World War II, the last of the “good” wars, was overwhelmingly supported by the American population. The need to win, and thus overcome the “‘Yellow Peril,” Nazism, and Fascism was of prime concern. The desire for security, safety, and the absence of war followed.
Americans would abide by whatever measures had to be taken, whatever sacrifices had to be made.
The event which brought the war home to America and led to direct participation was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Simply put, America’s sense of fair play had been violated.
There had been no warning. Indeed, Japanese envoys involved in peace negotiations in Washington had been uninformed by their government. The racist theory of the “Yellow Peril” was all too readily accepted. Coupled with the hatred of Hitler and Mussolini, these feelings caused Americans on the homefront to rally behind their President and take whatever steps were necessary to secure victory. America could no longer afford to view the war as something far, far away. Her men and women were involved, on the battlefront and on the homefront.
Having sent sons, husbands, and lovers far away to fight and to work in wartime industries which produced enormous amounts of materiel, the war effort at home was taken up mainly with providing support: assuring civil defense, rationing, coping with shortages, maintaining Victory Gardens
. Such trivia, however, allowed Americans to feel a part of the larger effort, promoted continued support of the war, and did help to shorten the conflict.
Fearing an enemy attack on the mainland, Americans clamored to become Civil Defense volunteers. Plane-spotters scanned the skies for signs of hostile aircraft. Air raid wardens enforced blackouts, deemed to be necessary should an enemy plane be spotted. The attack on Pearl Harbor had shattered a belief in America’s inviolability. In addition to a sense of participation in the war effort, Civil Defense activities, such as scrap drives for crucial materials and War Bond drives, also helped instill a sense of mutual cooperation among Americans.
“Victory Gardens” were perhaps the most popular of all civilian war efforts. By maintaining these gardens, Americans could ensure that the produce of commercial farmers could be reserved for the troops. “Sunday farmers” were deluged with materials and information from the Department of Agriculture and from seed companies. Americans were eating in a more healthy manner, despite shortages in other food areas. In 1943, one-third of all vegetables consumed in the United States had been produced in Victory Gardens.
Rationing was perhaps the most controversial and unpopular of the wartime measures. Limiting the availability of life’s necessities and luxuries was incompatible with the easy way of life brought on by the sudden prosperity of wartime. The OPA (Office of Price Administration) rationed 20 items, from sugar to gasoline, deemed essential to the war effort.
While most Americans regarded the restrictions as fair and necessary, they still grumbled. Coupon books, stamps, red points, blue points, priority restrictions—all contributed to a labyrinthine sense of frustration and confusion
Gasoline rationing was particularly unpopular with Americans who were attached to their cars. Under the rationing system, most drivers would be allowed to purchase only three gallons of gasoline each week. A storm raged, fed by the different restrictions of “A,” “B,” “C,” and “X” (no limit) cards. Cards were issued based on job priority. A black market in gas ration books flourished. Adjustments in lifestyle had to be made: the home delivery of milk was reduced, and customers at grocery and department stores were asked to take their parcels with them, rather than have them delivered. Long-distance vacations were out of the question.
These restrictions were particularly hard on a people ready to emerge from the Great Depression into a period of prosperity.
Prosperity came during the war with the changeover from peacetime to wartime production. Big business especially thrived as it wove complex new ties to the military. The conversion to the manufacture of munitions was speedy. Volume of production and speed of delivery were crucial to the war-effort.
Millions of jobs needed to be filled.
Despite the inconveniences imposed by gasoline rationing and travel restrictions, Americans moved faster and in greater numbers than ever before. The sudden availability of well-paying jobs in war industries was the prime factor in what is now viewed as a large demographic redistribution. It’s been estimated that about 15 percent of the population’s 20 million Americans embarked on a mass migration for jobs.
Families would also often relocate in order to be near servicemen who were in camps and training stations.
Most cities and towns were overwhelmed with the massive influx of people. Health, transportation, and education systems were incredibly overburdened. Housing was particularly hard-hit, with scarce availability and skyrocketing rents. The government’s efforts to ease the strain simply could not keep up with the rate of growth. Crowded conditions and shortages became facts of life during the war years.
The loneliness which results from the inevitable separation of war was another constant factor during the war years. Just as the men who served overseas longed for home, the women and children kept a long vigil. The demographic shift which resulted from the search for jobs separated families. As a consequence, written communication (judged by volume of mail) soared.
Letters were the universal link. Letters would be written in most households at least once a week, if not more often. The minutiae of news from home and of hometown events, coupled with expressions of love and concern, reassured those overseas. Those at home were comforted to learn that their loved ones were well-fed and in good spirits (though this news was sometimes far from true). Bad news, typified by a “Dear John” letter, often accompanied the good. Tragic news, a death, a missing-in-action report, or an injury were most often associated with telegrams. The number of deaths and injuries sustained during the war years can be easily calculated. It is impossible to measure the anguish and joy often contained in telegrams and letters.
Work was also an antidote for loneliness. Women at home—6.5 million between 1941 and 1945—entered the labor force.
The majority of women “manned” defense plants. They held jobs and performed functions which had been previously reserved as the exclusive domain of men, for serious labor shortages resulted from the military’s demand for manpower. Women assembled airplanes, jeeps, and ammunition. They drove buses, trucks, and tractors. They became heavy machinery operators, mechanics, welders, and riveters.
