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The war was not as bad for the United States than it was for Europe and Asia where the fighting happened, but it still changed everyday life for all Americans. On the good side, the war finally ended the Great Depression. It also got Americans to work together. When White men left their jobs to fight, many people who did not have many chances before the war, such as women and African Americans, were able to get jobs and make money.

The need for Americans to work together, whether in Hollywood, factories, or the military to support the war made people feel like they were united. However, wanting to be united did not always mean that Americans of color were treated fairly. For African Americans, Mexican Americans, and especially for Japanese Americans, showing a love for their country and supporting the war was usually not enough to stop white Americans or sometimes the government from treating them like the enemy.

The war changed the government also. Americans who lived through the war learned to think about the government as the tool to do great things. Roosevelt had led the country out of the Depression and through the greatest war ever. These Americans thought that government is good, and that government should be a part of everyday life. Never again would the government go back to the laissez-faire days of the 1920s.

All these changes, in business, population, civil rights, gender roles, and government happened because of World War II. What do you think? Did that war change America for the better?


Even though Americans had tried to stay out of the war, the country had gotten ready to fight before 1941. Factories had started to build more weapons because of Congress’s Cash and Carry and Lend Lease laws.  However, when the United States entered the war, most American factories were still making things for regular people, and many Americans were not sure if business owners would want to make things for the military.

Primary Source: Poster
This is one of many propaganda posters to get Americans to support the war and join in.

Just a few years earlier, business leaders had made Roosevelt angry when they did not fully support the New Deal.  Getting business leaders to support the war was needed if the United States was going to make enough weapons to win. To get them to join in, the government promised to pay enough so that business owners would make money. Because of this, factories made two or three times the number of things they did before the war. American businesses had made $6.4 billion in 1940 but made almost $11 billion in 1944. As the country switched to war production, the top one hundred American companies received approximately 70% of government contracts. The war made big businesses rich.

The country needed an army. For the first time in American history, the draft had started before the country joined the war, but the first men called to join the army had to serve for only one year. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a large draft program was started to get men into the navy and army. Over the course of the war, approximately 50 million men registered for the draft and 10 million served in uniform.

While millions of Americans joined the fight, there were some who did not. About 72,000 men registered as conscientious objectors, and 52,000 were approved. Of those 52,000, some took non-combat jobs in the military, and others took unpaid jobs in work camps. Many were part of religious groups who did not believe in war such as the Quakers or Mennonites. They were willing to serve their country, but they did not want to kill. Many Americans did not like conscientious objectors, and family members often turned against them. Only a very small number of men tried to get out of the draft.


The war led to important changes in where people lived.  California became a training ground because soldiers could train there for tank warfare and beach landings as well as desert attacks.  California was also a good place to build factories. As thousands of Americans moved to the West Coast to take jobs in defense factories and shipyards, cities grew quickly. For example, Richmond grew from a city of 20,000 people to 100,000 in just three years. Almost overnight, the population of California shot up. African Americans moved out of the South into northern or West Coast cities to work in factories. Women also moved to follow their husbands to military bases or to take jobs in the factories.


President Roosevelt and his team already had experience in writing rules for business because of the New Deal. During the war, major labor unions promised not to strike so that factories making things for the war would not shut down.  In return, the government got businesses to work with unions and promised to help workers bargain for better pay.

In April 1941, Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA had the power to set prices for all things, except farm products, and to ration a long list of items. This was to make sure that soldiers had enough food, and the military had enough supplies. Civilians were given ration books, books of coupons that let them buy limited amounts of meat, coffee, butter, sugar, and other foods. Wartime cookbooks were written, telling housewives how to prepare tasty meals without some food items. Other items were rationed as well, including shoes, alcohol, cigarettes, and gasoline. Americans were allowed to drive their cars only on certain days of the week. Most Americans thought that following these rules was an important part of helping the country win.

Civilians on the home front also recycled, saved, and participated in scrap drives to collect items needed for the war. Housewives saved cooking fats needed to make bombs. Children collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, silk, nylon, and old rags. Some children gave up their favorite metal toys. Civilian volunteers, trained to recognize enemy aircraft, watched the skies along the beaches and on the borders.

As in previous wars, the government turned to bond drives to pay for the war. Millions of Americans purchased more than $185 billion worth of war bonds. Children bought Victory Stamps and turned in full stamp books for bonds. Schools held fundraising drives to buy war bonds, sometimes setting a target that matched to the cost of an airplane which would then be adopted by the school.

