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American History II


World War II on the Home Front

            When France fell to Germany in 1940, the strong pacifist sentiment of the American public was somewhat shaken. Suddenly, only Great Britain and the Atlantic Ocean stood between Nazi Germany and the United States. Americans were strangely unworried about any threat from Japan, although Japan, too, had been engaged in wars of aggression to gain territory. The attack at Pearl Harbor caught Americans by surprise. Once the United States was fully committed to the war in December of 1941, patriotism soared in American society. The strong backing for the war was demonstrated in its citizens' willingness to carry out blackout and civil defense drills; to recycle metals, paper, and cooking fats; to accept rationing of many consumer goods; and to work longer hours but have fewer consumer goods to buy with their salaries.

            The wartime economy brought about full employment, achieving what the New Deal had been unable to do. In 1940 there were still eight million Americans unemployed. By 1942, not only was unemployment wiped out,  there were actually labor shortages in some industries. Having many working age males in military service required women to enter the workforce in ever-increasing numbers in order to keep production high. Women took up jobs in industry that had once been reserved for men, and "Rosie the Riveter" became a popular American icon. By 1945, women composed 36 percent of the workforce.

            Americans were encouraged to conserve and recycle materials such as metal, paper, and rubber, which could then be reused in the war industry. Lots of everyday household trash had value: kitchen fats, old metal shovels, even empty metal lipstick tubes. I remember taking the cooking fats my mother had saved to the local grocer, who paid us a few cents per pound for them.

            Both wages and prices were subject to control during World War II. New taxes were also imposed. War Bonds were another source of monetary income for the expenditures of war time.  The purchase of war bonds was also a source of moral support for the government. The administration made use of high profile events such as appearances by movie stars to sell huge numbers of war bonds--and to sell recently-isolationist Americans on the war itself.

            Unlike in later wars, such as Korea, Vietnam, or later police actions, the nation's involvement in World War II was an experience in total immersion. Movies took up war themes. Radio and newspapers extensively covered the war. Production of consumer goods was curtailed and factories converted to war production. Even clothing styles were influenced by the necessities of war. In the spring of 1942, the War Production Board became the nation's premier fashion consultant, dictating styles for civilian clothing that would use fewer resources, thus allowing more cloth and metals to go to the war effort. For example, vests, undershirts, elbow patches on jackets, and cuffs on pants disappeared from the standard attire of men. This sparked considerable discontent in some sectors, such as the Latino community of the southwest where cloth-consuming "zoot suits," suits with very long double-breasted jackets and pants with high waists, were fashionable. Women's clothing also became simplified, with shorter, narrower skirts. Hairstyles compatible with the workplace labors became fashionable.

            In addition to clothing themselves with less, Americans were made to cut back on other foodstuffs and consumer goods. Items such as gasoline, coffee, sugar, meat, and coffee could be purchased only with ration cards that permitted the purchase. I remember ration coupons, which were only good for a specified period and which could only be redeemed when and if a local retailer actually had the product for sale. Often our ration coupons went unused simply because the product was unavailable. I recall one incident when my father had been fortunate enough to acquire two new tires for the family car--and having one of them blow out the first time the car was driven after they were put on. There was no provision for replacing a rationed item lost accidentally. This skimping and rationing eventually led to frustration among the American public. For the first time in years, they had money to spend, but were unable to spend it. This frustration would keep mounting until the end of the war. When the war finally ended in 1945 and industries returned to consumer production, Americans went on a buying spree of unprecedented proportions. Their demands soon exceeded supplies, and merchants were forced to take orders for many products. I recall in particular that we had to wait many months to get a new vacuum cleaner to replace the one that we had at the start of the war.

            Conservatives continued to attack Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, but many social problems, especially the problems of the Great Depression, were solved by American involvement in World War II.  America now enjoyed full employment and a higher overall standard of living. Labor unions became more powerful, as membership grew from 10 million before the war to 15 million after the war. Farm income rose to new heights, while the number of tenant farmers was reduced. Former farm workers moved into towns and cities and became urban factory workers.

            There were a number of things about the wartime effort that led to permanent changes in the society. One of these was that the war changed the terms of the New Deal. In a previous lecture, I noted that Roosevelt was ultimately a pragmatist. Many pieces of reform legislation were rolled back in wartime. A longer working day was reestablished in order to boost industrial output. The federal government made enforcement of anti-trust legislation a very low priority. In order to combat the labor shortage, child labor laws and women's labor regulations were ignored. With very little public outcry, the number of high school dropouts increased significantly. During the war, the teenage workforce grew from one million to about three million; about one million of these new workers had dropped out of high school.

