Even though the draft was instituted in 1940, and rearmament began before Pearl Harbor, the full mobilization of the United States for war required a Herculean effort. Fifteen million American men and women ultimately served in the armed forces during the Second World War, and wartime production reached unprecedented levels. The gross national product rose from $91 billion in 1939 to $166 billion in 1945, and 17 million new jobs were created during the same period.
Americans were fighting a two‐front war. In Europe, the Allies were initially divided on the best and quickest way to defeat Nazi Germany; the military and diplomatic decisions that were made between 1942 and 1945 planted the seeds of the Cold War. Meanwhile in the Pacific, after some initial setbacks, the United States went on the offensive against Japan. The first major action was the August 1942 invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The difficult island‐hopping campaign that ensued during the next three years culminated with the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ushered in the Nuclear Age.
The war brought an end to the Great Depression. Unemployment, which stood at more than 17 percent in 1939, dropped to an all‐time low of 1.2 percent by 1944. The labor problem in the war years was too few workers, not too few jobs, and in factories across the country, millions of women replaced men who were in the service. Although almost every family had someone in uniform, the war was still remote to many Americans. Support for the war was built through bond drives, which raised revenue to help finance the war, and through movies, which presented the war in a way that promoted patriotism. Shortages in food and raw materials led to “victory gardens” and well‐publicized campaigns to collect rubber and scrap metals, adding to the public's sense of participation in the war effort. But there were some Americans, such as African‐Americans, Hispanics, and particularly Japanese‐Americans, who did not benefit from the war and whose wartime hardships and sacrifices were oftentimes the results of discrimination.
The wartime economy. Success on the battlefield hinged on the rapid conversion of American industry from producing consumer goods to making planes, ships, and tanks. This transformation was overseen by a new federal agency, the War Production Board (WPB), which was responsible for the allocation of scarce raw materials and supplies. By early 1942, automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, and even tennis balls ceased to be manufactured because the steel and rubber were needed for the war. Private residential housing construction also ceased because lumber was critical to the war effort. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation made loans available for businesses to expand plants and finance new equipment. Government contracts also guaranteed war‐related industries significant profits and exemption from antitrust action. The demands of war made the manufacturing process highly efficient — a “Liberty” ship (a merchant ship which, according to Roosevelt, would bring liberty to Europe) that took about 180 days to build in 1941 could be finished in less than two weeks in 1943.
A shortage of workers meant higher salaries, and as personal incomes rose and spending increased, the government became concerned about inflation. One check on inflation was the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which established rent ceilings and maximum prices on thousands of commodities, including farm products. The OPA was also responsible for implementing the nation's rationing program, beginning in December 1941 with tires and eventually expanding to include gasoline, shoes, and foodstuffs, such as sugar, coffee, meats, butter, cheese, and fats and oils. Wages were controlled by the National War Labor Board (NWLB), which also set hours, monitored working conditions, and mediated labor disputes. Workers were allowed to retain their union membership under war contracts in return for a “no strike pledge.” That pledge was broken in May 1943, however, when the United Mine Workers struck for higher wages. The federal government ended the strike by taking over the mines. Similarly, the Army ran the railroads throughout the country for a brief period in December 1943 to avert a work stoppage.
The government financed the war through a combination of taxation and borrowing. The Revenue Act of 1942 raised tax rates on both individuals and corporations and significantly increased taxes on excess profits. With the broadening of the tax base during the war, many Americans paid federal income taxes for the first time, and in 1943, these taxes began to be withheld in the form of payroll deductions. Federal tax policy also helped to curb inflation and brought about a limited redistribution of wealth in the United States. Altogether, taxes paid for approximately 40 percent of the cost of the war, with the remainder coming from the sale of war bonds and direct borrowing from banks.
Life for women, African‐Americans, and Hispanics. More than 200,000 women served in the military, primarily in the Women's Army Corps (WACs) and its Navy counterpart, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). The number of women in the workplace grew by more than five million between 1941 and 1943, with many women taking nontraditional jobs in defense plants. “Rosie the Riveter,” the symbol of all women in the factory, was one of the most enduring images of the home front. Typically, female workers were married and older than those in the prewar labor force and were motivated by a combination of patriotism, a desire to get out of the house, and the opportunity to make additional money. Overall, they received lower wages than men, even if they had the same level of experience at the same job, and most left work when the war ended either by choice or because companies were required to hire returning veterans.