The federal government also started the current system of taking taxes out of every paycheck to make sure taxes were paid on time.

Once again, the government tried to get Americans to plant victory gardens so that food grown on farms could be used for the military.  Americans planted gardens in their backyards and empty lots. Many schools planted gardens as well.

Primary Source: Poster
One of many posters to get Americans to grow victory gardens that would give them food so they would not have to buy from the stories.

All of these efforts, from rationing to victory gardens, to changing people’s opinions were done with government propaganda made by the Office of War Information (OWI).

In every war, the government grows in size as it tries to get the country to work to win the war. World War II was no different and the government was much bigger after the war ended. One important effect of the war was the way it changed how young men and women thought about their government. This Greatest Generation had to make big sacrifices to win and forever after the war, they held a positive view of government. After all, Roosevelt’s New Deal helped save them as teenagers in the 1930s, and the huge power of their government led them and America to victory in the 1940s. For this generation of Americans, government is good.

Primary Source: Photograph
The Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run factory was one of the largest in the world. During the war, Ford’s workers stopped building cars and began making aircraft. Images like this show the power of America as the Arsenal of Democracy.


By the time the war ended in 1945, the United States had produced 40% of all the things used in the war. Of all the ships, airplanes, guns, bullets and bombs, American factories and workers built the things needed to win. This huge production gave the United States the nickname the Arsenal of Democracy. In fact, the name came from one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

After America joined the war, the War Production Board (WPB) and the country’s factories made a huge change. Factories that made silk ribbons started making parachutes, car factories made tanks, typewriter companies made machine guns, undergarment makers sewed mosquito netting, and so on. The WPB made sure that each factory received materials it needed to run, so they could make the most war goods in the shortest time. One fourth of that was spent was for airplanes and one fourth was for ships.

Some companies just made more of what they were already making. Goodyear made more tires, US Steel made more steel, and Boeing turned out more airplanes. Other companies changed their factories to make war material. Ford and Chrysler, for example, stopped building cars and started building airplanes and tanks.


During the Great Depression, movies had been a welcome distraction from everyday life, and during the war this was also true. By 1941, there were more movie theaters than banks in the United States. In a world before television or streaming video, newsreels were shown in movie theaters before movies so that people could learn about what was happening in the world. Movies with information about the war were also shown in movie theaters. The most famous were those in the Why We Fight series, filmed by Hollywood director Frank Capra.

Many movies were patriotic stories that showed movie stars as soldiers fighting the Germans and Japanese. Besides being in patriotic movies, many male stars gave up their careers to serve in the military. Female entertainers did their part as well. Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich traveled and sang for the soldiers. African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker performed for Allied troops in North Africa and carried secret messages for the French Resistance. Some famous singers even died supporting the war. Actress Carole Lombard and Glenn Miller both died in plane crashes during the war as they traveled to perform for soldiers.


As in the previous war, men joined the military, and this meant more chances for women to get jobs. For example, by 1943, more women than men were working to build airplanes.  In the end, women worked in both factories and offices. White women who had been working before the war were paid more. African American women who had only been able to work as servants took over White women’s lower-paying jobs in factories. Although women were earning more money than ever before, it was still far less than men received for doing the same work. Still, many were able to earn their own money for the first time. By 1944, as many as 33% of the women working in factories were mothers and worked, another big change in America.

Not everyone was happy about women working in jobs that had normally been only for men. In order to get women for factory jobs, the government created a propaganda campaign using a character known as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie was tough yet feminine. To make men feel like working in factories would not make women too much like men, some factories gave female workers lessons in how to put on makeup, and makeup was never rationed during the war. Although many Americans saw women working as a good thing, they also knew that having jobs made being a mother more difficult. To try to help working mothers, Eleanor Roosevelt tried to get her husband to approve the first government childcare centers. The First Lady also tried to get business leaders to build childcare facilities for their workers. Still, these efforts did not meet the full need for childcare for working mothers during the war.

Because there were not enough childcare facilities, many children had to look out for themselves after school, and some had to do housework and older children had to watch their younger brothers and sisters. Some mothers took young children to work with them sometimes and left them locked in their cars during the day. Police reported more crimes committed by children during the war. It is not clear if more children were really committing crimes, or if police were just being more careful to notice problems during the war. Either way, working women were often blamed for this problem.

Primary Source: Photograph
The most famous image of Rosie the Riveter. There was no single woman who was Rosie, but many version of her picture helped get women to join in the war effort.

