The impact of the war on the United States was nowhere near as devastating as it was in Europe and the Pacific, where the battles were waged, but it still profoundly changed everyday life for all Americans. On the positive side, the war effort finally and definitively ended the Great Depression that had been plaguing the country since 1929. It also called upon Americans to unite behind the war effort and give of their money, their time, and their effort, as they sacrificed at home to assure success abroad. The upheaval caused by White men leaving for war meant that for many disenfranchised groups, such as women and African Americans, there were new opportunities in employment and wage earning.
The need for Americans to come together, whether in Hollywood, the defense industries, or the military, to support the war effort encouraged feelings of unity among the American population. However, the desire for unity did not always mean that Americans of color were treated as equals or even tolerated, despite their proclamations of patriotism and their willingness to join in the effort to defeat America’s enemies in Europe and Asia. For African Americans, Mexican Americans, and especially for Japanese Americans, feelings of patriotism and willingness to serve one’s country both at home and abroad was not enough to guarantee equal treatment by white Americans or to prevent the government from regarding them as the enemy.
And the war changed the nature of the government itself. For Americans who lived through the conflict and made victory possible both at home and on the battlefield came to regard their government as the means to achieving greatness. Roosevelt had guided the nation out of the Depression and through the greatest conflict ever fought. For these Americans, the idea that government was good, and that government should be a part of everyday life became a matter of accepted fact. Never again would the government shrink back to the laissez-faire days of the 1920s.
All these changes, in industry, population, civil rights, gender roles, and the nature of government were brought about by the enormity of World War II. What do you think? Did that war change America for the better?
Although the United States had sought to avoid armed conflict, the country was not entirely unprepared for war. Production of armaments had increased since 1939, when, as a result of Congress’s authorization of the Cash and Carry policy, contracts for weapons had begun to trickle into American factories. War production increased further following the passage of Lend Lease in 1941. However, when the United States entered the war, the majority of American factories were still engaged in civilian production, and many doubted that American businesses would be sufficiently motivated to convert their factories to wartime production.
Primary Source: Poster
This is one of many propaganda posters encouraging Americans to support the war and participate.
Just a few years earlier, Roosevelt had been frustrated and impatient with business leaders when they failed to fully support the New Deal, but enlisting industrialists in the nation’s crusade was necessary if the United States was to produce enough armaments to win the war. To encourage cooperation, the government agreed to assume all costs of development and production, and also guarantee a profit on the sale of what was produced. This arrangement resulted in the growth of two or three times what companies had been able to achieve from 1937 to 1940. In terms of dollars earned, corporate profits rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to nearly $11 billion in 1944. As the country switched to wartime production, the top one hundred American corporations received approximately 70% of government contracts. Big businesses prospered.
In addition to gearing up industry to fight the war, the country also needed to build an army. A peacetime draft, the first in American history, had been established in September 1940, but the initial draftees were to serve for only one year, a length of time that was later extended. In December 1941, the United States had only one division completely ready to be deployed. A massive draft program was implemented to expand the nation’s military forces. Over the course of the war, approximately 50 million men registered for the draft and 10 million ultimately served in uniform.
While millions of Americans heeded the rallying cry for patriotism and service, there were those who, for various reasons, did not accept the call. Some 72,000 men registered as conscientious objectors (COs), and 52,000 were granted that status. Of that 52,000, some accepted noncombat roles in the military, whereas others accepted unpaid work in civilian work camps. Many belonged to pacifist religious sects such as the Quakers or Mennonites. They were willing to serve their country, but they refused to kill. COs suffered public condemnation for disloyalty, and family members often turned against them. Strangers assaulted them. A portion of the town of Plymouth, NH, was destroyed by fire because the residents did not want to call upon the services of the COs trained as firemen at a nearby camp. Only a very small number of men evaded the draft completely.
Even before the official beginning of the war, the country started to prepare. In August 1940, Congress created the Defense Plant Corporation, which had built 344 plants in the West by 1945, and had funneled over $1.8 billion into the economies of western states. After Pearl Harbor, as American military strategists began to plan counterattacks and campaigns against the Axis powers, California became a training ground. Troops trained there for tank warfare and amphibious assaults as well as desert campaigns.
