World War 2 Homefront
World War II: The Impact at Home
The quick fall of France to the German army in 1940 shook the support of the American people. Suddenly, Great Britain alone stood between Nazi Germany and the United States. Once the United States was fully committed to the war in December of 1941, patriotism soared in American society. Americans’ willingness to carry out blackout and civil defense drills; to recycle metals, paper, and even cooking fats; to work longer hours, but to have fewer consumer goods to buy with their salaries There were political changes as well, as the country began to shift to the right. This lecture examines the domestic side of World War II and the changes that took place in American society during the war.
An Overview of the War’s Impact on American Society
Three questions troubled Americans during the war years and immediately afterward:
Communism at home and abroad
“Rosie the Riveter”
The wartime economy brought about full employment and, in doing so, achieved what New Deal programs had been unable to do. In 1940, there were 8 million Americans unemployed. By 1941, however, unemployment was almost unheard of. There were actually labor shortages in some industries. As a result, more and more women entered the workforce. 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 made up 36% of the nation’s total workforce.
The federal government encouraged Americans to conserve and recycle materials such as metal, paper, and rubber, which factories could then use for wartime production. Lots of everyday household trash had value: kitchen fats, old metal shovels, even empty metal lipstick tubes.
War Bonds provided a crucial source of revenue for the war effort. By sponsoring public stunts such as celebrity auctions, the federal government used War Bonds to sell the war to the American public instead of relying on American involvement in the war to sell bonds.
The necessities of war even influenced American fashion. In the spring of 1942, the War Production Board became the nation’s premier clothing consultant by dictating styles for civilian apparel that would conserve cloth and metal for the war effort. For example, menswear rid itself of vests, elbow patches on jackets, and cuffs on pants. Women’s clothing also relied on fewer materials and skirts became shorter and narrower. De rigueur for patriotic women were efficient, two-piece bathing suits, which created the biggest public stir since Mrs. Amelia Bloomer. Mr. Marcus of Nieman-Marcus fame called these suits “patriotic chic.”
The federal government also compelled Americans to cut back on foodstuffs and consumer goods. Americans, for example, needed ration cards to purchase items such as gasoline, coffee, sugar, and meat. Rationing eventually frustrated many Americans. For the first time in years, they had money to spend, but there were few goods available for purchase. This frustration kept mounting until the end of the war. When the war finally came to a close in 1945, industries returned to consumer production and Americans went on a buying spree of unprecedented proportions.
Conservatives continued to attack Roosevelt and his New Deal, but American involvement in World War II helped assuage many of the nation’s social ills, especially the devastating economic problems of the Great Depression.
America now enjoyed full employment and a higher overall standard of living.
Labor unions became more powerful and their membership grew from 10 million before the war to 15 million after the war.
Farm incomes reached new heights, while the number of tenant farmers fell. Former farm workers took jobs in urban factories.
Wartime investment seemed to validate Keynesian economics.
Down to Brass Tacks
1. Liberals and reformers gave priority to military spending over social and economic reform.
Congress rolled back reform legislation during wartime. Many factories instigated a longer working day to boost industrial output. The federal government made anti-trust legislation a low priority. In order to combat the labor shortage, federal inspectors ignored laws regulating the employment of children and women. With very little public outcry, the number of high school dropouts increased significantly. During the war, the teenage workforce grew from 1 million to 3 million. About 1 million of these new workers had dropped out of high school.
Furthermore, few Americans challenged the internment of Japanese-Americans. In February 1942, the United States government forced the relocation of all Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, a region that Roosevelt and other American political and military leaders considered vulnerable. The government established ten internment camps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, which held a total of 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were United States citizens. After his reelection in 1944, Roosevelt canceled the evacuation order and the government closed the camps.
2. Provided an excuse to abolish segments of the New Deal.
Conservative politicians had fought against these agencies for years, but now that FDR was focusing on winning a war instead of reforming society, they could slash funding for the CCC, WPA, and National Youth Administration (NYA). Congress had always intended these programs to help those Americans who suffered job discrimination, even during favorable economic conditions, so their demise was especially hard on African-Americans, women, and the elderly.
