America’s War Years on the Home Front (1941-1945)
An Unexpected View of History
By: J. Marlando
I believe that it is important to start this story nearly ten years before America would be going into the war; back to 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency for the first time. The votes were overwhelmingly in Roosevelt’s favor who won by 5 million votes over the Republican President, Herbert Hoover and well over the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas who managed only to gather around under 885,000 votes and the communist candidate that was only given around 100,000 votes. At the time the American home front was in desperation. The Wall Street crash of 1929 had created a dark cloud of joblessness and stark poverty across the entire country and, for that matter, across much of the Western world—Germany would endure terrible “hunger pangs” as world economics imploded into virtual ruins. We will of course be talking more about Germany a little later.
Our country had in trouble since 1920 when prohibition created an underground economy that would make bootleggers and other gangsters extremely wealthy and powerful especially in local politics and law enforcement. This had been a result of American government creating laws meant to protect the individual from himself; something that would have made the forefathers roll over in their graves. Nevertheless, the right to the pursuit of happiness had suddenly been legislated and restricted in a sudden emergence of big brother governing under the Democratic administration of President Woodrow Wilson but supported by the next three presidents—Harding, Coolidge and Hoover—all Republicans.
By 1923 big business and government were public bedfellows as opposed to being a closet relationship as it (mostly) had been in the past at least to the ordinary citizen. Now the people were privy to the idea that America was ruled by a mixture of politicians and wealthy business leaders. This had always been the case—most of the founding fathers were successful businessmen and during the Civil War days and the unfolding of the Industrial Age—men like J.P. Morgan, John D, Rockefeller, James Mellon and Philip Armour were the rulers behind the throne in the Oval Room and the same type of men would later create the Spanish American War for purposes of expanding markets and a burning desire toward becoming a world power. The Wall Street crash and banking mismanagement, however, landed an unwanted fly into the ointment of the national leviathans of commerce, travel, manufacturing and government.
By 1931 there were millions of Americans out of work, there were soup lines, there was a virus of poverty spreading across the entire country except for the super-rich and super powerful at a time when the richest country on the face of the earth had suddenly fallen from grace. And quite suddenly, a great many people were outraged at leadership and many marched on Washington.
There were out of work, hungry Word War I veterans who marched on Washington in 1932 holding government bonus certificates due many years in the future but calling for Congress to pay off in the present. Miners from West Virginia made their way to Washington’s street, sheet metal workers came from Georgia, an out-of-work American Indian, Chief Running Wolf-- made his way from California to Washing D.C. in full traditional dress and carrying a bow and arrow to make his point. All in all, over twenty thousand arrived in D.C. building a make-shift camp across the Potomac River across from the Capital. In some cases entire families lived in cardboard or some other make shift houses. Hoover was the President then and he did not respond to the people’s outcries, he ordered the Army to remove them.
Historian Howard Zinn tells us this: “Four troops of cavalry, four companies of infancy, a machine gun squadron, and six tanks assembled near the White House. General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of the operations. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower his aide. George S. Patton was one of the officers. MacArthur led his troops down Pennsylvania Avenue, used tear gas to clear veterans out of the old buildings, and set the building on fire. Then the Army moved across the bridge to Anacostia. Thousands of veterans’ wives, children began to run as the tear gas spread. The soldiers set fire to some of the huts, and soon the whole encampment was ablaze. When it was over, two veterans had been shot to death, an eleven week-old baby had died, an eight-year-old boy was partially blinded by gas, two police had fractured skulls, and a thousand veterans were injured by gas.”
There had begun a chipping away of government being “of, for and by the people” and a construct of “them and us” began to prevail in the hearts of a great many suffering Americans who felt abandoned by the White House. But, this suffering and this abandonment would create an enormous gateway into the presidency for a democrat promising a…new deal.
President Roosevelt had inherited a troubled country when he was sworn in: At the time in 1933, 1 in 4 workers were unemployed, The steel industry was working at around 12%, the national income was less than it had been even in 1930 and some 5,000 banks had collapsed that took with them nine million savings accounts. By 1933 9,000 banks had closed or gone bankrupted and a great decline in purchasing power followed.
The Roosevelt administration made two vital changes. First it supported the N.R.A. (The National Recovery Administration) most basically forging an alliance between government and business.
Developing the N.R.A. was clearly a maneuver that leaned toward socialistic thinking causing a lot of controversy at the time. Some called it fascism! Certainly it put a lot of restraints on big business that changed the notions of free enterprise itself and, subtly supporting unionization considered, by many, as out and out communism at the time.
