World War II: Home Front Introduction
In A Nutshell
World War II, or "The Good War" as it has often been called, ushered in new opportunity, new prosperity, and an entirely new lifestyle for many Americans. Wartime mobilization pulled the American economy out of depression by employing millions and invigorating the nation as a whole.
"The Good War," however, didn't provide the remedy for many social problems, and in some cases rapid population movement, concern over national security, and wartime rhetoric only exacerbated racial, ethnic, and class-based tensions at home.
Why Should I Care?
Another world war... and so soon after the first! Can you imagine how this may have struck the many Americans who had lived through World War I and who were trying desperately to pull themselves out of economic turmoil when the Second World War broke out in Europe? World War II was not simply welcomed as a sequel to the war that engulfed the nation in 1917. In fact, in several ways, America's involvement in World War II differed from its role in the First World War.
Let's recap: the declaration of war in 1917 came only after careful deliberation and debate—lots of it—between President Woodrow Wilson and many vocal government officials. Some of these political figures had abhorred the idea of U.S. involvement in foreign spats ever since the Philippine-American War. (Remember that one? Well, these guys sure did!) Others couldn't stomach the prospect of a partnership with imperial Russia. (Not too many fans of Czar Nicholas II in Washington.) And still others, like our old Rough Riding friend, Theodore Roosevelt, seemed to think the U.S. could always benefit from the excitement and glory of war. American public outrage over German submarine warfare encouraged Congress to vote for a declaration of war, and a revolution in Russia that overthrew the czar and established a constitutional government made the decision seem like a no-brainer. (Imagine how annoyed all these guys were when, just a couple months later, yet another revolution in Russia established a communist government. Doh!) Those who had wanted war ultimately got their wish and President Wilson rallied his country around one goal: to make the world "safe for democracy."
This time around, facing a new world war, the American people were not fooled by abstract goals. What had it meant to make the world "safe for democracy" anyway? Clearly, that goal hadn't really been achieved, so Americans weren't about to hold such illusions in the 1940s. The ultimate goal was far more urgent: to protect their civilization from destruction. The United States had been attacked—and not on a naval ship in foreign waters, but on its very own soil. For most Americans, Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor seemed only the first step toward utter destruction. For the first time in U.S. history, the nation was genuinely vulnerable, for a widespread foreign invasion had become entirely possible. Besides, if it was happening all over Europe and in Asia, why couldn't it happen in the U.S.?
Imagine what this kind of fear, paranoia, and sense of utter urgency might do to a nation. (Well, perhaps we don't have to imagine.) Never before in the history of the United States had the nation so rapidly and enthusiastically mobilized its human, material, and financial resources for a single purpose. Munitions plants, airfields, ship-building factories, and other wartime industries employed millions, including women and non-whites. Wartime mobilization (and not President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal like many of us assume) pulled the U.S. up and out of the Great Depression! (That's perhaps one of the best arguments for labeling World War II as "The Good War.")
But war doesn't always bring the best out of a nation's people. In the case of Japanese-American internment, concern for national security and public fears regarding foreign enemies, sabotage, and treason exacerbated race prejudice. In urban centers transformed by war industry, intolerance for ethnic diversity, race mixing, and alarm over rising crime rates sparked some of the century's most violent race riots. And although the nation was engaged in a war against fascism abroad, racial segregation, discrimination, and lynching continued to hinder and devastate the lives of African-Americans at home.
So the results of World War II on the American home front are a mixed bag. As you'll see as you read on, one result is clear: this war about "freedom"—with all its successes and its contradictions—affected the very way Americans from all backgrounds viewed themselves and the society in which they lived. We hope you'll see that it's these many changes—some "good" and some not-so "good"—that helped set into motion a postwar era of radical social, cultural, and economic changes. Read on!