3. Rise in federal deficit.
As military costs escalated, so did the federal deficit. At the same time, 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. Congress, however, often ignored such measures in favor of military investment.
4. Put the poor “back in their place.”
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. 25% of all employed Americans earned less than 64 cents an hour, while skilled workers often earned $7 or $8 an hour.
5. Changes in composition of federal bureaucracy.
As the federal government continued to cut funding for social programs, many idealists in Roosevelt’s “brain trust” became disillusioned and left their posts in droves. Business executives with good managerial skills, but little interest in social reform, quickly filled this political vacuum in Roosevelt’s administration.
6. Increase in the reach and power of the federal government and the presidency.
From 1940 to 1945, the number of civilian employees working for the federal government rose from 1 million to nearly 4 million. At the same time, Washington’s expenditures grew from $9 billion to $98.4 billion. The war also accelerated the growth of executive power. At war’s end, the President and his advisors, more than Congress, seemed to drive the nation’s domestic and foreign agenda. Furthermore, the Supreme Court refused to hear cases that challenged this increase in executive authority.
7. The “Military-Industrial Complex.”
Although the phrase itself didn’t come into use until years later, the phenomenon of the “military-industrial complex” had its roots in World War II. A systematic relationship arose between big business and the military’s expenditures on defense. During the war, the average daily expenditure on military contracts was $250 million, which inflated American industrial capacity. Small companies disappeared as two-thirds of government contracts went to the hundred largest corporations.
8. Further solidification of the “Corporate State.”
World War II also helped to solidify the strength of organized labor and to cement the intimate relationship between big business and big government so that all three groups exercised power to shore up the corporate state. Although that nation’s farm population declined 17% between 1940 and 1945, better weather, improved fertilizers, the adoption of modern farm machinery, and the consolidation of small farms into large agri-businesses actually increased agricultural production in the United State.
9. A more urban and technological society.
The federal government expanded its role in research and development in a wide variety of projects, from the manufacture of artificial rubber to the construction of the atomic bomb. The nation also became more urbanized, as the six largest cities got two million new inhabitants and 15 million Americans moved from rural areas to the cities.
The End of the Roosevelt Era
President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, less than a month before Germany’s surrender. In 1945, America was a transformed nation. World War II, in fact, changed America in three significant ways:
The war had helped the economy recover. Similar to the situation after World War I, America emerged from the Second World War with a strong economy and relatively few casualties. The war, however, devastated other nations on both sides of the struggle. In the Soviet Union, for example, the number of casualties in Germany’s siege of Leningrad exceeded the combined total of British and American wartime deaths.
The United States possessed the atomic bomb and was now the most powerful nation in the world.
American were ready for a rest, just as they had been after World War I.
Along with these differences, the nation suddenly found itself with a new leader: Harry S Truman, a virtual political unknown. Truman had served as Roosevelt’s vice president for just a short time. Prior to becoming vice president, he had served on the United States Senate. His main qualifications for the vice presidency seemed to be that he didn’t take controversial stances and never angered anyone. Roosevelt and Truman shared little in common in terms of their background and political style. FDR was from one of the most prominent families in America and had been educated at Harvard University and Columbia Law School. Truman, on the other hand, came from a family of modest means, had fought in World War I, had held various odd jobs, and had earned his law degree by attending night school. He had risen through the ranks of the Kansas City, Missouri, political machine to become a United States Senator in 1934.
Following on the heels of the only president many Americans had ever known, Truman certainly had his work cut out for him. Initially, he made a number of political mistakes. In the end, however, he turned out to be one of the most dynamic and decisive presidents in American history. During his first years in office, Truman presented Congress a host of legislative proposals, many in the spirit of the New Deal. The history of Truman’s ambitious legislative programs, and of their fate in the conservative Congress, is a fascinating and especially important part of our story.