Talk gives history of WWII “Victory Bikes”

On Thursday, Sept. 28, James Longhurst returned to Lawrence to give a talk about cycling, the history of bicycles and what we can learn from this history to help resolve the challenges we face today. At his home school, the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Longhurst is a professor of history and a coordinator of a program in public and policy history. Professor Longhurst is also a cycling advocate involved in the LaCrosse Labor Day Bike Festival and recently was named the “Advocate of the Year” by the Wisconsin Bike Federation. The lecture was made possible through the Barbara Gray Spoerl Lectures in Science and Society, which are meant to promote discussion and understanding of scientific and social issues.

This lecture aimed to explain the “Victory Bike” in World War II, and how we as a society can learn from this to shape policy in order to promote a more sustainable environment. In World War II, America’s supply of rubber and metal were greatly reduced, and the United States government found it necessary to ration not only these materials, but also those such as gas, which automobiles relied on. To display how serious the U.S. government was about conserving their resources, Longhurst presented his audience with a popular 1940’s propaganda poster which promoted car-ride sharing, and read “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler.”

One of the ways the United States decided to support conservation efforts was to design a lightweight bicycle that included only the bare essentials, contained limited metal and rubber content, and was advertised for adult use. This was a game changer because by this time, bicycles had not been associated with adult use since the early 1900’s. This very basic bike model was labeled “The Victory Bike” by the government and media and all other civilian bicycles halted production. Riding a bicycle during WWII gave people pride—they were doing their part for the war. Leon Henderson, the head of the United States’ Office of Price Administration, even did a photoshoot on a Victory Bike prototype with his secretary, who sat in the front basket. The United States government planned to release more than 750,000 of these Victory Bikes and used such publicity stunts to promote bicycling for adults.

“Before the night is done,” said Longhurst, “ I would like to explain to you why I have stopped calling it the Victory Bike, and started calling it the Defeat Bike.” Longhurst started calling the government sanctioned bike the “Defeat Bike” because releasing those 750,000 bikes never happened. While the actual release of the bikes never happened, the so called “Victory Bikes,” became to define the “cheerful idea of wartime sacrifice,” said Longhurst. “And this number, 750,000, became the story that historians have told ever since.” Longhurst explains that this is where his new research comes in and debunks this popular belief. In the National Archives in Washington D.C., there are collections of records from the Office of Price Administration that no one has ever looked at before. In them he found that in 1943, reports of bicycles showed that the number of bicycles built, whether for military or civilian use, amounted to only 95,000. The highest point of production was less than ten percent of what was promised. The reason why the bicycles did not get produced? Government bureaucracy. While the Office of Price Administration actively argued for the increase in bicycle production, another more powerful government division, the War Production Board, put a halt to these Victory Bikes. The War Production Board was made up by people who Longhurst calls “really depressed economists who were worried that the war would last for 15 years.” Because of this cautious prediction, the economists made nervous assumptions and thought that all production of cars and bikes should halt as to not waste any of the resources. The result was a massive reduction in the promised and publicized program, that was never revealed or explained to the American public. This means that the bike remained a positive wartime symbol, and “uplifting” media pieces continued to be done about hard-working Americans riding their bikes to and from work. However, Americans who bought into this idea unknowingly did not have the full support from the United States government. By 1944 the United States halted all civilian bicycle production, which included Victory Bike production.

This means that in the 20th century there was a choice made that killed the bike industry and eliminated sustainable adult transportation. Longhurst says that we can learn from this experience. “Just as the decisions in our past constrain us, the decision made then we cannot go back to,” said Longhurst. “We are the future’s past. The decisions we make here provide opportunities or constrains us. What we do now reshapes the city of the future. So let’s get out there and build the city that we want.” Longhurst has hope: already, with the uprising of bicycle activists, and after personally biking in cities and towns across the United States, he sees that more cities are now slowly being designed more for bike commuting. Longhurst cites Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia as examples, as they are states where cycling has had more than a 100 percent increase in recent years.