Study Guide

World War II: Home Front Analysis

  • War

    The Fear of "Enemy Aliens"

    In the days following Japan's attack on the Pearl Harbor military base, the United States federal government seized many Japanese-American-owned banks and businesses, closed Japanese language schools throughout the country, and ordered members of suspected "enemy alien" groups to turn over cameras, radios, and weapons. 

    The U.S. Attorney General established curfews in military zones—areas marked essential to national security—throughout the West Coast and forbade "enemy aliens" to travel outside of a five mile radius from their homes. 

    Still, many of those responsible for the defense of the nation felt these measures were not sufficient enough to prevent future attacks.

    General John L. Dewitt and Western Defense

    For Lt. General John L. Dewitt, assigned to the Western Defense Command, the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, and the southern border of Arizona were regions particularly at risk. The West Coast had become the center for military mobilization, the site for a number of airports, shipyards, military bases, and munitions factories as well as power plants, dams, and railroads, all vital to the American war effort. 

    Dewitt feared that Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was only the prelude to an orchestrated assault against the United States. It was only a matter of time, he warned President Roosevelt, that the Japanese would strike again, and the target would likely be near western shores.

    General Dewitt also noted that the vast majority of Americans of Japanese origin lived in these "vulnerable" regions. By 1941, some 90% of Japanese immigrants and descendants of Japanese immigrants had formed a small and prosperous portion of the population along the West Coast. Most were employed in or proprietors of agricultural businesses, which thrived in temperate climates of California, Washington, and Oregon. Some communities had migrated to the American interior or to the East Coast, but the rich landscape, the strong economy, and proximity to family kept most near western shores. 

    General Dewitt, however, viewed these close-knit communities as hotbeds for spies, saboteurs, and agents of espionage linked by blood and therefore sympathetic to Japan, an enemy of the United States.

    Executive Order 9066

    General Dewitt managed to convince President Roosevelt that despite appearing loyal and peaceable, the Japanese residing in U.S. borders were "organized and ready for concerted action."

  • Race

    Mexican Americans in Wartime Los Angeles

    By the early-20th century, only Mexico City had a larger Mexican population than Los Angeles. But despite their significant presence in the growing metropolis, Mexican immigrant communities remained marginalized. 

    Decades of employment and housing discrimination, coupled with linguistic and cultural isolation, left many Mexican immigrants unable to advance economically and to fully assimilate into American culture.

    War mobilization in the 1940s brought new lucrative opportunities to immigrant communities in Los Angeles, but class and ethnic differences continued to contribute to growing hostility within the Anglo community toward non-whites. The growing popularity of jazz dance clubs, gambling, and the zoot suit style associated with a growing Mexican youth culture, coupled with sensationalized press coverage of scattered incidents of violence, only aggravated these tensions that flared during the war years.

    The riots also served to introduce Mexican Americans to some of the violent forms of discrimination and injustice long confronted by African Americans. In the decades following World War II, Latino communities, clinging to powerful memories of the zoot suit riots and witnessing Black civil rights activism in the South, would help usher in a new era in racial politics.

  • Gender

    The Truth About Rosie

    Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about women laborers in the wartime industry is that, before the war, they were all housewives unfamiliar with work outside the home. 

    It's true that approximately 5 million women who entered the labor force between the years 1940 and 1944 were first-time workers, many of them married, white, middle-class women responding to government recruitment campaigns directed at homemakers. 

    Still, in total, some 19 million women worked for wages during the war years. Roughly three-quarters of these women had known wage work before World War II; the war industries provided long sought-after employment for the many women who'd been laid off during the years of the Great Depression, and offered career opportunities, higher wages, and new challenges for the millions in low-paying or mundane positions.

    Working for Victory

    The national drive to meet the demands of wartime mobilization also influenced public perceptions of women as workers. Historically, working women had been viewed as obstacles to full male employment, and even as low-class or neglectful mothers, but wartime propaganda helped change popular attitudes. 

    As droves of American men shipped off for the warfront, the tremendous demand for civilian labor required new recruitment campaigns, ones targeted directly at women. The U.S. Office of War Information produced posters and sponsored magazine articles and advertisements that depicted women workers as heroines. "Rosie the Riveter," the popular image of the female war plant laborer, became a cultural icon, the female equivalent of "GI Joe"—powerful, confident, and patriotic. 

    In the lyrics of a popular song released in 1943, "Rosie" worked,

    All the day long,
    Whether rain or shine,
    She's a part of the assembly line.
    She's making history,
    Working for victory,
    Rosie the Riveter.
    Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
    Sitting up there on the fuselage.
    That little frail can do,
    More than a male will do.


    Even if the changes for women brought on by World War II weren't entirely palpable at war's end, the booming postwar economy would set into motion a new set of ideas influenced both by the memories of wartime "freedom" and by the burden of what Betty Friedan called "the feminine mystique."

  • Culture

    News Flash

    On the evening of October 30th, 1938, Americans listening to CBS drew close to their radios. A news flash interrupted the Spanish-themed music program, and a reporter announced that a professor at an observatory in Illinois had spotted several strange explosions on the planet Mars. 

    The bulletin ended just as suddenly as it began, returning listeners to Ramon Raquello and his orchestra's performance of "La Cumparsita."

    Moments later, the news announcer again broke through the broadcast to offer more information about the odd outer-space phenomena. While reporter Carl Phillips conducted an on-air interview with astronomer Richard Pierson at the Princeton Observatory in New Jersey, seismographs registered an earthquake nearby. Phillips pressed the astronomer to explain any possible connection between the Mars explosion and the quake. 