As thousands of Americans swarmed to the West Coast to take jobs in defense plants and shipyards, cities like Richmond, California, and nearby Oakland, expanded quickly. Richmond grew from a city of 20,000 people to 100,000 in just three years. Almost overnight, the population of California skyrocketed. African Americans moved out of the rural South into northern or West Coast cities to provide the muscle and skill to build the machines of war. Building on earlier waves of African American migration after the Civil War and during World War I, the demographics of the nation changed with the growing urbanization of the African American population. Women also relocated to either follow their husbands to military bases or take jobs in the defense industry, as the total mobilization of the national economy began to tap into previously underemployed populations.
President Roosevelt and his administration already had experience in establishing government controls and taking the initiative in economic matters during the Depression. In April 1941, Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration (OPA), and, once the United States entered the war, the OPA regulated prices and attempted to combat inflation. The OPA ultimately had the power to set ceiling prices for all goods, except agricultural commodities, and to ration a long list of items. During the war, major labor unions pledged not to strike in order to prevent disruptions in production; in return, the government encouraged businesses to recognize unions and promised to help workers bargain for better wages.
The federal government instituted rationing to ensure that America’s fighting men were well fed. Civilians were issued ration booklets, books of coupons that enabled them to buy limited amounts of meat, coffee, butter, sugar, and other foods. Wartime cookbooks were produced, such as the Betty Crocker cookbook Your Share, telling housewives how to prepare tasty meals without scarce food items. Other items were rationed as well, including shoes, liquor, cigarettes, and gasoline. With a few exceptions, such as doctors, Americans were allowed to drive their automobiles only on certain days of the week. Most Americans complied with these regulations, but some illegally bought and sold rationed goods on the black market.
Civilians on the home front also recycled, conserved, and participated in scrap drives to collect items needed for the production of war materiel. Housewives saved cooking fats, needed to produce explosives. Children collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, silk, nylon, and old rags. Some children sacrificed beloved metal toys in order to “win the war.” Civilian volunteers, trained to recognize enemy aircraft, watched the skies along the coasts and on the borders.
As in previous wars, the government turned to bond drives to finance the war. Millions of Americans purchased more than $185 billion worth of war bonds. Children purchased Victory Stamps and exchanged full stamp booklets for bonds. Schools held fundraising drives to buy war bonds, sometimes setting a target equal to the cost of an airplane which would subsequently be adopted by the school.
The federal government also instituted the current tax-withholding system to ensure collection of taxes.
Once again, Americans were urged to plant victory gardens, using marketing campaigns and celebrities to promote the idea. Americans responded eagerly, planting gardens in their backyards and vacant lots. Many schools planted gardens as well.
Primary Source: Poster
One of many posters encouraging Americans to grow victory gardens that would supplement commercial food production.
All of these efforts, from rationing, to victory gardens, to shaping public opinion were promoted and explained with government propaganda organized by the Office of War Information (OWI).
In every war, the government grows in both size and scope as it seeks to mobilize the collective wealth and efforts of the nation to achieve victory. World War II was no different and the nations’ government was indeed larger after the war ended. One marked aspect of this growth in government is the effect it had on the generation of young men and women who lived through the war. This Greatest Generation made tremendous sacrifices on the battlefield and at home, but has always held a positive view of government. After all, Roosevelt’s New Deal helped save them as teenagers in the 1930s, and the overwhelming power of their government guided them and their nation to victory in the 1940s. For this generation of Americans, government is good.
Primary Source: Photograph
The Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run production factory was one of the largest in the world. During the war, Ford’s workers stopped building cars and began producing aircraft. Images like this demonstrate the power of America as the so-called Arsenal of Democracy.
THE ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY
By the time the war ended in 1945, the United States had produced 40% of all to material used. Of all the ships, airplanes, guns, bullets and bombs, American factories and workers had turned out the means of victory. This incredible level of production gave the United States the nickname the Arsenal of Democracy. In fact, the term came originally from one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats from before the attack on Pearl Harbor, from a time when the United States was gearing up production during the passage of the Lend Lease Act.
After America officially declared war, the War Production Board (WPB) and the nation’s factories effected a great change. Military aircraft production, which totaled 6,000 in 1940, jumped to 85,000 in 1943. Factories that made silk ribbons now produced parachutes, automobile factories built tanks, typewriter companies made machine guns, undergarment manufacturers sewed mosquito netting, and a roller coaster manufacturer converted to the production of bomber repair platforms. The WPB ensured that each factory received materials it needed to operate, in order to produce the most war goods in the shortest time. In 1942-1945, WPB supervised the production of $183 billion worth of weapons and supplies. One fourth of the output was warplanes; one fourth was warships.
