In response to growing threats from the Axis Powers during the late 1930s, the United States Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts and embarked on a more aggressive military preparedness program. In 1938, Congress announced that it sought "a Navy second to none," and doubled the tonnage of combat vessels two years later. The nine battleships and eleven Essex class aircraft carriers that were part of that build-up, however, were not commissioned until 1943. By the summer of 1941, the military draft contributed to the 1.2 million men in the U.S. Army.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States swiftly mobilized its armed forces and national economy. The United States proved to be the "Arsenal of Democracy," as President Roosevelt promised, spending about $350 billion directly on the war. Americans also participated in greater numbers than any previous conflict. A total of more than 16 million served in the armed forces, including 11 million soldiers, 4 million sailors, and 670,000 marines. The army figures include the air corps, which hit a peak of 2.4 million in early 1944. Ten million of those who served were drafted. More than 400,000 Americans were killed during the war, and another million wounded.
The United States played the pivotal economic role in the outcome of World War Two. Military mobilization erased the last vestiges of the Great Depression and triggered an economic boom. In 1941, only about 15 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) went to the military; by 1944, it topped 40 percent. The United States by that time was producing twice as much war material as Germany and Japan combined. Eventually, American war plants turned out 300,000 aircraft, 90,000 tanks, and 100,000 naval vessels.
Naturally, not everything went smoothly in the massive military build-up. It was some time before the Navy received torpedoes with reliable detonators, but eventually submarines sank 60 percent of the Japanese merchantmen and 30 percent of the enemy warships in the Pacific theater. In the air war, American industry developed a series of heavy bombers, including the long-range B-29. These "super fortresses" arrived at Saipan in 1944 and, under the command of General Curtis E. LeMay, conducted extremely effective night attacks on Japanese factories and military targets. The Arsenal of Democracy provided crucial support, as well, to Allied nations through the Lend-Lease program.
Economic wartime planning began before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the summer of 1939, the War Resources Board was formed under the leadership of Edward Stettinius, and it began planning for a mobilization of the nation's military resources. The following year, the Office of Production Management (OPM) was organized to coordinate defense projects. William Knudsen, head of General Motors, directed the OPM. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, former Supreme Court justice James Byrnes was appointed chair of the War Production Board, formed to establish priorities for industrial mobilization. The more efficient Office of War Mobilization, also headed by Byrnes, replaced the board in early 1943. This agency became the central office for national economic mobilization.
Soon after the United States entered the war, representatives of industry and labor organizations met with President Roosevelt and pledged to maintain maximum production levels. The government formed a National War Labor Board to implement the no-strike pledge and negotiate contract disputes. In the summer of 1942, the board approved a 15 percent wage increase for unionized steel workers. The following year, however, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers threatened a strike over salary grievances. President Roosevelt ordered the Interior Department to seize the mines, but ultimately the miners were granted most of their demands.
In response to labor unrest, Congress in July 1943 passed the Smith-Connally Act, or the War Labor Disputes Act. This law made it a criminal offense to provoke strikes in industries working on government contracts and authorized the seizure of companies and plants needed for the war effort. The most dramatic use of the Smith-Connally Act was directed at Sewell Avery, president of the giant retail company Montgomery Ward. Sewell defied a War Labor Board ruling, and the Commerce Department seized the company and held collective bargaining elections. Avery continued his feud with the government and Montgomery Ward was placed under the control of the U.S. Army for the final months of the war. For the most part, however, management and labor worked relatively harmoniously in mobilizing American industrial production, half of which went to the war effort.
The war generally was not an economic hardship on the home front. Price controls and rationing were considered essential to prevent rampant inflation and maintain civilian morale. The Office of Price Administration was created in early 1940, as American industry was harnessed to aid the British fight against Hitler. Some consumer goods were not produced during the war. Passenger cars, for example, were not built between 1942 and 1946, as the auto plants retooled to provide the military with jeeps, trucks, and tanks. Goods that contributed to the war effort were rationed, including tires, gasoline, shoes, sugar, coffee, and meat; but the amounts permitted under rationing were frequently greater than Americans had been able to afford at the height of the Great Depression.