Jobs afforded women a sense of emotional and economic satisfaction The government continually stressed the need for and importance of women’s contributions in the war effort. Again, a vicarious sense of participation was fostered. Money earned contributed to a sense of security. In many cases, these wages had to supplement military allotments sent to wives with children. In other instances, many households now had two or more wage earners. Families could now buy, or save to buy, comforts and conveniences unavailable to them before. Still others chose to save for the future.
Women, however, had yet to question traditional attitudes toward their roles. The inroads made on the labor market still had to be balanced by trips to the grocery market, cleaning, cooking, raising young children. Women by and large accepted the dictum of the Children’s Bureau that in war, as in peace, “a mother’s primary duty is to her home and children.”
This position suited women who had little or no desire to continue working once the war ended. However, the experience and satisfaction many women gained through their jobs, were to alter the way they viewed themselves and their futures.
Sexism and hostility were often elements of the job conditions which women had to confront. Disparity between men’s and women’s wages was not addressed. Some men felt that holding down “men’s jobs” would masculinize women. Working women were often criticized as “neglectful” by women who remained in the home. Sexism and hostility were joined with racism: black women were criticized and discriminated against by both men and women.
Official and unofficial discrimination was practiced against blacks in other areas, as well as against conscientious objectors and persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.
Blacks were faced with the paradox of a country valiantly battling fascism and racism overseas while condoning racism at home. The threat of a mass march on Washington, D.C. to protest the lack of jobs for blacks in defense plants was cancelled after President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in defense industries. Roosevelt, however, condoned the segregation of black and white soldiers. In other branches of service, quotas were imposed against blacks; officer status was denied; jobs were menial. The social structure of the military services reflected those of society at large.
The summer of 1943 witnessed several race riots. In Detroit, a fight between a black and a white escalated beyond all reason. Mass fighting spread to the streets and alleys, engulfing the woefully overcrowded north and east sides of the city. Martial law was declared. Thirty-four people were killed, hundreds injured. Five hundred people were arrested. Riots also took place in Beaumont, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; Marianne, Florida; Harlem, New York; Los Angeles, California.
What caused the homefront bloodshed? Explanations range from social conditions to Nazi agitation. Surely the frustration brought on by overcrowded living conditions, want in the midst of plenty, and denial of full participation in society played their parts.
Conscientious objectors, those who chose to assert their right to resist war, challenged America. They were given few options: noncombatant military service, confinement in public-service camps, or court-ordered prison sentences. More than 5,500 men went to jail, rather than comply in any way with the war effort.
The most serious and large-scale breach of civil rights was directed against 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Mistrust and hatred of the Japanese did not simply emerge full-blown after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Earlier in the century, Japanese immigrants had been welcomed to the West Coast. They provided cheap labor on the farms and railroads. The immigrants tended, of necessity, to “ghettoize” themselves. They maintained their language and customs, alienating themselves from whites who refused to allow the Japanese to assimilate anyway. The Japanese had worked hard and achieved economic independence, fulfilling the “American dream” while remaining outside it. Earlier in the century, punitive steps were taken by the white businessmen who felt the immigrants were becoming too successful and therefore threatening the established order. Further Japanese immigration was halted; Issei (Japanese immigrants) were ineligible for citizenship; ownership of land was denied them. The seeds of hatred grew.
Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt, authorized the War Department to designate military areas and to exclude any or all persons from them. The Secretary of War utilized 9066 only on the West Coast, and only against Japanese-Americans.
Encouraged at first to voluntarily move inland, the Japanese-Americans were soon confronted with sterner measures. Fishing and radio licenses were revoked, so that “espionage” work would not occur. The government began to incarcerate these people in “internment” or “relocation” camps. No attempt was made to identify the loyal and the disloyal, the citizen and the alien The measure was justified on the grounds of public safety and national security.
The ten internment camps were erected in desolate and remote parts of the country. The compounds were fenced in. Housing consisted of wooden barracks, each containing several one-room apartments. Bare necessities, cots, thin blankets, a light bulb were provided. Toilets, laundries, bathing and dining facilities were communal. Meals were adequate only nutritionally. The government furnished only minimal medical care, recreation, and education.
The dismal conditions began to break down the traditional family structure. The desire for privacy was virtually impossible to fulfill, as was the practice of modesty and decorum. Reversals took place in traditional age-roles. The WRA (War Relocation Authority) encouraged community government in each camp. The traditional authorities, the elders, could no longer be deferred to by their children; the children were more fluent in English, a necessity for dealing with the red-tape of daily life in the camps. Once the camps were functioning, the WRA worked on mainstreaming the internees back into American life. Many camps continued to operate for the duration of the war, for many internees, fearing the hostility of the Americans on the “outside,” chose to remain.
At war’s end, the desire of the American people to preserve their way of life had been fulfilled to varying degrees. The United States, alone among the major powers, was never bombed, never invaded. The response to the war effort halted the Great Depression, bringing employment and prosperity to Americans. It also fostered bigness in labor, agriculture, business, and government. Millions of Americans were uprooted, a condition frequently accompanied by disillusion. Some barriers to social and economic advancement to blacks and other minorities were lowered a bit. The expectations and self-image of women were altered by wartime, but would not come to fruition for many years.
America, however, had been profoundly changed.