    "This is probably a meteorite of unusual size," the Pierson stated, "and its arrival at this particular time is merely a coincidence." Pierson promised to investigate the quake in the morning and Phillips ended the interview. CBS returned listeners to the music.

    "Someone or Something"

    Suddenly, the announcer returned, saying, "A huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey." Carl Phillips, the announcer said, was on his way to the scene. "In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music." 

    The music returned, leaving listeners bewildered.

    Seconds later, the announcer said, "We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey." Carl Phillips described the scene amidst the commotion of sirens and crowd noises. It seemed that the fallen object, half buried from the impact, looked nothing at all like a meteor, but was, instead, cylindrical and sheathed by some sort of brightly-colored metal. Hundreds of vehicles full of spectators crowded the scene, hoping to catch a glimpse, or even to touch the spectacular "thing."

    "Just a minute! Something's happening!" Carl Phillips declared. "The top is beginning to rotate like a screw and the thing must be hollow!" Americans all over the nation paused, awe-struck. 

    "Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow tip. Someone or...something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks. Are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be..." 

    The hulking, snake-like creatures, Carl Phillips told listeners, emerged, saliva dripping from their V-shaped mouths. Suddenly shrieks and screams, and a terrible explosion. Then, silence.

    "Ladies and gentlemen," an announcer returned, "due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill." Assuring listeners that scientists in California had dismissed the explosions on Mars as simply "volcanic disturbances," the CBS announcer switched back to the orchestral performance.

    A Martian Invasion

    By this point, those Americans tuned in to the broadcast had contacted friends and family, urging them to switch on their radios. The listening audience, which had grown to several million, waited for the next flash. 

    When it came, they learned that events in New Jersey had grown out of control. The "heat rays" deployed by the "creatures" had killed 40 people, including six state troopers and reporter Carl Phillips, whose body had been charred instantly by a blast. Some 7,000 armed militiamen had been unable to prevent the monsters from taking control of communication lines and railroad tracks from New York to Philadelphia. 

    Roads all over the Northeast were clogged with people attempting to flee the region, and martial law had been declared throughout New Jersey and much of Pennsylvania. The United States Secretary of the Interior addressed the nation, urging Americans to remain calm and place their faith in the military.

    New reports flooded the airwaves. Martian ships were spotted in Virginia, New York, in the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Newark, and Buffalo. Hundreds of people lay dead. The end of the human world seemed eminent.

    "Boo!"

    But it was all an elaborate hoax, a perfectly orchestrated Halloween prank. Radio personality Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre group had delivered a startlingly realistic performance of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. It was intended to be, as Orson Welles explained at the end of the broadcast, "Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying 'boo!'"

    Many Americans didn't get it. 

    The vast majority of listeners had missed the very brief program introduction, which cited the story as Wells' fictional novella. Historians report that, for a few hours, at least a million Americans panicked, some packing their things and preparing to flee from an alien attack, others reporting smoke, explosions in the distance, and the scent of poison gas. 

    The front page of the New York Times proclaimed the following day, "Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact."

    A Harbinger for Total War

    Perhaps it's difficult to imagine why so many ordinary people were genuinely alarmed by a farfetched tale of flying saucers, slithering aliens, and death rays, but in 1938, few things seemed implausible. 

    Amidst mounting anxiety surrounding reports of crises abroad, the recent memory of world war and economic catastrophe at home, Americans had grown conditioned to believing the unbelievable. Just about anything could—and had—happened in recent years, and this terrifying incident—a martian invasion!—seemed no more fantastic than any other dilemma.

    In fact, the dramatic radio broadcast was, in many ways, a harbinger for the near future. During the 1940s, in the real life war of the world, civilians would become victims of violence on a scale unimagined even by science fiction authors like H.G. Wells.

  • Economy

    The New Deal's Shortcomings

    In 1939, the United States was still ensnared in a severe economic depression, one that crippled the nation for a full decade. 

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal experiments had brought some relief to a population reeling from unemployment, inflation, and scarcity, but considerable transformations—vast federal spending, price regulations, job placement, the expansion of unions, greater access to home loans, social security for the elderly and disabled, and the public's restored confidence in their government—did little to bring prosperity to the American people.

    Across the board, little changed. By the end of the 1930s, 17% of the American work force remained unemployed, 30% still lived in poverty, and the most needy and least organized citizens, like domestic workers, sharecroppers, new immigrants, Blacks, and unmarried women, reaped few of the New Deal benefits. 

    FDR's great experiments, then, didn't quite end the Great Depression. Only mobilization for a world war would bring an end to the most devastating economic crisis in United States history.

    Revving Up a Wartime Economy

    In late 1939, a full two years before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided it would be necessary—and perhaps wise—to invest time and money into national defense. Despite his promise to keep the nation out of the war escalating abroad, Roosevelt carefully and deliberately prepared the country for a worst-case scenario. 

    By the spring of 1940, he convinced Congress to increase defense spending, enlarge the army, and expand the U.S. military air fleet. Through billions of dollars in federal spending—largely focused on rearmament and national security—he managed to funnel money into a peacetime draft, increase wages for military personnel, offer subsidies for defense manufacturing, and grant loans to aid Great Britain and the Soviet Union. 

    Not exactly invoking neutrality in his decision to assist the Allied powers, President Roosevelt noted, "Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience." 

    New expectations, new wages, and new options created by World War II home front mobilization sparked a postwar economic boom and the most prosperous period in the nation's history.