American agriculture was also harnessed to support the fight against the Axis. Food production reached an historic high in 1944, and almost one-quarter of the crops went directly to the military, including Lend-Lease aid to the Allies. Production increased despite fewer farm laborers and only a slight rise in total acreage planted. Fortunately, the "Dust Bowl" had ended and better weather conditions contributed to the increase. So, too, did mechanization and the widespread use of fertilizers. Before a shortage of workers hindered the war effort, the military draft was amended to defer two million farm laborers. Government planning also helped, as did the temporary influx of some 200,000 farm workers (braceros) from Mexico. Many city residents contributed to the cause by planting "victory gardens," and raising some of their own produce.
Scientists made key contributions to the Allied victory. After the outbreak of war in Europe, the National Defense Research Committee was created. The following year, the Office of Scientific Research and Development was given broader powers under the leadership of Dr. Vannevar Bush. Synthetic rubber, plastics, and sonar were developed and new weapons invented, including the bazooka. Penicillin, discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1929, was instrumental in saving countless lives. Radar was utilized by all the belligerent nations, with the British leading the way for the Allies. The most significant scientific project of the war was the development of the atomic bomb.
German scientists led the way in the field of atomic energy in the late 1930s. Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, alerted American scientists of the military potential of the German research. Albert Einstein, a Jewish refugee, and Enrico Fermi, an Italian Nobel laureate teaching at Columbia University, were among those who persuaded President Roosevelt to sponsor atomic research. Congress eventually appropriated more than two billion dollars for the "Manhattan Project," the codename for the development of the atomic bomb.
In December 1942, a team of scientists at the University of Chicago working under the supervision of Dr. Fermi, triggered the first successful chain reaction in a uranium isotope, U-235. Under the direction of General Leslie R. Groves at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Robert J. Oppenheimer assembled the scientists and engineers who built the first atomic weapon. On July 16, 1945, in the remote sands of Alamagordo, the atomic bomb was successfully tested. The following month, President Harry S. Truman made the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan.
Women and minorities served in greater numbers than they did during the First World War. Some 333,000 women enlisted, about a third of them in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (Wacs). Women in the other branches were known as Waves (Navy) and Spars (Coast Guard), but female marines had no distinctive designation. Women were employed in non-combat roles but many of them—especially nurses and pilots who ferried planes to the theaters of war—found themselves in dangerous situations.
Approximately 700,000 African-Americans served, including half a million overseas, but most were in supply and construction units. There were two black combat divisions, some separate support battalions, and a renowned fighter group—the "Tuskegee Airmen." Throughout the war, African-American servicemen remained strictly segregated. Twenty-five thousand Native Americans served in the armed forces, and many saw combat in Europe and the Pacific. A Pima tribesman from Arizona, Ira Hayes, was among the marines who participated in the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima. Some Indians, including Comanches in the European theater and Navajos fighting in the Pacific, made important contributions as "code talkers" who transmitted radio messages in their native language. As many as 300,000 Mexican-Americans served in the armed forces, and seventeen of them earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unlike black servicemen, Hispanics and Native Americans were integrated into regular units.
In addition to those who joined the armed forces, American women contributed to the war effort on the home front. The percentage of women in the work force remained basically the same throughout the years between the world wars, but that all changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With the military draft in full swing, women were employed in unprecedented numbers on farms and in factories. Six million women, over half of them never employed outside the home before, joined the workforce. That represented an increase of nearly 60 percent. Three-fourths of the working women were married—many with husbands fighting overseas-and more than half were mothers over the age of 30. The federal government established thousands of day—care centers during the war, but these were not enough to care for all the children of the women working in military plants.
For the first time, women in large numbers were employed in heavy industry and other jobs that had been traditionally viewed as "men's work." Women became steel workers, machinists, blacksmiths, crane operators, truck drivers, and railroad workers. As laborers in defense plants, they helped construct military equipment of all types, including the largest airplanes and naval vessels. "Rosie the Riveter" was the poster girl for women employed in defense industries. Sexual discrimination in the workplace continued, however, and most women were paid less than men for similar work, and few women were in decision-making positions.
