The Office of Civilian Defense organizes the home front during WWII

U.S. Government Printing Office, THE BLOCK PLAN FOR CIVILIAN WAR SERVICES. [Washington, D.C.: Office of Civilian Defense], 1942.
28 ¾”h x 19 7/8”w at sheet edge, uncolored. Minor offsetting and minor wear along old folds, but very good or better.

Rare and unusual organizational chart showing Office of Civilian Defense plans for mobilizing the home front during World War II.

On May 20, 1941 President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), with the mission of mobilizing civilian volunteers to contribute to the country’s defense in case of an attack on the homeland. Its first head was New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, though after war broke out he was replaced by Harvard Law professor James Landis. While the OCD’s original mission was civil defense (or “civil protection”), at the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt this was expanded to include “Civilian War Services”, a grab-bag of programs to promote public health and welfare and increase civilian engagement in the war effort.

Unlike many wartime programs, the OCD did not entail a new, massive Federal bureaucracy; indeed it never had more than a few dozen employees, though in theory they were tasked with mobilizing millions of volunteers. To this end, the OCD had nine regional offices, each headed by a salaried director overseeing unpaid state, county and city directors and an army of “block leaders” organized according to a hierarchical “block plan”. This rare poster, published in 1942 by the OCD, shows how the block plan was intended to function with respect to Civilian War Services.

Cities with populations over 2500 were asked (required?) to set up Local Defense Councils, who would appoint a “Chief” of the “Block Leader Service” to oversee a hierarchy of “zone”, “sector” and “block leaders”.

“The U.S. Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) organized and promoted the block plan to states in 1942 to be patterned after the familiar air raid block warden plan. It was suggested, for the sake of simplicity, the war services plan be overlaid on the existing geographical boundaries of the air raid plan. The government asked cities with a population of 2,500 or more to set up the block plan. The federal Agriculture Extension Service helped develop a similar system for rural areas that included neighborhood leaders. As part of the plan, a typical city hierarchy was devised to reach every home. At the top was the chief of the city’s block leader service, followed by zone leaders who had jurisdiction over 4 to 15 sector leaders. These volunteers in turn would manage the efforts of a number of block leaders. Each block leader had responsibility for about 15 families. Because of varying housing facilities, a typical neighborhood block with single family detached homes might have one block leader while a more high density block with large apartment buildings might have three block leaders. While the program saw variations to meet local circumstances, officials wanted to avoid overloading block leaders with too many households.” (Oregon Secretary of State, “Life on the Home Front[:] Oregon Responds to World War II”, accessed July 2023)

Block leaders—all volunteers, mind you—were in essence the “foot soldiers” of Civilian War Services.

“Block leaders filled a role similar to that of the air raid block wardens, only in relation to war services instead of civilian protection. According to the Portland and Multnomah County Civilian Defense Council, block leaders functioned to develop a cooperative unit through “block discussion meetings, rallies, car sharing plans…and any other activity of the committee’s war services.” Specifically, they were to explain how households could participate in community programs such as salvage and Victory Gardens; gather survey data needed to develop war services efforts such as those related to child care and housing; promote participation in war programs such as blood donations and immunizations; and assist the local volunteer office in recruiting volunteers for defense council programs and recruiting for paid positions in critical jobs in war industries, professional nursing, and women’s branches of the armed services. Block leaders were “supposed to have the confidence and goodwill of the people in your block; you are the morale builder; an information bureau; a solicitor; a salvage worker and many other things rolled into one.” (Ibid.)

My guess is that the rollout, extent and efficacy of the Civilian War Services program varied substantially across the country. In Multnomah County, Oregon, at least, it seems to have gained real traction with “6800 block leaders serving 108,000 urban homes”. Thousands of volunteers “helped with a call for cannery labor; promoted fuel conservation, health education, Victory Books, and Victory Homes; found cots for soldiers to sleep on over weekends; assisted neighbors in interpreting the rationing program; educated people about Victory Gardens; conducted surveys about child care, working women, and nursing; and solicited for war bond drives and war chest drives.”

As the tides of war turned against the Axis, it became clear that the civil defense component of the OCD’s mission was no longer necessary, while its Civilian War Services seems to have been controversial: “Many of the OCD’s programs were deemed to be entirely frivolous—for example, when Eleanor Roosevelt hired her friend Mayris Chaney to boost children’s morale by teaching them dancing at a salary of $4,600 a year (the equivalent of about $62,000 today)”. (Watson) The OCD’s nine regional offices were closed in June 1944, and the organization was shut down by executive order the following June.

OCLC 1135184560 (University of Montreal) and 318463080 (Univ. of Montana), though I suspect quite a few other examples are housed in public collections. Background from Oregon Secretary of State, “Life on the Home Front[:] Oregon Responds to World War II”, “Records of the Office of Civilian Defense” on the website of the National Archives, and Stephanie Watson, “How the Office of Civilian Defense Worked” on the HowStuffWorks web site, all accessed July 2023