolis and by turning the experience of these soldiers into a lesson on self-confidence and manhood, and in more practical terms by using their veterans benefits and skills learned in the military to reconstruct the island and its socioeconomic structures. These political projects were not impervious to the needs of the masses being mobilized to carry them out. Actually, both the metropolis’s and the Populares’ projects were influenced, if not outright changed, by the sudden enfranchisement of tens of thousands of peasants and urban workers. This enfranchisement was in part possible due to military mobilization. Thus the military mobilization of the Puerto Rican had a political, socioeconomic, and very popular character.


Get the book at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s