When the war ended, two-thirds of the women employed during the conflict left the work force. Many were pushed out, to make room for returning servicemen. About half left voluntarily because they wanted to resume their traditional domestic role as wife and mother. This was, after all, the start of the "baby boom" generation of American families who flocked to the expanding suburbs. After an initial decline, however, the number of women in the work force by 1947 equaled those employed during the war. Working outside the home had become respectable for middle-class women, although they continued to face discrimination.
War industries initially did not welcome African-Americans into the labor force. In the spring of 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened a massive "march on Washington" to demonstrate against racial discrimination. President Roosevelt responded by issuing Executive Order 8802, ending discrimination in plants receiving defense contracts and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Many African-Americans moved to the northern cities and began exerting increased political power. Membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People increased ten-fold during the war, to nearly half a million. The Congress of Racial Equality, which aggressively championed an end to segregation, was founded in 1941. Black Americans embraced the "Double-V," which stood for victory against foreign foes and domestic racism. The groundwork was being laid for the Civil Rights movement of the post-war era.
Native Americans left the reservations in large numbers during the Second World War. In some cases they were driven by necessity—the end of New Deal welfare programs—as well as patriotism. Some 70,000 worked in defense industries, and many of those ultimately assimilated into white society. Others lost their jobs following the war, and returned to the reservations. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that revitalized tribal autonomy, was weakened during the war. Indians, as well as blacks, faced a different world after the defeat of the Axis.
The influx of Mexican farm laborers during the war and the migration of many Mexican-Americans to the southwestern United States, increased tensions between Hispanics and whites. Exacerbating the situation in Los Angeles were thousands of Hispanic teenagers who formed neighborhood gangs. These pachucos wore "zoot-suits," a style of dress that originated in Harlem during the late 1930s. The zoot-suiters rebelled against traditional middle-class society and became targets of violence after allegedly attacking some white sailors. In June 1943, hundreds of Hispanics were brutally beaten by white servicemen and civilians cruising their neighborhoods in taxicabs. After several days of street fighting, dubbed the "zoot suit riots," order was restored when the police moved in and arrested the Hispanic youths. A city ordinance subsequently banned the wearing of zoot suits.
The federal government did not repeat the mistakes of the First World War, when doughboys marched off to fight "the war to end all wars." During the earlier conflict, the government entered into a high-powered propaganda campaign that proclaimed America was striving "to make the world safe for democracy." George Creel headed the Committee on Public Information, which turned out crude propaganda that demonized the enemy, particularly the German "Huns." One film that captured the mood was titled The Beast of Berlin. Following the First World War, disillusionment set in when it became clear that the great democratic crusade had failed to bring lasting peace.
During World War Two, the federal government refrained from such heavy-handed propaganda, although it worked to get out its message. The official line was that the war was being fought to defend the United States, not as an ideological crusade. This approach worked only too well. In 1942, public opinion polls revealed that only 10 percent of Americans were familiar with even one provision of the Atlantic Charter. Only about half of the population claimed to have a "clear idea what the war is about."
The Office of War Information, headed by Indiana journalist Elmer Davis, consolidated government news services in America and abroad. The overseas branch, directed by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, conducted propaganda campaigns in addition to providing war news. In general, the government relied on self-censorship by wartime correspondents to protect military secrets and troop movements. The Supreme Court voted five-to-four to uphold freedom of speech in Hartzel v. United States, ruling that propaganda to obstruct the draft and create dissension within the armed forces was not a crime unless specifically in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
The federal government promoted a series of films designed to explain to American servicemen and civilians what the war against the Axis Powers meant to the future of democracy. Known as Why We Fight, the films were produced by Major Frank Capra and narrated by John Huston. Capra, who directed a string of motion pictures during the 1930s that focused on the common man and the virtues of small towns, recalled that he was instructed by General George C. Marshall to "explain to our boys in the Army . . . the principles for which we are fighting." Deftly using clips from Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, and other films that glorified the Nazis, Capra presented a documentary-style indictment of fascism and totalitarianism.