Some companies simply increased production. Goodyear made more tires, US Steel made more steel, and Boeing turned out more aircraft. Other companies converted their factories in order to churn out war material. Ford and Chrysler, for example stopped building consumer automobiles and started building aircraft and tanks.
ENTERTAINERS AND THE WAR EFFORT
During the Great Depression, movies had served as a welcome diversion from the difficulties of everyday life, and during the war, this held still truer. By 1941, there were more movie theaters than banks in the United States. In a world before television or streaming video in the 1930s, newsreels, which were shown in movie theaters before feature films, informed the American public of what was happening elsewhere in the world. This interest grew once American armies began to engage the enemy. Informational documentaries 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 feature films were patriotic stories that showed the day’s biggest stars as soldiers fighting the nefarious German and Japanese enemy. John Wayne, who had become a star in the 1930s, appeared in numerous war-themed movies, including The Fighting Seabees and Back to Bataan.
Besides appearing in patriotic movies, many male entertainers temporarily gave up their careers to serve in the armed forces. Jimmy Stewart served in the Army Air Force and appeared in a short film entitled Winning Your Wings that encouraged young men to enlist. Tyrone Power joined the Marines. Female entertainers did their part as well. Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich travelled and entertained the troops. African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker entertained Allied troops in North Africa and carried secret messages for the French Resistance. Some famous performers even died because of their efforts to support the war. Actress Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash while returning home from a rally where she had sold war bonds and Glenn Miller, the great big band leader and swing musician disappeared on a flight to France in 1944 where he was organizing a visit by his orchestra.
As in the previous war, the gap in the labor force created by departing soldiers meant opportunities for women. In particular, World War II led many to take jobs in factories around the country. For many women, these jobs provided unprecedented opportunities to move into occupations previously thought of as exclusive to men, especially the aircraft industry, where a majority of workers were women by 1943. Most women in the labor force did not work in the defense industry, however. The majority took over other factory jobs that had been held by men. Many took positions in offices as well. As White women, many of whom had been in the workforce before the war, moved into these more highly paid positions, African American women, most of whom had previously been limited to domestic service, took over White women’s lower-paying positions in factories and some were also hired by defense plants. Although women were earning more money than ever before, it was still far less than men received for doing the same work. Nevertheless, many achieved a degree of financial self-reliance that was enticing. By 1944, as many as 33% of the women working in the defense industries were mothers and worked “double-day” shifts—one at the plant and one at home.
There was some resistance to women going to work in such a male-dominated environment. In order to recruit women for factory jobs, the government created a propaganda campaign centered on a now-iconic figure known as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie, who was a composite based on several real women, was most famously depicted by American illustrator Norman Rockwell. Rosie was tough yet feminine. To reassure men that the demands of war would not make women too masculine, some factories gave female employees lessons in how to apply makeup, and cosmetics were never rationed during the war. Elizabeth Arden even created a special red lipstick for use by women reservists in the Marine Corps.
Although many Americans saw the entry of women into the workforce as positive, they also acknowledged that working women, especially mothers, faced great challenges. To try to address the dual role of women as workers and mothers, Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to approve the first government childcare facilities. The First Lady also urged industry leaders like Henry Kaiser to build model childcare facilities for their workers. Still, these efforts did not meet the full need for childcare for working mothers.
The lack of childcare facilities meant that many children had to fend for themselves after school, and some had to assume responsibility for housework and the care of younger siblings. Some mothers took younger children to work with them and left them locked in their cars during the workday. Police and social workers also reported an increase in juvenile delinquency during the war. New York City saw its average number of juvenile cases balloon from 9,500 in the prewar years to 11,200 during the war. In San Diego, delinquency rates for girls, including sexual misbehavior, shot up by 355%. It is unclear whether more juveniles were actually engaging in delinquent behavior or the police were simply becoming more vigilant during wartime and arrested youngsters for activities that would have gone overlooked before the war. In either case, law enforcement and juvenile courts attributed the perceived increase to a lack of supervision by working mothers.
Primary Source: Photograph
The most famous image of Rosie the Riveter. There was no single woman who was Rosie, but many variations of her image helped encourage participation in the war effort.