Many women went beyond working in factories. About 350,000 joined the military. They worked as nurses, drove trucks, fixed airplanes, and did office work to free up men for fighting. Those who joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew planes from the factories to military bases. Some of these women were killed or captured as prisoners of war. Women also joined the United States Naval Reserve, better known as the WAVES, for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, where they took the place of men in jobs away from the fighting. Over 1,600 of the women nurses received awards for courage under fire and many thousands more served behind the lines of battle. Women also went to work in a variety of government jobs. Others worked as chemists and engineers, making weapons for the war. These included thousands of women who worked on the Manhattan Project, creating the atomic bomb.

Primary Source: Photograph
Women of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Women like these performed important duty flying airplanes between factories and the front lines.

In the end, the war had a big change on what women did in American life, not so much for the women who held jobs in the war, but more so for their daughters. After the war ended and the men came home, most of the Rosies, WAVES, nurses and the other women who had left home to work went back home to raise children. But they told their daughters stories of their wartime jobs, their feeling of independence, and by their example, they showed that women did not have to live in a world limited by the old Cult of Domesticity, the walls of the home. These girls of the 1950s and 1960s would grow up to break down many gender walls.


African Americans had a good relationship with President Roosevelt and his team at the start of the war because of work by civil rights leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. Eleanor Roosevelt helped make sure that Bethune was given a job on the advisory council set up by the War Department Women’s Interest Section. In this position, Bethune was able to start the first officer school for women and let African American women become officers in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.

As the economy got going again because of factories making things for the war, African Americans wanted to make sure that their service to the country earned them better jobs and more equal treatment. African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph was important in this area. The leader of the railroad car porter’s union, Randolph got President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 which started the Fair Employment Practices Committee. The job of this committee was to make sure that there was no discrimination in the defense jobs. They forced companies that sold things to the military to give jobs to African American workers.

During the war, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded by James Farmer in 1942, used peaceful protests like sit-ins to desegregate public places in Washington, DC, as its way of supporting the war. Members of CORE tried to get other Americans to support their work by showing that Germany was using racism in America in their own propaganda. After all, they said, if the United States was going to criticize Germany and Japan for not following human rights, the country should itself be a model. CORE’s actions were in keeping with the goals of the Double V Campaign. The campaign called on African Americans to win the two V: victory over America’s foreign enemies and victory over racism in the United States.

Approximately one million African Americans served in the military. At first, African American soldiers served in separate units and had been used as support troops and not been sent into the fighting. By the end of the war, however, the army needed men and African Americans served in the front lines and flew planes. The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama trained African American pilots. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in 1941 took a ride in a plane flown by an African American pilot to convince the military to let African American pilots join the air force. When the Tuskegee Airmen did get their opportunity to fight, they showed that they were excellent pilots.

Even though African Americans were ready to fight for the United States, racial tensions often led in violence. As many African Americans moved to find new jobs to support the war, they often moved closer to Whites. There were race riots in Detroit, Harlem, and Beaumont, Texas, in which Whites attacked their new Black neighbors. There were also racial fights at or near some military bases in the South. African American leaders such as James Farmer and Walter White, the leader of the NAACP, were asked by General Eisenhower to investigate complaints that Whites were mistreating African American men in the military.

The work of leaders like Bethune, Randolph, Farmer, and White helped start the Civil Rights Movement that happened after the war and had better-known leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Primary Source: Photograph
Pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen resting next to one of their planes in Italy.


Although they made up a tiny part of America’s army, Native Americans made a special contribution to the war. In all, 44,000 Native Americans served in uniform. While American cryptographers had broken both German and Japanese codes, American messages were always secret. Navajo soldiers sent messages over radios using codes based on their native language, which no one in Japan knew. They became known as code talkers and were a part of the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Tarawa. A smaller number of Comanche code talkers performed a similar job in Europe. By making use of the native language rather than making a code based on English, which was well-known in both Germany and Japan, Native Americans showed that sometimes great contributions can come from unexpected places.


Mexican Americans also had a hard time because of racial prejudice during the war years. The number of Mexican Americans in Southern California grew during World War II because Mexican farm workers moved to the United States to take the jobs left by Whites who had joined the military. The United States and Mexican governments started the Bracero Program in 1942, which helped Mexican farm workers find jobs in America. The result was the immigration of thousands of poor Mexicans into the United States to work as braceros.

Primary Source: Photograph
A group of zoot suiters in Los Angeles. You men like these were the targets of White sailors on leave during the riots of 1943.