Franklin D. was not a fan of laissez-faire, however. Laissez-faire had failed in his eyes and, truth be told, it had at least in these two ways. (1) *Laissez-faire had created a Darwinistic philosophy that worked people long hours for little pay and often in dangerous conditions while the fat cats of industry and business kept getting…well…fatter! And (2) Laissez-faire simply created a non-compassionate greed that eventuated into the bank failures which were far more intrinsic to the “great” depression than was Wall Street.
The second major act under the new Roosevelt administration was the lifting of prohibition. This created Roosevelt extremely popular except for the so-called moral right of the mid-west who had supported the 21st Amendment that had created the country (legally) dry.
As a quick aside, most virtually as soon as prohibition went away so did organized crime that lost its greatest source of income. While it retreated back into undercover operations of mainly gambling, prostitution and drugs, it no longer held a kingdom of an ever growing subculture that had virtually ruled almost since prohibition began. When the law changed, the days of such gangsters as Al Capone had simply gone away.
In addition to all else the Midwest drought began in Roosevelt’s second year in office. The drought earliest disaster was with the wheat crops—they were so sparse along with other crop failures that farm prices fell by 50%. Farmers were openly ready to revolt and government was well aware of the severity of the problems.
The dust storms hit again in 1935 which started the migration of field workers and farm tenants exiting the mid-west and migrating to California hoping for work. (See the film, “Grapes of Wrath” that absolutely captures the dynamics of the exodus of poor dirt farmers).
In 1935 the Roosevelt Administration tried to pass the N.I.R.A. Bill (National. Industrial Recovery Act) which would be President Roosevelt’s first failure as it would be denied as unconstitutional. For one thing, it provided that industry be placed under codes of fair dealings and regulated wages, hours, conditions and collective bargaining. These “codes” are precisely what should have been self-imposed by business and industry operating under Laisser-faire; a compassionate capitalism, if you will, but instead big business was self-serving and unconscientiously self-centered. This Darwinistic attitude of pompous, uncaring for the worker is precisely what opened the doors for unionization and the socialistic tendencies that made Roosevelt so popular among the people. By 1935, Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (the C.C.C. camps) that employed 500,000 workers. In that same year Social Security was passed. At the same time Writers and Artists were given support by the W.P.A. (Work Progress Administration) and for **the first time in history the U.S. was supporting its artists.
In the following year, Franklin D. Roosevelt won his second term in a landslide which was the biggest win in American history—523 electro votes! This in spite of the fact that at least one third of the nation remained “ill housed,” ill-clad” and Ill-nourished.” The depression years were still taking their toll. In fact, by 1938 began the first year of minimum wage and also the year that Congress allotted billions for work programs and so there was a certain renewed optimism that Roosevelt had given the people; a new, kinder face of government. Then, in that same year the W.P.A. began to support musicians—The Federal Music Project had been formed. Even new plays were being commissioned under the federal Arts Project.
There was simply a greater faith in government and America’s future by the time 1939 rolled around. This too was the year that the Wizard of Oz opened in theaters with its two great subliminal messages—success takes courage, a brain and…a heart. Heart! And that leadership, at bottom line is mere demagoguery and so to be aware and cautious of all political “wizards.”
This demagoguery had been consistent since the advent of civilization itself and has yet to change even in our own modern times. And of course going back to the ending decade of the 1930s, Hitler was to prove himself as the most evil of all history’s demagogues and there had been a great many in the arenas of cruel dictatorships.
It was in 1939 that the Nazis attacked Poland to start the Second World War. Roosevelt swore to keep the United States neutral.
In 1940, however, Hitler’s war machine had moved into France and had already been torturing and murdering countless Jews, Gypsies and others who were not Aryan and/or disagreed with Germany’s policies. In the wake of this a 1940 headline read: As France Falls, U.S. moves from neutrality to non-belligerency. In this same year Franklin D, won his third term as U.S. President.
It was this year too that Japan revealed its deep diplomatic anger at the Roosevelt Administration’s ban on export oil and scrap metals—both needed desperately for Japan’s continuing war with China. In addition the U.S. had also warned Japan about putting more bases in the northern part of French Indochina which of course included Vietnam. In the meantime Germans continued to sink American vessels if we can belief the reports. (Remember blatant lies were told the American People about American ships being fired upon in Bay of Tonkin to create support for expanding the war in Vietnam. This creates suspicion of all pre-war propaganda especially when we study the reasons we fought in the Spanish/American War).