African‐Americans still found it difficult to find work, even with the return of prosperity. Those African‐Americans who enlisted or were drafted into the military found themselves in segregated units being trained for menial jobs and commanded by white officers. The situation led A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to organize a march on Washington protesting hiring policies and segregation in the military. The march, which was set for July 1, 1941, was called off when President Roosevelt bowed to the pressure and issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in defense‐industry and federal‐government jobs; the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) was established to enforce the order. Although the FEPC had only moderate success, nearly two million blacks were working in war plants by 1944, and the number of African‐Americans in combat grew as well. The most well‐known all‐black unit was the Army Air Corps 99th Pursuit Squadron, the famous “Tuskegee Airmen.”
During the war, Americans were a people on the move. More than 700,000 African‐Americans left the South as jobs became available in the cities of the North and West. The influx of newcomers, both black and white, along with a severe housing shortage and limited recreational facilities, heightened racial tensions in several communities. A race riot in Detroit in June 1943 left 25 blacks and 9 whites dead before the Army restored order. Mexican‐Americans were also targets of prejudice and violence, despite their heroism on the battlefield, which won a high proportion of Spanish‐speaking soldiers and sailors the Congressional Medal of Honor and other citations for bravery during the war. In Los Angeles, many young Mexican‐American men adopted a fashion fad begun in Harlem known as the zoot suit — a long jacket with padded shoulders and tapered pants, often worn with a wide‐brim hat and a big keychain. On the nights of June 3–7, 1943, white sailors roamed Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles and indiscriminately beat up “zooters” while the local police and Navy officials took no action.
Internment of Japanese Americans. The outbreak of the war only intensified long‐held prejudices against Japanese living on the West Coast. Rumors of possible invasion and acts of sabotage created an anti‐Japanese hysteria that pressured Roosevelt to take action. Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942) effectively authorized the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the strategically sensitive areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. The evacuation began in late March. By September, more than 110,000 men, women, and children — two‐thirds of whom were born in the United States and were therefore American citizens — had been placed in ten “relocation centers” in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. The internment was, without a doubt, racially motivated. No credible security threat existed; the FBI, which had no input on the policy, already had the names of enemy aliens to detain when the war began. Japanese‐Americans were not evacuated from Hawaii, and no incidents of sabotage occurred there. Additionally, no comparable action was taken against Italian or German Americans, and, in fact, travel restrictions against Italian‐American resident aliens were rescinded in October 1942.
Despite internment in what critics called “America's concentration camps” and the forced liquidation of their homes and businesses at a fraction of their true value, Japanese‐Americans enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces and fought in segregated units under white officers, just as African‐Americans did. The all‐ Nisei (Japanese‐American citizen) 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which saw action in Italy, was the most decorated unit of the Second World War. When the constitutionality of internment was challenged in Korematsu v. the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the legislation on the basis of national security. The federal government did not admit the injustice of the policy until 1982. In 1988, Congress approved limited compensation ($20,000) to Japanese‐American survivors of the camps.
Politics in war. Roosevelt stayed out of the 1942 congressional elections. Although the Democrats remained in control of Congress, the Republicans made significant gains in both the House and the Senate. Indeed, a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats had enough votes to determine the legislative agenda, and, as a result, several major New Deal social programs were terminated, and the Works Projects Administration and the National Youth Alliance were quickly scrapped in 1943. Perhaps the most important domestic initiative passed during the war years was the “GI Bill of Rights” (March 1944), officially known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act. The law provided returning veterans a wide range of benefits, including preference in hiring, subsidized loans to buy businesses or homes, and tuition allowances for education. The fact that men and women in uniform in the United States and war zones could vote in 1944 was certainly a factor in the bill's enactment.
With the war still going on, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term in 1944, in spite of his poor health. The Democrats replaced liberal vice president Henry Wallace with the more moderate Senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, who had gained a degree of national recognition as chair of the watchdog Senate Select Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, who had been a contender for the nomination in 1940, was the Republican choice. Roosevelt won easily, although his popular vote margin was the lowest of all his presidential elections — 53.5 percent. The American people, including the four million soldiers and sailors who cast ballots, were not about to change leaders during the war.