Forced to live in the segregated barrios of East Los Angeles, many young Mexican Americans wanted to create their own identity and began to dress in a style called the zoot suit, which were also popular among young African American and Filipino men. The zoot suits, which used a lot of cloth to make, broke wartime rationing rules. Some said that these young Mexican Americans were unpatriotic. Some White Americans also said Mexican American men were not willing to serve in the military, even though about 350,000 Mexican Americans served.

In the summer of 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots broke out in Los Angeles when White sailors on leave in the city, and some White people living there, beat up a group of young men wearing zoot suits. In return, young Mexican American men attacked and beat up sailors. Things got out of hand fast as sailors and other Whites went out attacking young Mexican Americans on the streets, in bars, and in movie theaters. More than one hundred people were injured.

The local newspapers wrote about the racist attacks, saying that they cleaned Los Angeles of “miscreants” and “hoodlums.” The Los Angeles City Council even tried to make it illegal to wear a zoot suit.

The military finally stopped the rioting by stopping sailors from going into the city of Los Angeles. But maybe it is no surprise that their official position was that their men were acting in self-defense.


Japanese Americans suffered the worst discrimination. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to a flood of racist ideas about Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the United States.  The result was Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.  This order gave the army power to move people from “military areas” to prevent sabotage or espionage. The exclusion zone included most of Washington, Oregon, and all of California, as well as in parts of Arizona. Everyone of Japanese ancestry in that area, both citizens and non-citizens was forced to move to internment camps far from their homes.   In the end, about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry had to move.  66% of them were American citizens born in the United States.

The internment camps were built in the interior of California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas. For the Japanese American who were sent to the camps, the experience was traumatic. Families were sometimes separated. People could only bring a few of their things and had to leave most of what they owned behind. Many lost their homes, businesses, and farms as they sold them in a rush.

Primary Source: Photograph
Photographer Ansel Adams travelled to internment camps such as Manzinar to document the injustice. This photograph of a dust storm sweeping over the camp is a famous image from the era.

The camps themselves were bad and overcrowded. Still, the people there tried to build communities and restart normal life. Adults participated in camp government and worked at a variety of jobs. Children went to school, played sports against local teams, and joined Boy Scout units. But still, they got in trouble for small things like going too close to the camp gate or barbed wire fences.

Most Japanese Americans chose to accept their imprisonment as a way to show that they were loyal to the United States, but a few resisted. Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who decided to stay in San Leandro, California, to break the exclusion order on purpose. He went to court, saying that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional because it violated his Fifth Amendment right to due process. In other words, Korematsu said, if the government wanted to put him in a prison, it would have to put him on trial for a crime first. Clearly the only thing he had done wrong was to be born into a Japanese family, which was not a crime. His case, Korematsu v. United States was decided by the Supreme Court in 1944 and he lost even though no interned Japanese Americans were ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.

The system of internment camps lasted until the end of the war. Today, historians put the Korematsu court case into the same category as the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases, pointing out that sometimes the Supreme Court sometimes makes terrible mistakes because of prejudice.

Despite being singled out for special treatment, many Japanese Americans wanted to join the army, but often could not because White leaders in the army did not trust them. However, as the war went on, army leaders changed their mind. In total, nearly 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the army during the war. One group, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, nicknamed the “Go For Broke,” won more awards than any other unit in American military history.

In 1988, Japanese American leaders were able to get Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act, which gave $20,000 in reparations for each surviving person who had been locked in the internment camps. For many, the money was an important way for the government to apologize.

In all, more than 81,000 people qualified for the payments.


The war certainly showed the awesome power of American industry. During the war, shipyards in the United States turned out 2,710 Liberty Ships, the cargo ships that carried men and material to the battles in Europe and the Pacific. That’s an average of two ships launched every day!

Also, the war changed where people lived. The fact that California has more people than any other state is mostly because of World War II.

Certainly, there were bad things that the war caused. The internment of Japanese Americans is the most clear example. However, like discrimination against African Americans and Mexican Americans, prejudice also happened before the war. Perhaps the war just put a spotlight on old ideas that had been part of American life for many years. Perhaps, by showing how broken life in America was for some minorities, including women, the war got things to start changing.

What do you think? Did World War II make life better in America?



BIG IDEA: The war affected the daily lives of almost all Americans and had lasting effects for many people. Women and African Americans had new opportunities and made advancements toward equality, but Japanese Americans were interned, marking one of the nation’s darkest moments of racial injustice.