In any case, on December 7th, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor killing 2000 Navy men and wounding over 700. Only four days later Germany and Italy declared war on us so Americans suddenly wanted revenge. We were a country at war on two fronts and Life in the U.S. had suddenly changed.
*Laissez-faire government is by far the best of all governmental structures ever conceived in all of our 10,000 to 15,000 years of so-called civilized history. The problem is clearly that those who excelled in it, misused it and turned it into a weapon against labor; an enslavement really in the guise of employment. The Ludlow Massacre in Colorado is a prime example of what I am talking about here. There is simply no doubt that Jefferson was right—the government that governs least, governs best, but such a beautiful concept cannot blossom as long as government and business maintain a love affair.
**America has never supported its artists to any great degree. This is why we have so little art for our size of a nation in comparison to so many other places on the planet. Indeed, I was among the last individual recipients to be given America’s NEA Award for playwriting back in the 1970s when now the only art grants that are given are given directly to non-profit bureaucracies. Sad but true. In this recognition it is accurate to say that American individualism has gone the way of high top shoes and whalebone corsets.
Early Changes in the American Way of Life
Once war was declared a great many Americans either joined the armed forces or were drafted. Except for a minute few, nearly every American was gun-ho for retaliating against the Japanese and believed that Hitler was a threat to freedom lovers everywhere. There was very little in the news, however, about the horrors of his concentration camps what would eventually take the lives of six million Jews and four million others. When we truly imagine that many millions of people being tortured and slaughtered we are struck with the terrible reality of what Hitler’s totalitarianism and racism were creating. In this way the 1940s American-at-home were fortunate as the actual terror of it all was two oceans away.
The reason the U.S. had joined the war effort was not Hitler or his cruelty but because of Japan’s sudden attack on Pearl Harbor. Not that an eventual attack by the Japanese was not expected. After all, America was standing in the way of Japan’s ambitions to control the tin, rubber and oil of Southeast Asia, a formable challenge to American markets. Washington was well aware that our response to our setting an embargo of scrap iron and oil was taking a high risk of Japan declaring war. Nevertheless, the Southeast Pacific was of tremendous economic importance to the U.S. and “we” weren’t about to permit a small country like Japan, powerful as it had grown, to interfere with that. And, the truth is also, that entering the war both the United States and England met in Newfoundland to announce to the world that their countries expected no aggrandizement for their war efforts as they respected the right of all people to choose whatever form of government under which they wanted to live. Upon hearing this on their radios, the American people were even more enthusiastic to support the war effort against the tyrants of the world.
At home one of the first changes that took place was rationing.
Food and gasoline started the rationing program but other items followed immediately like rubber, scrap metal, nylon (practically everything) so government could control supply and demand and assures the vast military that it would be supplied with their needs. America’s military was soon enough called the best fed Army in the world.
Rationing was difficult to adjust to for most people but most people did not mind because they were doing what they could to help the war effort. As it turned out, World War II created a most admirable cohesiveness of the American people that had ever consisted in its history. By 1943 60,000 Americans had already been killed but beyond the many tears and broken hearts, patriotism prevailed because Americans believed—heart and soul—that we were fighting for “right” and that made even the most devastating sacrifices acceptable. However, this “fight-for-right” belief did not simply occur. The government sponsored ads, radio shows and posters in a propaganda campaign that supported positive public opinion. Much of that propaganda said that every American needed to do their part—without complaint—and most Americans, as is said, stood tall.
Not all food items were scarce of course. “Red Stamp” rationing covered all meats, fat, oils and butter. “Blue Stamp” rationing covered canned, bottled, juices, dry beans, vegetables and juices. Every family was issued a “Wear Ration Book” so that each family would have their fair share of the available food supply and that the wealthy couldn’t hoard. And, the rationing of car/truck gasoline and tires depended on how far a person had to drive to work. Not every working person in the country owned a car at the time and a great many people just continued walking to work as they had done before the war.
Sometimes entire American communities would join together in a scrap-iron drives. As said, with few exceptions the American people had been united by the war effort. And, truth be told, the fact that the people were forced to give up eating a lot of red meats and fats created a healthier nation. An irony to say the least!
The government also encouraged growing “Victory Gardens” so for at least a few months out of the year people could have the vegetables that they wanted. It is said that 20 million victory gardens supplied around 40% of the country’s vegetables.