Popular films coming out of Hollywood during the war years generally were blatantly patriotic and emphasized the heroism of American servicemen. William Wyler's The Memphis Belle, released in 1944, typified the genre. Actors also donned uniforms to fight the Axis overseas. Jimmy Stewart, drafted into the Army Air Corps before the attack on Pearl Harbor, flew bombing missions in Europe and remained in the Air Reserves after the war, rising to the rank of brigadier general. Even cartoonists joined the war effort. Tex Avery created the popular "Private Snafu" character at Warner Brothers, and Walt Disney's Donald Duck belittled Adolf Hitler and his henchmen in "Der Fuehrer's Face." Most of the war's stereotypical portrayals of the evil "Krauts" and barbarous "Japs" came from Hollywood, not from government propaganda.
During the Second World War, the federal government made a concerted effort not to persecute German-Americans for the sins of Hitler's Nazis. Italian-Americans likewise faced little discrimination because of Mussolini. The American people viewed the fascist dictators as the enemy, not the Italian or German people. This tolerant attitude, however, did not extend to Japanese-Americans, who became the focal point of ethnic hatred directed against the Axis Powers.
Several hundred thousand Japanese migrated to Hawaii and the American mainland prior to the 1920s, when Congress prohibited further immigration. These Japanese were not allowed to become American citizens, and by the Second World War, about a third of the Japanese living in the United States were Issei, or first-generation immigrants; two-thirds were Nisei, native-born citizens of the United States. The Japanese on the American mainland concentrated in California, where they generally prospered as truck farmers and storeowners. Similar to other immigrant groups, the Japanese lived in close-knit communities, but their isolation from white society was reinforced by ethnic and racial hostility directed toward Asians. Ironically, Chinese-Americans experienced a decline in racial animosity after the Japanese invaded Manchuria.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, launched when the United States was still officially at peace, united Americans in the war effort against the "treacherous" Japanese. The federal government, without any evidence to support the charges, labeled the Japanese on the West Coast a "threat" to national security. General John DeWitt, the ranking commander in California, publicly stated that the loyalty and patriotism of the Japanese was suspect, and he drew no distinction between the Issei and Nesei. "A Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not." California's attorney general, Earl Warren, agreed that the general passivity of Japanese-Americans belied their real threat.
In February 1942, President Roosevelt, responding to pressure from military and political officials in California, issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the army to "intern" the Japanese. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) rounded up more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, beginning in April, and sent them to "relocation centers" in half a dozen western states. Most of the internees were United States citizens, and a third of them were children. Forced to sell their homes, farms, and businesses at short notice for whatever was offered, the Japanese lost their property in addition to their freedom.
Conditions in the internment camps were harsh and demeaning, but the parents attempted to make life as normal as possible for their children. They established schools, planted gardens, and worked as agricultural laborers on nearby farms. At Tule Lake in northern California, however, the internees demonstrated for their rights and frequently refused to work. As a result, Tule Lake became a "segregation camp," where prisoners were sent who refused to take the mandatory loyalty oath or otherwise rebelled against their incarceration. At its peak capacity, nearly 19,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans resided at Tule Lake.
As the hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor subsided, and it became more apparent that the Japanese did not present a real threat to America, conditions in the internment camps improved. Beginning in 1943, some of the Japanese-Americans began to leave the camps to attend college or work in factories—although the WRA did not allow them to move back to the West Coast. Other Nesei, including those in Hawaii (who were not interned during the war), joined the armed forces. The 100th Infantry Battalion, comprised of Japanese-American national guardsmen from Hawaii, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that was formed in 1943, fought with distinction on the Italian front. Japanese-American soldiers earned more than 18,000 individual decorations—including 22 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded by President Clinton in 2000—and seven Presidential Unit Citations, the nation's top award for combat.
In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of internment in the case of Korematsu v. United States. In another case that year, ex parte Endo, the court ruled that "loyal" citizens could not be relocated, and most of the internees were gradually released. In early 1945, they were allowed to return to the West Coast, although their property and businesses were irretrievably gone and they continued to face ethnic harassment. In 1988, with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, Congress finally recognized the injustice of the relocation policy. Survivors of the camps were granted $20,000 in compensation, but many of the internees were not alive to claim the reparations.