On the evening of Tuesday, 28 April 1942, Americans gathered around their radios to listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he spoke with the nation about tremendous challenges ahead. "There is one front and one battle," the president declared, "where everyone in the United States—every man, woman, and child—is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks."8
Five months before, the country had learned of the surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, the first major strike by a hostile power on United States soil, and a devastating blow to a country already weakened by years of economic woes. Japan's aggression spurred the United States Congress to declare war on Japan, and then on Germany, Italy, and the remaining Axis powers. Within just four days of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was fully embroiled in world war and the country's human and financial resources had to be mobilized for the fight. Great sums of money, President Roosevelt explained to the nation, "more money than has ever been spent by any nation at any time in the long history of the world," would have to be spent, "to build the factories, to buy the materials, to pay the labor, to provide the transportation, to equip and feed and house the soldiers, sailors and marines, to do all the thousands of things necessary in a war."9
How could a nation still reeling from a cataclysmic economic depression possibly afford such expensive projects? With so much money allotted for defense spending, wouldn't New Deal social programs crumble and the nation's unemployed fall deeper into desolation? Incredibly, the billions of dollars siphoned out of government coffers for rearmament and national security did far more to revitalize the American economy than any of Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
The key to this far-reaching success was employment. Munitions plants, airfields, ship-building factories, and other industries under pressure to meet extraordinary wartime demands needed labor—and lots of it; employers couldn't fill openings fast enough. As the war escalated and the demand for military equipment, vehicles, and ammunition multiplied, so too did the number of available jobs. At the same time, a military draft had drained the labor force of millions of young men, so employers had to open their doors to many of those who had long been excluded from high-paying, skilled labor positions, particularly African-Americans and women. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries, widened the range of occupations available to blacks. And women filled positions once held only by men, such as mail carriers, technicians, bus drivers, railroad operators, plumbers, and construction workers.
All industries competed with one another for employees and were compelled to offer a number of tantalizing incentives such as high-wages, reasonable hours, on-the-job training, medical care, and—for women workers—paid maternity leave and daycare facilities. The astounding demand for labor during the war years revolutionized the work place, creating new opportunities and precious choices for American workers who had grown accustomed to the limits of the Great Depression.
By 1945, unemployment had virtually disappeared, and wartime manufacturing and economic growth, or "Dr. Win the War" as President Roosevelt called it, had managed to generate prosperity and financial confidence for the American people, two things that federal New Deal programs had failed to do.
While war mobilization cured the Great Depression, it did not alleviate many of the social problems that ailed the nation. Gender discrimination in the workplace continued to stymie the economic advancement of women. Racism also remained one of the most significant obstacles to the full participation of non-whites in American society. The concern for national security, the fear of foreign enemies, and overpopulation in urban centers due to wartime migration aggravated animosities between whites and non-whites.
Despite the steep increase in the number of women in the labor force, national support for working women, and federally mandated support services for mothers such as daycare, health insurance with maternity benefits, and a guaranteed annual wage, World War II did not thoroughly transform the workplace for women. Discrimination in hiring, wage discrepancies, dress codes, and unemployment policies still favored male employees. Furthermore, once the war ended and millions of men reentered the labor force, women once again found it difficult to find well-paid work, or any work at all. Plus, as the demand for labor decreased, employer-supported services such as on-the-job daycare disappeared, making it once again quite difficult for working-class mothers to support their families.
By 1941, Japanese Americans formed a small, fairly prosperous and self-segregated portion of the population, and were concentrated primarily on the West Coast. After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans perceived this group of immigrants and citizens as spies for the Japanese government, linked by blood and therefore sympathetic to an enemy of the United States. Military commanders successfully convinced President Roosevelt that Japanese Americans residing in California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada posed a significant threat to national security. The solution to the problem, they suggested, was relocation and, if necessary, containment. Under the authority of President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, roughly 110,000 people of Japanese descent—Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, as well as Nisei, children of Issei born in the United States—were forced to leave their homes, businesses, and many of their belongings behind to relocate to internment camps in remote regions of the country. Despite the fact that most of those forced to migrate did so without protest, and despite the fact that not one single case of sabotage, spying, or treason could be linked to any American of Japanese descent, the U.S. military uprooted and detained Japanese Americans throughout most of the war. In December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the exclusion of certain groups from certain areas was constitutional (Korematsu v. United States), but that regardless of the constitutionality of exclusion, the government couldn't detain citizens who they believe are loyal to the US (Ex parte Endo). By early 1945, the federal government began releasing detainees.10
The expansion of manufacturing, along with federally mandated desegregation in the war industries, did enable many African-Americans to actively serve their country in a number of new ways. But, perhaps more importantly, mobilization enabled blacks to secure well-paid jobs. Higher wages and other incentives empowered African-Americans, particularly southern blacks long stifled by a culture of segregation and racial violence, to move to the Northeast and the West where war industry jobs were most plentiful. During the 1940s, over one million black Americans left their homes in rural regions in the South and the Midwest, seeking freedom and fortune in cities such as Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Richmond, Vallejo, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Yet many blacks discovered that material opportunities were not often accompanied by civil rights or by racial justice. Housing discrimination, in particular, limited their mobility. Tarea Hall Pittman, who worked to organize new black arrivals from the South, explains that African-Americans "could see the vestiges of discrimination" in California. Inequality in the West, she explains, "was going to be exactly like Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia and every place else if we didn't do something.11" And although the nation was engaged in a war against fascism abroad, legal segregation and lynching continued to hinder and devastate the lives of African-Americans in the South.
Intolerance for ethnic diversity, race mixing, and concern for rising crime rates sparked some of the century's most violent race riots. In 1943 alone, violent clashes broke out in over a dozen cities including Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Michigan, Mobile, Alabama, and Beaumont, Texas.
In one instance, white citizens in a Detroit neighborhood organized a protest over the construction of a public housing development. The public display led to fights between white and black residents and ultimately resulted in a city-wide riot which left 34 people dead and over $2 million worth of property, largely in black neighborhoods, destroyed.
In Los Angeles, groups of white sailors, soldiers, police officers, and civilian men from all over the West Coast responded to a press-instigated outcry against the "zoot-suiter menace." Mobs seeking to punish those perceived as delinquent, violent, disrespectful, and un-American patrolled downtown L.A., many wielding bats and crowbars. They targeted anyone wearing the conspicuous zoot suit, an audacious outfit favored by young, urban, Mexican-American and black men during the 1940s. During the riots, which raged for a full week, hundreds of young people—predominantly Mexican-American, African-American, and Filipino-American—were stripped of their clothing and beaten. Only after state and federal authorities stepped in did the violence cease.12
But even if the benefits of wartime mobilization did not create a level playing field for all Americans, the nation and its people were transformed. Wartime mobilization—and all the many opportunities and obstacles that came with it—affected the very way people viewed themselves and the society within which they lived. These changes would help set into motion a post-war era of radical social, cultural, and economic changes never before imagined.