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So, you get the picture: Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, the U.S. of A loses its collective temper, and it joins WWII like it was its new favorite hobby. And then the war was over instantly, America was pleased with itself, and Europe was waving red, white, and blue flags. Hooray. Well, not quite.
Now, here's a shocker: wars never occur in isolation from the people and cultures that fight them. That means that WWII wasn't just a series of battles and military strategies—it was a massive, whole-scale event that interacted with every single facet of American culture.
And here's another shocker: one of the most important and pervasive issues in American society was race. On one hand, the war changed American perceptions of race for the better, due to the ways that African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans simultaneously fought for both their country and their human rights.
First off, the Tuskegee Airmen was an impressive unit of African-American men trained to fly planes at the Tuskegee Institute. Second, we've got the Navajo code talkers, who stepped up to the plate when the Japanese were figuring out all of our codes. The idea: just pass all of our communications in Navajo. Translate that, suckers. And third, the 442nd Regimental Combat team, a group of second-generation Japanese men mostly from Hawaii, was instrumental in many European battles.
So, in some ways, WWII saw a big leap forward in America's race relations. But on the other hand, some really giant, glaring, awful actions showed that America had taken a huge step backward.
For instance, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans saw the Japanese as their arch-memesis. Unfortunately, they didn't restrict this feeling to the Emperor and his generals. Instead, it extended to Japanese immigrants to America, and even native-born Americans of Japanese ancestry. President Roosevelt issued an executive order on the issue, and Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and relocate to concentration camps. (Yes, you heard that right.)
On top of that, it turns out our issues with gender and the roles of women also played their parts in the war. Sheesh. It's almost like war is profoundly related to social and cultural structures or something...
Anyway, women hadn't made a lot of social progress in the U.S. since the whole getting-the-vote thing happened in 1920. But then WWII started, and suddenly America was interested in employing every able-bodied adult. Even if they were girls, and probably had cooties.
Roosevelt's "Dr. Win-the-War" strategy involved banning racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, which created more job opportunities for African Americans and women. Women were encouraged through propaganda to support the war effort as mechanics, riveters, and even as mail carriers. But women weren't just holding down the home front economy during the war—they were also in the war. They might not have gunned down many enemy combatants, but women had crucial roles as support staff and nurses.
To Americans' surprise, having women working in factories and stationed overseas meant that their old definitions of womanhood were a little...outdated. And women themselves found that they didn't necessarily want all that independence and responsibility to end once the war was over. What, next they'll be wanting equal rights or something.
So, given these incredible contributions to the war effort, nobody back home could have any doubt that people of color or people of the lesser gender deserved equal rights, could they? Oh, they totally could.
Another world war. And so soon after the first.
Let's recap: the declaration of war for World War I 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 hated 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. And still others, like 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 just a couple of months later when another revolution in Russia established a communist government. Doh.
Those who'd wanted war ultimately got their wish and President Wilson rallied his country around one goal: to make the world "safe for democracy."
But this time around, facing a new world war, the American people weren't fooled by abstract goals. What had it meant to make the world "safe for democracy" anyway? Clearly, that goal hadn't 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. And if invasion was happening all over Europe and Asia, why couldn't it happen in the U.S.?
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. Munition plants, airfields, ship-building factories, and other wartime industries employed millions, including women and non-whites. Plus, wartime mobilization pulled the U.S. up and out of the Great Depression.
Hey, there's a good argument for WWII being the "Good War." But war doesn't always bring out the good in a nation's people. Surprise surprise.
In the case of Japanese-American internment, concern rose over 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 were all shapes and sizes. As you'll see, one result is clear: this war about "freedom"—with all its successes and its contradictions—affected the way Americans from all backgrounds viewed themselves and the society in which they lived.
These many changes—some "good" and some not so "good"—helped set into motion a postwar era of radical social, cultural, and economic changes.
John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory (1976)
Historian John Blum tackles the fascinating relationships between American politics and cultural values, homefront mobilization and notions of race, and foreign policy and big business.
Marilynn S. Johnson, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II (1994)
Historian Marilynn Johnson studies the tremendous importance of World War II on the development of the Easy Bay region of California. Like the first California Gold Rush, Johnson argues that the wartime industrial boom brought revolution changes to cities like Oakland, which attracted thousands of people including the Bay Area's first major influx of African-American migrants.
George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (1995)
Historian George Sanchez explores the ways Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles transformed, adapted, and preserved their ethnic identity during periods of industrial growth, economic depression, and war. Sanchez is a brilliant storyteller and through his exhaustive research, offers his reader a window into the lives of immigrants in multi-cultural urban communities.
