- - Thursday, October 29, 2015


Daylight saving time, which ends Sunday, is now a ho-hum affair for Americans. During World War II, however, setting clocks one-hour ahead almost immediately became a yearlong requirement, no matter that during World War I the nation was hostile and tardy in adopting the time frame, observing it for only seven months per year in 1918 and 1919 and then repealing the measure.

In fact, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress were in a time war in 1919, with Wilson vetoing a return to standard time twice and Congress overriding both vetoes. States also sparred over the matter. In Colorado, for instance, Denver kept daylight saving time after war’s end, with other cities turning their clocks back, leaving visitors and railroads in a state of confusion.

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Senate wanted to give President Franklin D. Roosevelt the authority to set clocks ahead one or two hours, but the House objected, finally getting both chambers to set the one-hour parameter. Congress therefore passed “an act to promote the national security and defense,” instituting daylight saving year-round as a conservation measure, hoping to save 736,282,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to produce more than 70 million pounds of aluminum for building airplanes.

But congressional haste in passing the law led to waste. Unlike the carefully crafted World War I legislation of March 19, 1918, the bill that Congress approved on Jan. 20, 1942, was conspicuous for its brevity, only two sections, the second of which was baffling bombast:

“This Act shall cease to be in effect six months after the termination of the present war or at such earlier date as the Congress shall by concurrent resolution designate, and at 2 o’clock antemeridian of the last Sunday in the calendar month following the calendar month during which this Act ceases to be in effect the standard time of each zone shall be returned to the mean astronomical time of the degree of the longitude governing the standard time for such zone as provided in such Act of March 19, 1918, as amended.”

At first, Americans didn’t worry too much about war’s end when “War Time,” as it was dubbed, went into effect, except for the short time frame before clocks had to be turned ahead on February 9, which was a Monday, meaning, that unlike today, Sunday wasn’t a cushion day to get ready for the change. Sure, a few Americans were so enthusiastic that they called it “victory time.” But in the formal language of the day for the three time zones, there was an Eastern War Time, a Central War Time and a Pacific War Time.

But soon criticism emerged. Some didn’t like the fact that the federal government’s weather bureau stuck to standard time. Moreover, as President Roosevelt was signing the measure, he wrote baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis touting baseball as usual and urging that more night games should be offered, thereby actually increasing electrical usage. And then there were northeastern seashore communities that wanted to follow the example of the British by pushing the clock two hours ahead to reap more summer sunlight — and profits.

By 1943, however, patriotic conservation began to give way to second thoughts, especially in rural states. “Your net gain,” said one farm state congressman, “is fatigue for the farmer.” Cows and chickens, it was argued, don’t conform to clock tampering, and 65 percent of Americans lived in rural areas or small towns where life conformed to nature, not the national government. Georgia was the first to secede in 1943, defiantly turning back its clocks one hour, except for four cities that chose to stay put. Michigan followed. As Ohio moved toward adopting standard time, the Justice Department tried to find a way to bring the matter to court with dispatch.

It was a domestic mess, fortunately superseded by the press of military issues before all segments of the government and, thankfully, by war’s end in late summer 1945. Then there was a rush to change the names of the three time zones from “War Time” to “Peace Time.” And disregarding the congressional law’s garbled fine points, Sunday, Sept. 30, 1945, became the designated day for the return to standard time, and states and cities obliged.

Except for Chicago.

It decided to wait until October 28.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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