Tens of thousands of women served in the war effort more directly. Approximately 350,000 joined the military. They worked as nurses, drove trucks, repaired airplanes, and performed clerical work to free up men for combat. Those who joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew planes from the factories to military bases. Some of these women were killed in combat 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 positions away from combat. Over 1,600 of the women nurses received various decorations for courage under fire and many thousands more served behind the lines of battle. Many women also flocked to work in a variety of civil service jobs. Others worked as chemists and engineers, developing weapons for the war. This included thousands of women who were recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb.
Primary Source: Photograph
Women of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Women like these performed important duty ferrying aircraft between factories and the front lines.
In the end, the war had a significant impact on the role women played in American life, not so much for the women who held them, 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, when back home to raise children. But they told their daughter stories of their wartime jobs, their sense of independence, and by their example, they showed that women did not have to live in a world constrained 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 barriers.
The African American community had, at the outset of the war, forged some promising relationships with the Roosevelt Administration through civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” of African American advisors. Through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune was appointed to the advisory council set up by the War Department Women’s Interest Section. In this position, Bethune was able to organize the first officer candidate school for women and enable African American women to become officers in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.
As the economy revived as a result of government defense contracts, African Americans wanted to ensure that their service to the country earned them better opportunities and more equal treatment. African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph was critical in this area. The leader of the railroad car porter’s union, Randolph pressured President Roosevelt by threatening to lead a massive rally in Washington, DC and the president created, by Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Practices Committee. The purpose of this committee was to see that there was no discrimination in the defense industries. They were effective in forcing defense contractors, such as the DuPont Corporation, Boeing, and the nation’s shipyards, to hire African American workers.
During the war, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded by James Farmer in 1942, used peaceful civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins to desegregate certain public spaces in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, as its contribution to the war effort. Members of CORE sought support for their movement by stating that one of their goals was to deprive the enemy of the ability to generate anti-American propaganda by accusing the United States of racism. After all, they argued, if the United States was going to denounce Germany and Japan for abusing human rights, the country should itself be as exemplary as possible. Indeed, CORE’s actions were in keeping with the goals of the Double V Campaign that was begun in 1942 by the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest African American newspaper at the time. The campaign called upon African Americans to accomplish the two V: victory over America’s foreign enemies and victory over racism in the United States.
Approximately 2.5 million African Americans registered for the draft, and 1 million of them subsequently served. Initially, African American soldiers served in segregated units and had been used as support troops and not been sent into combat. By the end of the war, however, manpower needs resulted in African American recruits serving in the infantry and flying planes. The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama had instituted a civilian pilot training program for aspiring African American pilots. When the war began, the Department of War absorbed the program and adapted it to train combat pilots. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt demonstrated both her commitment to African Americans and the war effort by visiting Tuskegee in 1941, shortly after the unit had been organized. To encourage the military to give the airmen a chance to serve in actual combat, she insisted on taking a ride in a plane flown by an African American pilot to demonstrate the Tuskegee Airmen’s skill. When the Tuskegee Airmen did get their opportunity to serve in combat, they did so with distinction.
Despite the willingness of African Americans to fight for the United States, racial tensions often erupted in violence, as the geographic relocation necessitated by the war brought African Americans into closer contact with Whites. There were race riots in Detroit, Harlem, and Beaumont, Texas, in which White residents responded with sometimes deadly violence to their new Black coworkers or neighbors. There were also racial incidents at or near several military bases in the South. African American leaders such as James Farmer and Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP since 1931, were asked by General Eisenhower to investigate complaints of the mistreatment of African American servicemen while on active duty.
The work of leaders like Bethune, Randolph, Farmer and White helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement that would take place over the next 20 years and featured better-known leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or 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 fraction of America’s overall fighting force, Native Americans made a unique contribution to the war. In all, 44,000 Native Americans served in uniform. While American cryptographers had broken both German and Japanese codes, Amreican messages remained secure throughout the war. Navajo marines served in communications units, exchanging information over radios using codes based on their native language, which the Japanese were unable to comprehend or to crack. They became known as code talkers and participated in the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Tarawa. A smaller number of Comanche code talkers performed a similar function in the European theater. By making use of the native language rather than inventing a code based on English, which was well-known in both Germany and Japan, Native Americans demonstrated that sometimes great contributions can come from unexpected places.
THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS
Mexican Americans also encountered racial prejudice during the war years. The Mexican American population in Southern California grew during World War II due to the increased use of Mexican agricultural workers in the fields to replace the White workers who had left for better paying jobs in the defense industries. The United States and Mexican governments instituted the Bracero Program in 1942, which sought to address the needs of California growers for manual labor to increase food production during wartime. The result was the immigration of thousands of impoverished Mexicans into the United States to work as braceros, or manual laborers.
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 Mexican American youths sought to create their own identity and began to adopt a distinctive style of dress known as zoot suits, which were also popular among many young African American and Filipino men. The zoot suits, which required large amounts of cloth to produce, violated wartime regulations that restricted the amount of cloth that could be used in civilian garments. Among the charges leveled at young Mexican Americans was that they were un-American and unpatriotic. Some White Americans also denounced Mexican American men for being unwilling to serve in the military, even though some 350,000 Mexican Americans either volunteered to serve or were drafted into the armed services.
In the summer of 1943, Zoot Suit Riots broke out in Los Angeles when carloads of White sailors on leave in the city, encouraged by other White civilians, stripped and beat a group of young men wearing the distinctive form of dress. In retaliation, young Mexican American men attacked and beat up sailors. The response was swift and severe, as sailors and civilians went on a spree attacking young Mexican Americans on the streets, in bars, and in movie theaters. More than one hundred people were injured.
A witness to the attacks, journalist Carey McWilliams wrote, “Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy.”
The local press lauded the racist attacks, describing them as having a “cleansing effect” to rid Los Angeles of “miscreants” and “hoodlums.” The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution criminalizing the wearing of zoot suits. Councilman Norris Nelson had stated, “The zoot suit has become a badge of hoodlumism.” The proposal was never signed into law by the mayor.
The Navy and Marine Corps commanders eventually intervened to end the rioting, confining sailors and Marines to barracks and ordering that Los Angeles was off-limits to all military personnel. But perhaps unsurprisingly, their official position was that their men were acting in self-defense.
Japanese Americans suffered the worst discrimination. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor unleashed a cascade of racist assumptions about Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the United States that culminated in the relocation and internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 66% of whom were American citizens born in the United States. Executive Order 9066, signed by Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, gave the army power to remove people from “military areas” to prevent sabotage or espionage. The army then used this authority to relocate people of Japanese ancestry living in an exclusion area that ran along the Pacific Coast of Washington, Oregon, and 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 in the American interior. Although a study commissioned earlier by Roosevelt indicated that there was little danger of disloyalty on the part of West Coast Japanese population, fears of sabotage, and racist sentiments led Roosevelt to act. Although characterized afterwards as one of America’s greatest injustices, the government’s actions were in keeping with decades of anti-Asian sentiment on the West Coast and met little resistance at the time.
After the order went into effect, Lt. General John L. DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense command, ordered approximately 127,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, roughly 90% of those of Japanese ethnicity living in the United States, to assembly centers where they were transferred to hastily prepared camps in the interior of California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Those who were sent to the camps reported that the experience was deeply traumatic. Families were sometimes separated. People could only bring a few of their belongings and had to abandon the rest of their possessions. Many lost their homes, businesses and farms as they sold them in a rush before their appointed departure dates.
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 dismal and overcrowded. Despite the hardships, the Japanese attempted to build communities in the camps and resume normal life. Adults participated in camp government and worked at a variety of jobs. Children attended school, played basketball against local teams, and organized Boy Scout units. Nevertheless, they were imprisoned, and minor infractions, such as wandering too near the camp gate or barbed wire fences while on an evening stroll, could meet with severe consequences.
Although most Japanese Americans chose to accept their imprisonment in an effort to demonstrate loyalty to the government, a few resisted. Fred Korematsu was a Japanese-American who decided to stay in San Leandro, California, knowingly violated the exclusion order. He sued the government, arguing that the Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional in that 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 finally decided by the Supreme Court in 1944 and he lost despite the fact that no interned Japanese Americans were ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.
The system of internment camps remained in place until the end of the war. Today, constitutional scholars put the Korematsu decision into the same category as the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases, pointing out that sometimes the Supreme Court has been so wrong that these few cases represent the exact opposite of justice.
Despite being singled out for special treatment, many Japanese Americans sought to enlist, but draft boards commonly classified them as 4-C: undesirable aliens. However, as the war ground on, the army began to change its mind. In total, nearly 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the military during the war. Of particular note was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, nicknamed the “Go For Broke,” which finished the war as the most decorated unit in American military history given its size and length of service.