World War II had an enormous impact on the United States. The government spent previously unheard of amounts of money on the war and the size and scope of the federal government grew tremendously. Government offices produced propaganda to encourage support for rationing, scrap drives, war bond sales, and participation in efforts such as victory gardens.

Populations shifted, especially to California, which became a center for war production and troop deployments.

American industry transformed itself and produced supplies for the war in record numbers. Government officials and industrial tycoons collaborated and led the celebrated Arsenal of Democracy.

When men left to fight, women stepped up to fill in. The famous Rosie the Riveter symbolized all the women who worked in factories and on farms. For many American women, it was the first time they took jobs outside the home or earned a paycheck. Some women joined the fight as delivery pilots, nurses, or support personnel in government offices. Although most went back to being housewives after the war, it was an important psychological step toward gender equality.

Although African Americans still were relegated to segregated units, they served in an effort to both defeat discrimination and the Axis. A. Philip Randolph convinced President Roosevelt to order an end to discrimination in industries that contracted with the government, and groups like the Tuskegee Airmen won praise for their skill and bravery.

Native Americans served as code talkers, using their native language as an unbreakable code in the Pacific.

Mexican immigrants were welcomed into the country to work in fields left empty by Americans who had joined the military. In Los Angeles, the Zoot Suit Riots showed the level of racial animosity that existed between White servicemen on leave and the city’s Hispanic community.

The minority who suffered the most were Japanese Americans. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the internment of the entire Japanese American population of the West Coast. The Supreme Court upheld this clear violation of their civil rights. In the face of such mistreatment, young Japanese American men formed the 442nd and fought with incredible bravery in Italy against the Nazis. Eventually in 1988, the government apologized for the internment and paid reparations to those who had suffered.



Conscientious Objectors: People who refuse to join the military for personal, moral reasons, such as because of religious beliefs.

Rosie the Riveter: Character who represented all the working women during World War II. In the most famous image of her, she declares “We Can Do It!”

WASPs: Female pilots who delivered finished aircraft from factories to the front lines during World War II.

WAVES: Women who served in in the navy during World War II. They took the place of men in positions away from the front lines, thus freeing up more men for combat.

A. Philip Randolph: African American leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. He convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 to end discrimination in industries that fulfilled government contracts.

Code Talkers: Native Americans who used their native languages to share messages during World War II instead of using a secret code based on English. Because the Japanese had no knowledge of these languages, they could not intercept the American messages.

Tuskegee Airmen: Unit of African American fighter pilots during World War II.

442nd Regimental Combat Team: Army unit made up of Japanese Americans during World War II. They served with distinction despite the internment of their family members back home and are the most decorated military unit in American history.


Rationing: Limiting the amount of a certain product that can be purchased to make people reduce use and therefore limit demand. For example, during World War II, people could only purchase gasoline on certain days of the week.

Scrap Drives: Campaigns during World War II to collect metal that could be melted down and reused for the war effort.

War Bonds: Government savings bonds sold during World War II in order to raise money for the war effort. Everyone, including children and students were encouraged to save their money to purchase these.

Victory Garden: Personal gardens people grew during World War II to support the war effort. By growing their own food, people reduced demand on commercially produced food.

Arsenal of Democracy: Idea promoted by President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States would produce the material the allies needed to win the war, including ships, tanks, aircraft, bullets, bombs, etc.

Newsreel: Short movies produced by the government and shown before regular movies during the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. They were an in important way people received information and saw video of events before television news was universal.

Double V Campaign: The idea during World War II that African American soldiers were fighting to defeat both fascism abroad and discrimination at home.

Zoot Suit: A style popular among young Hispanic, African American and Filipino men during World War II based on oversized pants and jackets.


Office of Price Administration: Government agency that set prices on anything except agricultural products during World War II. It also had the power to ration products.

Office of War Information: Government agency that produced propaganda during World War II. They made posters, radio advertisements and movies.

War Production Board: Government agency during World War II that worked with industry to realign the nation’s factories and produce the material needed for the war.

Bracero Program: Government program during World War II to allow immigration from Mexico in order to provide agricultural workers.


Korematsu v. United States: 1944 Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was constitutional. Most people believe it was a failure of the Court to uphold justice.


Zoot Suit Riots: Violent conflict between White sailors on leave in Los Angeles and young Hispanic men. The media and local leaders blamed the unrest on the Hispanics.


Executive Order 8802: An executive order issued by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II that forbid discrimination in industries that fulfilled government contracts.

Executive Order 9066: Executive order signed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 that authorized the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

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