There was simply a pride in the nation during the war years that was destined for decades after the war. Just about every man, woman and child who were not in the military were left with a feeling that he or she had done their part to make America a victorious nation over a very vicious enemy.
World War II American was also Imperfect
As said in the above it turned out the wartime hardships actually served to weave the American people together…but not all the people. Racial prejudice still persisted in civilian life as well as in the military. In the military segregation was everywhere just as it had persisted in World War I. In fact, blacks were anxious to serve in the World War 1 because they believed their patriotism and willingness to fight for the country would gain a greater equality and respect for them. It didn’t. When the black Johnnies of the First World War marched home, they were treated ever as condescending by white society as they had been before they left. Indeed, they had left as “second rated citizens” and returned to being treated as “second rated citizens.” This caused many blacks to be less enthusiastic about joining the fighting during the Second World War. Nevertheless, a great many did only to discover that they were thought of as being a lesser value to the war effort than whites were; an unfair and ignorant attitude but one that even the government held especially because many racist whites refused to even fight alongside blacks at the time. (I suppose no one noticed that bullets have no racial biases—they kill and maim people equally and without bias).
Disregarding the prejudices against them the military created an “experimental” training program expected to fail even before it began. The training program was to train black pilots and crewmen to serve during the war at Tuskegee Army Airfield, in Tuskegee Alabama.
The men in training were put through a virtue hell during the process of earning their wings. So much prejudice prevailed among the white instructors from hateful resentment that blacks were actually going to become (American) airmen that much was done to discourage the black men and push them toward failure. The black men persisted however and earned their wings. (One reason the opportunity came about in the first place was the support of the beloved Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D., who stood strongly behind the program and greatly favored the idea of lifting prejudices that especially belittled black servicemen).
In spite of the military’s double standard, obvious prejudices the black pilots becoming known to be the most feared by German pilots. They were obvious black heroes just as a great many ground soldiers had been but generally without notice. In any case, the Tuskegee airmen proved their value to the war effort and to the world time and time again during the war. While the efforts of the black soldier had some impact on gaining ground for equality in the country, equal rights would nevertheless not be truly launched until 1955.
(As a quick aside, George Lucas took 58 million of his own money to produce a great movie with title The Tuskegee Airmen—he had waited 23 years to be able to put the dream into reality. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne, Alan Payne, Cuba Gooding and others. It is directed by Anthony Hemingway and is a must see motion picture. The movie itself will put a lump in your throat and a song in your heart no matter what color you are. And when the show is over, you will feel more educated on racial issues than perhaps you ever might have been. I do not want to sound like a commercial but the movie is to experience as opposed to merely see; in fact, you will never be the same once you are through the experience that I am referring to).
Women in the War Years
Even during the depression days of the 1930s the general lifestyle of America romanticized home, mom and apple pie as a metaphor for the warmth and joy of family life. Back then the family unit was considered the backbone of the entire nation and, for a great many Americans there really wasn’t “any place like home sweet home.”
While many poorer women worked before the war, middle class wives in majority stayed at home to tend to the house and children; cook meals and create a comfort zone for her family. Moms simply took care of everyone, made sure the kids got to school on time, husbands had a nice breakfast before going to work; she put on the bandaids and kissed away the pain that occurs in all our daily lives.
Most husbands felt it disgraceful if their wives worked outside the home; as if they had failed as providers a taboo for married life during the pre-war years. After the war effort began, however, most men of working age were in uniform and serving in the armed forces so industry and business needed workers to take their place. The only choice was to put women in positions that had been reserved for men before the war. Adding to the need for labor there was suddenly a huge war industry to keep producing. As a result, the government quickly created a big propaganda drive to entice women into the work force as part as their wartime duty.
Rosie the Riveter became the poster child for female workers. The government’s image of Rosie was determined, loyal, patriotic and attractive. The Rosie image was…well…quite rosy. (My own mother worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war). In any case, all was not “rosy.”
Many male workers and male employers resented women on the job. And slacks for women became essential and suddenly popular—women “in pants” created a lot of poor-taste jokes from men who felt threatened by women’s entrance into higher paying jobs. Nevertheless, those jobs also caused extra burdens on a great many women and especially those with children. In a way they had to work “double shifts” in that they toiled during the day at their jobs and took care of the kids and other home duties in the evenings. And, if relatives weren’t close then baby sitters had to be hired and that cut deeply into the lady’s payday. (I was four years old when my mother worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war but she finally had to quit because she could not afford rent, and other costs of living including a daily baby sitter for me. We left California and returned to Colorado Springs where she began to waitress again).
