Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The '40s: NM's Most Exciting Decade

SANTA FE – One of the hot new shows on TV glorifies the ‘90s. That’s a good decade to choose because more people remember it than any other. There also is a show about the ‘70s, but as one of those who can remember a few more decades back, I would choose the ‘40s as New Mexico’s most exciting decade.
The 20th century began as New Mexico was busy becoming a state. Those stories are worth a separate column. The next decade saw us go to war. New Mexico enjoyed the ‘20s as much as any state did. The ‘50s were a happy, nostalgic decade. The psychedelic ‘60s saw a social concern that lasted another decade. The ‘80s were the Me Generation when we began working on self improvement.
But the decade that stands out for me is the ‘40s. It began as we came out of the Great Depression of the ‘30s. A year later we went to war. For New Mexico, World War II began a year earlier than for most of the nation. Our state’s National Guard was activated at the beginning of 1941 and sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso for five months of retraining to turn a cavalry unit into the 200th Coast Artillery.
In the summer of ’41, while the nation watched Joe DiMaggio extend his hitting streak to 56 games, a big chunk of New Mexico’s young men were headed to the Philippines, where they were destined to become the most decorated U.S. regiment in World War II. The war had a tremendous impact on our state that extended throughout the rest of the century.
Ranchers, miners, and prospectors were kicked off a huge area of south-central New Mexico to make way for a military bombing range. After the war, captured German V-2 rockets were brought to the range for testing, and a missile program was born that soon may culminate in the nation’s first commercial spaceport.
Meanwhile, 250 miles up the Rio Grande, in a remote corner of Santa Fe County, a completely new form of energy was being harnessed to aid the war effort. As New Mexico soldiers were moving into their fourth year of incredible hardships in Japanese prison camps, the world’s top physicists exploded an atom bomb at Trinity Site on that same bombing range we spoke of earlier.
The super-secret Manhattan Project led to what became two of the nation’s most prestigious government laboratories at Los Alamos and Albuquerque. Those labs, along with supporting government installations and private businesses, caused Albuquerque to explode from a population of 35,000 at the beginning of the decade to almost 100,000 ten years later and over 200,000 in 1960.
Two years after the war ended, the world experienced its first encounters with UFOs. Although reported worldwide, New Mexico quickly became the focal point, when many sightings were reported in the vicinity of Trinity Site, the location of the planet’s first nuclear explosion.
The most famous of the UFO incidents occurred north of Roswell in early July of 1947 and resulted in a news release from the Roswell Army Air Force Base announcing that it had captured a flying saucer. A day later it was denied by higher authorities, but the genie was out of the bottle. Forty years later the incident began spawning books, movies, museums and news coverage at a rate that has made it a going business.
In the same vein, we do know that Dr. Robert Goddard really did bring over a decade of rocket testing at Roswell to an end early in the ‘40s when the Army whisked him off to apply his talents to the war effort.
In the late ‘40s, in the name of tourism and economic development, governors turned their heads as clandestine casinos sprang up in resort and border areas of the state. The fun ended when Cricket Coogler’s body was found in the desert, leading to sensational trials and charges that she was on her way to a border hot spot near El Paso.


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