Social Change in the United States
During World War II
As the possibility of a second World War arose people began to form opinions on the United States role in Europe. The general population disagreed on whether or not to get involved in the conflict with Germany. Some people believed in interventionism, the theory that the United States should do everything it could to support Britain without declaring war on Germany. Along with William Allen White they formed the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Others supported the idea of isolationism, which said that the United States should defend itself first. The supporters of isolationism formed the Committee to Defend America First which was supported mainly by pacifists and socialists and well as democrats and republicans. The majority of Americans were against the involvement of the United States. Congress acted on this general opinion by enacting neutrality laws and appropriating little money for the army and navy. Because of its poor funding, in 1939, the United States Army was small and ranked only 39th in the world. Much of its artillery was still drawn by horses (Harris, 17).
After Japans surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the opinion of the American people drastically changed. Isolationism was eliminated virtually overnight. Most Americans thought they were fighting for President Roosevelts four freedoms:
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression…everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way…everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want…everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear…everywhere in the world.
–President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress, January 6,1941 (National Archives and Records Administration)
Once the United States joined the war it was immediately realized that the armed forces needed to be built up before it could be effective. Flocks of American men, outraged from the Pearl Harbor incident, voluntarily signed up for the army and navy. Those Americans who couldnt join the armed forces helped the war effort by volunteering to grow their own vegetables in make-shift gardens. In 1941 the Secretary of Agriculture formally suggested the use of these victory gardens. The victory gardens were planted anywhere they could be, in such places as vacant lots and jails. The gardens soon accounted for 40% of the countries vegetables (Nash, 525).
To keep Americans informed during the war the government created the Office of War Information. The Office of War Information encouraged the newspapers, radio, and movies to help explain the current events and government policies. The media, however, needed no encouragement and movie makers were soon scrambling to copyright movies like: Bombing of Honolulu, Yellow Peril, and V for Victory. Comic strips were also being based on war. New characters like G.I. Joe and Dan Winslow of the Navy emerged at this time. Songs, advertisements from magazines and newspapers, billboards, and radio shows also picked up the war time trend.
The economic changes that took place during and because of the war were almost all positive. The countrys GNP (gross national product), the total dollar amount of all the goods and services produced in one year, increased from $90.5 billion in 1939 to $211.9 billion in 1945 (Nash 527). Because the war created a demand for supplies and new products as well as military personnel, a slew of new jobs became available. This flood of openings raised wages and lowered the unemployment rate. As the earnings of Americans increased so did the cost of living and by 1942 a person spent 15% more on living expenses than 1939 levels. Because of the dramatic increase in wages and inflation the National War Labor Board (NWLB) was set up to control them. The NWLB allowed a wage increase of 15% in 1942 over 1941 levels. In April 1943, faced with continued inflation, the government issued a hold the line order. Restrictions, however, applied to hourly wages, not to weekly earnings. By working overtime, workers could still earn a good deal more money. Consequently, while wage rates rose by a relatively modest 24% during the war weekly earnings rose by a tremendous 70% (Nash, 528). Because their wages were being limited workers also wanted the prices of goods to be limited, which led to the creation of the capitalized Office of Price Administration (OPA) in 1942.
To keep the cost of various foods down and to conserve materials used by the military the OPA began rationing certain items.
There were certain foods that were hard to come by, like sugar. We used red dime sized tokens and rationing booklets to purchase rationed items. Gasoline rationing was very hard on people who needed to get to work so people car pooled. Womens hose was very hard to get. I could get hose because I was in the military (Bartholme).
Recycling was also encouraged at this time to provide the military with the materials it needed. Neighborhood children often joined clubs that collected recyclable scrap metal from tin cans and other sources.
We saved our used fat from cooked meats and turned it back into to the
meat dealers (used to make bombs). We also saved scrap metal that was
melted down and used again (Jagta).
World War II cost the United States ten times more than World War I did. From 1941 to 1945, the governments operating budget was $321 billion, nearly twice as much as its total spending in the preceding 100 years. Taxes met about 40% of the war costs; the government borrowed the rest (Nash, 528). Most of the money was borrowed from Americans in the form of war bonds. Before the war Americans were not required to pay federal income tax and only 26 million tax returns were filed in 1941. In 1942 congress passed a bill requiring most Americans to pay the tax as funding for the war. Payroll deductions were started in 1943 on a monthly basis.