In 1988, Japanese American leaders were able to achieve passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which provided $20,000 in reparations for each surviving detainee. For many, the money was an important gesture on the part of the government they had always been loyal to, but which had suspected them nevertheless simply because of their skin.
In all, more than 81,000 people qualified for the payments.
Additionally, Congress authorized that the ten detention sites where Japanese Americans had been held be preserved as historical landmarks to be “reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency.”
The war certainly demonstrated the awesome might 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 battlefields overseas. That’s an average of two ships launched every day!
Additionally the war changed the pattern of population in the nation. The dominance of California as the most populous state in the nation is largely an effect of the conflict.
Certainly, there were tragedies brought about by the war. The internment of Japanese Americans is the most glaring. However, like discrimination against African Americans and Mexican Americans, prejudice predated the war. Perhaps the war served mainly to bring it to the forefront and highlighted evils that had been lurking in American life for decades. Perhaps, by showing how broken life in America was for some minorities, including women, the war was a catalyst for changes that were to come.
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.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
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.
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES & PROGRAMS
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.
27 Replies to “Question 3: Did World War II make life in America better?”
I find it crazy how strong the Japanese Americans were and how they tried their best to resume a normal life inside the camp.
I find it crazy how the U.S. apologized and gave $20,000 to the Japanese-Americans they forcefully moved into the Internment camps but have not done much to help the Natives they kicked out in the land we stole from them.
Is the United States still the Arsenal of Democracy?
Were there any groups of people that weren’t Japanese America that protested the use of internment camps?
If Roosevelt was still alive, would he have used atomic bombs in hopes of ending the war the same way as Truman?
I find that these Zoot Suit Riots remind me of how people would act with prejudice to those that wear clothes that express themselves
Was there any other propaganda similar to Rosie the riveter-style?
Did native Americans receive anything after helping the US?
Did the Navajo code talkers face any racial prejudice during the war?
Did Abigail Adams affect the roles of women?
Did the US maintain the same level of production after the war ended?
Was there some kind of factor to determine how many booklets of coupons civilians were able to recieve for unlimited foods?
Hearing the words “conscientious objectors” reminds me of this film I watched called Hacksaw Ridge. The film is based on a true story about Desmond T. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) who was a conscientious objector and refused to bear arms during WW2 due to his religious grounds. He was picked on and bullied for this but later earns the respect of his fellow soldiers. His bravery and selflessness allowed him to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa without firing a single gun.
Could one say that WW2 actually helped the women and African Americans in gaining their ground in America?
Yes, I think you could say that and it opened up so many opportunities for them. However, I also think that , as America moved steps forward they moved a few steps backward. The way they treated the Japanese-Americans wasn’t right and that kind of thing is unacceptable. They way they took away the lives of so many that worked hard to get where they were was so unfair. Also, it took them so long to realize that action was wrong and the apology was something that took too long. This experience was traumatic and I don’t think anyone would have liked to be treated like that.
The Mexicans also faced prejudice during this era for practically no reason. They were helping out America with their food and even served in the war. However, when they tried to make their own identity they were targeted and attacked. Even though steps forward was made, I also think that step backwards also occurred.
I feel like it did help both groups gain more a standing in America. They had proven to society that they themselves could work just as hard if given the opportunity.
Since the US had lots of factories and used cash and carry if the US didn’t produce 40% of all the material used in the war, would it have been just as successful? Right now, the percentage of American-made goods has gone down so what would happen if a war with a major product producer like China occurred?
Were there women who continued to work in the special forces after the war ended?
I was actually wondeirng the same thing, so did the Women just go jobless basically?
Do you think the war had a long-term impact on gender roles in American society?
Was it mandatory for women to wear makeup in certain factories in order to reassure men at war?
What would have happened if Japan didn’t surrender after America bombed on their 2 islands? Do you think America will drop the 3rd one? Or try another solution?
Did the Native Americans experience racism, just like how the African Americans did during the war? Did their jobs as code talkers save them from racism?
Are there any other major things that happened in the war, which later led to rewards for people in the future> For example, the Korematsu v. United States case later led to Japanese Interments being rewarded $20,000. Any others?
I found this resource to be really helpful and educational for those who wanted to learn more about the Japanese-Americans in these “concentration camps”, or you may find it helpful as a summary to the experiences of these people during WWII.
Was the home front experience of American allies similar?
If Japanese Americans were put into internment camps, what happened to the German Americans during WWII? Were they also put into internment camps?