            Another government policy that went largely unchallenged was the internment of Japanese- Americans. In February 1942, the U.S. government forced the relocation of all Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, which was viewed as a strategically vulnerable area. The government established ten concentration camps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. About 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, many of them U.S. citizens, were forced to move into these camps with no due process and no right to appeal. Many had no time to sell their property, and it was sold for back taxes due while they were interned. Others, in order to try to get their affairs in order, sold property at a small fraction of its value. After his reelection in 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt canceled the evacuation order; the camps were closed by 1945. It was not until the 1990s that the United States government finally agreed to pay damages to those it wrongfully imprisoned in the concentration camps.

            Conservative politicians had fought against many New Deal agencies when they were established. With Roosevelt's attention focused on winning a war instead of reforming society, they slashed funding for the CCC, WPA, and National Youth Administration (NYA). These programs had always been designed to help those who would be hired last even in favorable economic conditions, so their demise was especially hard on blacks, women, and the elderly. As military costs escalated, so did the budget deficit, the annual difference between government income and some greater amount of government spending. But at the same time military expenditures rose, social expenditures plummeted. Senate liberals, for example, introduced legislation to broaden the coverage of Social Security, and another bill to provide comprehensive national health care. Both were pushed aside in favor of military expenditures. With the elimination of many New Deal programs, poverty increased, even with rising wages for many Americans. One committee reported that 20 million Americans were on the border of subsistence and starvation. Fully one-fourth of all employed Americans earned less than 64 cents an hour, while skilled workers often earned $7 or $8 an hour.

            The idealists of the "brain trust" became disillusioned with Washington's lack of interest in social reform, and left their posts in droves. This vacuum was quickly filled by business executives with good managerial skills, but little interest in reform. The magazine Business Week reported, somewhat gleefully,

The war has placed a premium on business talents rather than on 'brain-trusters' and theoreticians. Businessmen are moving up in the New Deal Administration and are replacing the New Dealers as they go.

           There was also a major change in the size and the reach of the federal government during World War II.  From 1940-1945, the number of civilian employees working for the federal government rose from one million to nearly four million. Concurrently, government expenditures grew from $9 billion to $98.4 billion. The war also accelerated the growth of executive authority. Increasingly, important decisions concerning both domestic and foreign policy were not made by Congress, but by the President and his advisors. The Supreme Court refused to hear cases challenging this increase in executive authority. Although the phrase itself didn't come into use until the mid-1950s, the phenomenon of the "military-industrial complex" came about during World War II.  A systematic relationship developed between big business and the military involving expenditures on defense. During the war, the average daily expenditure on military contracts was $250 million, which inflated American industrial capacity. Small companies producing similar products disappeared as two-thirds of government contracts went to the hundred largest corporations.

            The growing strength of big labor and big agriculture was solidified, as well as the relationship between big business and big government, so that all three groups worked together to shore up the corporate state. The farm population declined by about 17% between 1940-1945, yet productivity increased, due to better weather, improved fertilizers, new pesticides (unfortunately including DDT) and herbicides, increased mechanization, and, especially, the consolidation of small farms into large agri-businesses.

            To aid business and industry, the federal government expanded its role as a supporter of research, in projects as varied as perfecting the process for manufacturing artificial rubber and the Manhattan Project which designed the atomic bomb. The research role of large universities also became established during this period. The nation became more urbanized, as the six largest cities got two million new inhabitants and 15 million Americans moved from rural areas to the cities.

            President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, less than a month before Germany surrendered. In 1945, the United States was profoundly different from what it had been just four years earlier. Because of World War II, the United States had changed in three significant ways. First, the economy had recovered from the Depression. As in the aftermath of World War I, there was a strong economy. In addition, other nations, both Allied and Axis, were devastated by the war and relied on products made in the United States to rebuild. Second, the United States was the most powerful nation in world, if for no other reason than it alone possessed the atom bomb. While that situation did not last long, immediately after the war it was an important exclusive possession. Third, the United States was ready for a rest, and it turned inward just as it had after World War I.  Factories were rapidly re-converted to the production of consumer goods, housing starts increased as soldiers returned and married, etc.

            Along with these differences, the nation suddenly found itself with a new leader: Harry S Truman, a virtual unknown outside of his native Missouri. Truman had not been Roosevelt's vice president all along, but only after the 1944 election. Roosevelt had dumped his existing vice-president, Henry Wallace, for taking positions on the far left. Prior to becoming vice president, Truman had served in the U.S. Senate for 10 years.

            Rarely has there been such a dissimilar president/vice president pair as Roosevelt and Truman. Roosevelt was from one of the most prominent, aristocratic families in America and had been educated at Harvard University and Columbia Law School. Truman came from a family of modest means, fought in World War I, worked for the Kansas City Democratic party machine, ran a men's clothing store, and got his law degree in night school. Roosevelt had not seen fit to include Truman in discussions of the new secret weapon the United States was developing--the atomic bomb. Yet it was Truman who would have to decide whether or not to use it within a few months of his becoming president.

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