Ronald Takaki, Double Victory: A Multicultural History of World War II (2000)
Historian Ronald Takaki narrates the experiences of nine different non-white or non-Christian ethnic groups. He follows the lives of Americans with Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Jewish, Native, Mexican, Indian, and African roots to illustrate the ways in which World War II influenced the growing struggle for equality and justice in the United States.
John Tateishi, ed., And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese-American Detention Camps (1984)
In this powerful oral history collection, 30 Japanese Americans describe their experiences and reflect upon life as internment camp inmates.
Studs Terkel, The Good War (1984)
In this oral history collection, Studs Terkel presents interviews with dozens of people who, in some way, were affected by World War II. His subjects discuss fond memories, regrets and longing, nightmarish experiences, and reflections on the future. Terkel's book humanizes war and helps us understand the ways in which many different lives were affected in complex ways.
Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds–Original Broadcast (1938)
Listen for yourself to the original radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, directed and narrated by actor Orson Welles. Now, imagine switching on your radio, expecting to hear the evening news, and hearing this.
Artie Shaw, The Complete Gramercy Five Sessions (1940)
Jazz was to the 1930s and 1940s what hip-hop is to the '90s and the 2000s. Check out this classic jazz album from Artie Shaw, one of the era's heaviest hitters.
Various Artists, Songs That Got Us Through WWII (1990)
These are just a few of the pop hits from the war years that boosted the morale of Americans at home and GIs fighting abroad. The collection includes songs by some of the decade's biggest artists, including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
Various Artists, Songs That Got Us Through WWII, Vol. 2 (1994)
A few more of the pop classics from the war years, this collection includes tracks from Glenn Miller & His Orchestra, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and the sultry Billie Holiday.
Duke Ellington, Masterpieces: 1926–1949 (2001)
Duke Ellington is arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. The "Duke" enjoyed some of his greatest success during the war years, when his compositions were savored by Americans at home and those fighting abroad.
Images from the National Archives
Here you'll find hundreds of WWII images, thanks to our national archives, complete with date and context.
"Instructions to All Japanese"
A military officer posts the Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1, requiring evacuation of all people of Japanese descent living on Bainbridge Island, in Puget Sound, Washington, c. 1942.
Preparing for Evacuation
A Japanese-American proprietor in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles rushes to sell off merchandise before evacuation.
Sporting a Zoot Suit
A young man wearing a zoot suit and hat, June 11th, 1943.
Zoot Suit Riot
On the streets of Los Angeles, U.S. servicemen wield wooden clubs during a "zoot suit" riot, June 1943.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
This Oscar-winning work of science fiction was the first film to interpret H.G. Wells' famous novel The War of the Worlds. By today's standards, the film's special effects may not seem so spectacular, but audiences in the 1950s were thrilled and chilled by the director's depiction of alien spacecraft, ray guns, and sinister martians.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
At the time of its original release, this historical action film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a box-office flop. American reviewers panned it for being poorly cast and generally boring. However, in recent years, the film has developed a more favorable reputation in both the U.S. and in Japan.
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)
Perhaps one of the most fascinating documentaries about the World War II home front yet filmed, Life and Times tells the unique and varied stories of women war workers, their goals, struggles, and post-war reflections. This film includes a wealth of archival footage and eye-opening interviews with those who toiled on the frontlines of war mobilization.
Unfinished Business (1986)
Nominated for several Academy Awards, Unfinished Business is a gripping documentary that tells the story of three Japanese-Americans who defied the government order that resulted in the internment of thousands of Japanese citizens.
War of the Worlds (2005)
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds stars Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning as a father and daughter on the run from menacing alien war machines. The blockbuster film, set in the 21st century, is action packed and drips with awesome special effects, which may make up for the fact that this adaptation doesn't always stay true to the novel that inspired it.
A People At War
A People at War: Americans during World War II is an online exhibit from the United States National Archives. It explores the many faces of wartime America. Don't miss the dozens of photographs showing everyday life at home and on the frontlines during the war years.
Powers of Persuasion
Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II presents a wealth of images of recruitment and propaganda posters produced by the U.S. Office of War Information and other organizations committed to wartime mobilization.
A Call For Sacrifice
President Roosevelt announces his plans for rationing and profit limits in the domestic economy in a radio address to the American people, April 1942.
Executive Order 8802
President Roosevelt's 1941 decree that "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" was a major landmark in American civil-rights history.
Executive Order 9066
In one of his most controversial acts as president, FDR orders that all Japanese and Japanese-American residents on the Pacific coast must be relocated to internment camps the interest of national security.
Korematsu v. United States
This controversial, landmark 1944 Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of Japanese internment during World War II. Plaintiff Fred Korematsu eventually won an appeal of the case...in 1983.
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, transformed postwar American society by offering millions of returning soldiers generous new benefits in education and housing.