Because so many men volunteered or were drafted into the service there was a severe shortage of laborers. To help fill this missing gap women from all over the country were hired for jobs previously held by men. (Zeinert, 77) The government started to encourage this new trend by making advertisements like Rosie the Riveter, that showed women as strong and able workers. Women were employed to do all kinds of jobs ranging from factory to military work.
I was in the Navy working in communications. I decoded messages and had an in depth background check done on me before I could serve. I was stationed in Washington D.C. during the war (Bartholme).
Labor unions pledged that as long as the war continued their workers would not strike for better conditions or higher pay. Teenagers aided in the war effort by joining organizations such as Junior Red Cross, The Victory Corps, and the Victory Farm volunteers (Zeinert, 79).
As the war moved into full swing and more and more supplies were needed industry adjusted to supply the material demands. Auto factories were turned into tank and plane manufacturers. Shoe manufacturers began to forge small cannons. A burial vault builder converted to making 100 pound bombs. Also, a soft drink company began to load shells with explosives. These are just a few examples of the many factory conversions that took place during this time.
As migrating workers became common place they needed a place to stay. Some stayed in large industrial cities but many went to small towns. Because of the tremendous and sudden increase in their population previously small towns across America became known as Boomtowns.New arrivals looking for work in these places found housing scarce, medical facilities inadequate, sanitary conditions terrible, schools overcrowded and day care centers almost non-existent” (Nash, 536).
In 1943 many race riots broke out as a result of poorly treated African-American soldiers. These riots started at at least 9 army training camps in that year alone. The worst riot erupted in Detroit where 6,000 African-Americans and countless whites rioted for over a day resulting in the death of 25 African-Americans and 9 whites and the injury of 700 people. Despite the outbreaks of violence African-Americans started to receive more rights and were employed regularly during the war. Living conditions of minorities improved through the efforts of many newly formed organizations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the largest organization of its kind and fought for the equal treatment for African-Americans. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 and mobilized mass resistance to discrimination and employed acts of non-violent civil disobedience such as sit-ins at movie theaters and restaurants. The March on Washington Movement (MOWM) was organized by A. Philip Randolph to bring attention to the poor treatment of African-Americans in the military. Its slogan was We loyal American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country. The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) was created by Roosevelts Executive Order 8802 to improve employment standards.
Mexicans were also the target of racial discrimination and violence in 1943. New opportunities for agricultural jobs in the southwest brought thousands of Mexicans to the United States illegally. At the same time Mexican-Americans were moving to larger cities looking for jobs. They were discriminated against and hated much as the African-Americans were which caused many Hispanic American teenagers to seek escape from the burdens of life. They started wearing zoot suits, which were suits with jackets that came down to the finger tips and baggy pants with high cuffs. The zoot suits showed their independence and set them apart from the rest of the population.
World War II had little impact on the civil liberties or rights guaranteed to all citizens with the exception of the Japanese. The Japanese did not show any signs of disloyalty but in the spring of 1942 more than 100 thousand of them were moved to relocation camps because they looked like the enemy. There were ten permanent relocation centers located mostly in the west where conditions were anything but pleasant. They were forced to endure 130 degree temperature changes, lack of food and shelter and separation from loved ones.
They were bundled up in a comical array of World War I surplus uniforms.
issued by the War Relocation Authority. They had baggy pants, hanging jackets, wrap around leggings, helmets, goggles—the whole works. They looked like a bunch of refugees from another world (Stanley, 42).
There was never any warranted cause for this treatment of the Japanese. It was based solely on the unfounded fear of white Americans.
World War II created both a positive and negative social change for the United States. While bringing out the worst in Americans by discriminating against blacks, Mexicans and Japanese the war helped the economy and increased employment and
productivity. The war jump started America after its long depression by giving factories something to produce and consumers money to buy goods with.
Bartholme, Betty. Telephone interview. 17 Dec. 1998.
Harris, Mark Jonathan. The Homefront: America During World War II. New York:
G. P. Putnams Sons, 1984.
Jagta, Mary. Telephone interview. 17 Dec. 1998.
Nash, Gary B.. American Odyssey: The United States in the Twentieth Century.Columbus: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1997.
National Archives and Records Administration. <[emailprotected]> Powers of Persuation. December 17, 1998. <http://www.nara.gov/exhall/powers/freedoms.html> (October 24, 1997)
Stanley, Jerry. I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment. New York:
Crown Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Zeinert, Karen. Those Incredible Women of World War II. Brookfield: Millbrook Press,