The truth is that women excelled at their jobs and they were, in metaphor, Rosie the Riveters in human action. Nevertheless, after the war, *most would return to home making as the spirit of home, Mom and Apple Pie had been missed during the war years. After the war, men and women were anxious to regain what they had lost between 1941 and 1945.
*For further reading see my article “American Women in Review” on infobarrel.com
World War II is, without any doubt whatsoever the most romantic era in all of history. The movie of the times said it all—songs like “Sentimental Journey,” “I’ll be seeing you (in all the old familiar places) and Harbor lights—songs that are about the passion of romantic love and romance was everywhere during those years when especially young lovers never knew if they were to see each other again.
And government propaganda created an extreme double standard for the times. Before the war any woman who had sex before marriage was considered cheap and yes, sinful by those in the center of the American society. But government instructed women to do all they could to “keep the soldier’s moral up” and it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to translate the hidden meaning here. As a result lots of unwed mothers gave birth during the war.
In view of those births out of wedlock, however, we must remember that during the war years it is essential for the prudes of morality to realize that both males and females tried to cram a lifetime of living into virtual moments of togetherness. Soldiers from all branches of the military home on leave before “shipping over” or simply in the service were in jeopardy of never seeing their next birthday much less having the time to plan for next year’s wedding. Guys and gals wanted at least a small sample of loving togetherness in case…they never saw one another again.
This certainly proved true for the postwar years and the baby boom exploded.
Blackouts Additional Information
One of the war tactics used by Americans at home was the blackouts; the placing black cloth over the windows at night so no light shined forth in case of an air raid. I remember traveling by train to California as a child and right before we got into Los Angeles the trained pulled to a stop and turned off its lights for full five or ten minutes during an official blackout. Actually, when one thinks about it, had a Japanese squadron of bombers planned to raid a city at night, they would have had spies set off flairs or beam lights into the air as a guide to the darkened city. On the other hand a renegade attack say, from a submarine—which happened by the way—a blackout would certainly make it impossible to line up an effective shot. Anyway, all in all, we Americans were extremely fortunate that our country never saw the horrors that that Europeans saw during those war years.
What is little known is that around 25,000 American Natives served in the military during World War II. Many were Navahos who used their unique language to send coded messages but many also became infantry-fighting-men who saw a good many battles. A lot of the Indian soldiers coming home from overseas chose to stay off the reservation and adopted city life for themselves.
The Mexican population also grew over the war years. In fact, the Mexican government agreed to a program that permitted braceros (contract labor) to come into the states to work for limited amounts of time. Actually during the depression many Mexican farm workers were deported to give desperate whites jobs but during the labor shortage of the war they were gladly rehired and still being hired to this day.
As always people became quite creative during hard times—women for example would save their lard and sell to butchers for 2 cents a pound. And, back then the axiom that tells us “a penny saved is a penny earned” was meaningful Indeed. During those years it was not unusual for children to be told to eat every bit of food on their plates and be thankful for it because there were children in Europe with nothing to eat at all. At the time very few Americans knew the real details of the concentration camps or had an idea of the real suffering going on by millions of human beings. Well, those war years between 1939 and 1945 were hellish years with the rivers of blood running deep across much of our planet, even before our entrance into the battle fields in 1941. When we entered the war after Pearl Harbor, however, we became a country of unwavering determination; a proud and cohesive people.
I was a small child during the war years with little understanding of what was going on but I remember overhearing adult conversations and wondering why so many tears were being shed. There is that old JohnWaynian saying that tells us War is Hell and sure enough it is but also it a cruel, human absurdity that should have been made obsolete centuries ago. The truth is that so-called civilization began in warring tribes called city/states creating “us and them” realities. That is, whoever wasn’t “us” was “them” and whoever were a “them” were deemed enemies. The truth of the matter, however, is that from the very dawning of civilization the motives of war were not truly ideology, religious or political, they were profit motivated with ideology serving the demagogues of leadership to stir their followers into battle. In ancient times gold, goats, cattle and virgins were the booty of victory today it is world markets and other controls. When will it ever change, when will we people ever learn from our own history? Is it such a giant step of understanding to simply realize that no matter what color we are, no matter what gender, no matter how we dress or what totems we bow to that we are all the same and our differences are only apparent?