The Home Front

*After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the spirit of isolationism vanished, and Americans pulled together to defeat the Axis.  Just as Americans mobilised on the Home Front during the Great War, they did so as well during the Second World War, but on an even larger scale.


*On 16 January, 1942, the War Production Board was created to manage the nation's manufacturing output, which was turned entirely toward the war effort.  Unemployment vanished almost overnight.  Although many of the New Deal's make-work programmes were cancelled by the conservative Congressmen elected later that year, they were no longer needed, as all Americans now had a job to do.


*All industries were now turned towards war production.  Civilian automobile and aircraft factories began producing warplanes, tanks, and ships.  Henry J. Kaiser specialised in producing Liberty ships, mass produced vessels made of pre-fabricated parts that could be assembled in 40 days, instead of 200--he once fully constructed one in 14 days as a publicity stunt, another was launched just 4 days and 15 hours and 29 minutes after her keel was laid (although some finishing touches remained to be completed).


*To keep these factories running, particularly after the Japanese conquest of Malaya and the East Indies cut off most shipments of natural rubber, gasoline rationing was instituted, not as much to save gasoline as to keep tires from wearing out.  Furthermore, the United States built 51 synthetic rubber plants, reducing dependence on foreign rubber.


*Farmers once again prospered, and new machines, better strains of seed, and improved fertilisers made them more productive than ever.  However, to feed American and Allied soldiers, food was rationed throughout the US.  Shoppers could only buy food or gasoline if they turned in a coupon from a ration book (obtained from the local school), although some shopkeepers sold extra food on the black market.


*Among the rarest foods were sugar, fruit, and coffee.  Metal good were almost impossible to buy, as it was all used in war materials, as was rubber.  Scrap metal drives were held, asking all citizens to recycle any metal they had lying around.  Nylon stockings, invented in 1939, vanished because nylon was used in making parachutes.


*Rationing was necessary in part because people had money to spend at last.  Full employment initially led to inflation early in 1942, until the Office of Price Administration froze prices on 90% of goods sold in the United States and also put controls on rent.


*Workers were in such demand that wages soared as companies tried to attract workers from the limited labour pool (although workers in vital war industries were often exempt from the draft).  However, the War Labor Board put limits on wages and attempted to regulate labour disputes. 


*Although unions had promised not to strike in any way that would hurt the war effort, a few did anyway when their wages were capped, until the Smith-Connally Act was passed in June, 1943 allowing the government to seize and run any factory that was shut down by labour disputes and made strikes against government-run industries a criminal offence.  Under this act, the government took over the coal mines (where the United Mine Workers had repeatedly shut down production) and, temporarily, the railroads.


*One way businessmen got around the wage limits was by offering other benefits, such as health insurance and pensions, which were not limited by the War Labor Board.  This allowed working class Americans to truly join the middle class and be very prosperous after the war.


*Another way industry dealt with a shortage of workingmen was by employing women.  More than six million American women, at least half of whom had never worked outside the home before, entered the labour force.  This was seen as both practical and patriotic, and whereas most women who took jobs during WWI returned to their homes afterwards, many who worked during WWII stayed in the workforce.  The government had to set up over 3,000 day-care centres to take care of working women's children during the war.


*Other women served their country by doing non-combat duty in the military as WAACs (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps), WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) or as nurses.


*In some ways, the wartime economy was a cruel twist of fate:  during the Depression, there had been plenty of things to buy and no money to buy it with; during WWII there was plenty of money but little to buy. Even if food and gasoline were rationed and most manufacturing was turned toward producing war materiel, Americans were able to put their extra cash towards something.  To fund the war, which cost twice as much as all previous American wars combined, the government again sold War Bonds, which Americans bought both as an expression of patriotism and as a sound investment, which paid off after the War with a long period of prosperity even better than that of the 1920s.


*War bonds could not fund the entire war, and the income tax was vastly expanded to include four times the number of people it had tapped before the war, and in 1944 and 1945 the highest tax bracket paid 94% of all annual income above $200,000.


*Most Americans felt that such sacrifices were worth it.  Even Americans who had opposed the war before it came now supported it--the America First Committee dissolved itself on 10 December, and Charles Lindbergh volunteered to train pilots for the US Army Air Corps, but was turned down.  However, he got a job as a civilian technical advisor and ended up helping make many warplanes and their crews more efficient and actually flew in about 50 combat missions as a civilian--he once even shot down a Japanese plane.


*The government made sure people knew how important the war was through the Office of War Information, which produced a constant stream of propaganda, through posters, magazine and newspaper stories, music, radio, and film, as even the entertainment industry was drafted into service.  Film and radio stars and directors were given jobs in the military or in the Bureau of Motion Pictures (part of the OWI) to promote the war effort and to record it for posterity.


*The Office of War Information supported women in the workforce by creating the character of 'Rosie the Riveter.'  Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Popeye the Sailor, and all the other cartoon characters of the day were put in uniform to defeat the Axis and promote the life of a soldier or the value of helping the war effort at home.  Musicians wrote and performed music glorifying soldiers and the cause they were fighting for.  Entire radio series and movies promoted the war effort either outright or simply through the telling of patriotic stories. 


*The movie Sergeant York was created to whip up patriotic spirit.  York himself volunteered to return to the army and lead all the Southern volunteers and draftees who could not pass the army's literacy tests (but he was turned down).


*Among the longest-lasting of the OWI's creations is the Voice of America, which is still the official broadcasting service of the United States, promoting a positive view of America through radio programmes around the world.  During WWII it broadcast news and encouragement into Axis-occupied territories, and after the War it broadcast American news and entertainment into the otherwise carefully controlled airwaves of communist countries.


*Eventually there were so many pro-war programmes on the radio that the OWI actually began to limit their broadcast.


*The OWI also included the Psychological Warfare Branch which attempted the demoralise America's enemies by broadcasting news and dropping leaflets from planes telling about America's economic productivity and military successes.  They produced other things as well, like sewing kits that included a pincushion shaped like Hitler.


*The government also began to make spying more organised through the Office of Strategic Services.  They infiltrated foreign societies and industry, helped supply and train foreign groups fighting against the Axis, and carried information through enemy lines.  Many members of the OSS were seemingly ordinary businessmen, writers, and travelers.  Even the famous chef Julia Child was a member of the OSS.  Later the OSS developed into the CIA.


*Despite American enthusiasm to spread liberty to the world, intolerance remained in America.  Japanese on the west coast were interned, of course, but other races also faced problems.


*In the military, African-Americans still served in separate units.  When given the chance, they often performed very bravely and effectively, most famously the Tuskegee Airmen (also known as the Red Tails), but many were not given the opportunity by white officers who preferred to use them for manual labour.


*In civilian life, the Great Migration continued, but the continued influx of black workers to Northern cities was not always welcome, and in 1943 a race riot in Detroit killed 25 blacks and 9 whites.


*To assist American farmers, the bracero programme was developed to bring Mexican workers into the US to work on western farms.  However, as Mexicans and Mexican-Americans moved into cities to find work, they were not always welcome.


*The most famous instance of racial violence against Hispanics was a series of Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.  The Zoot Suits that gave the riots their names were distinctive baggy suits favoured by some young Mexican-Americans, and were associated with a culture of violence and wild living in the poor parts of many southwestern cities.  Worse, they were unpatriotic suits, because the government had ordered to clothing manufacturers cut back on the amount of cloth used in clothing in order to save it for the war effort.


*On 3 June, 1943, a group of American sailors on leave in Los Angeles ran into a group of young Mexican in Zoot Suits and got in a fight.  When word got back to the fleet, other sailors got in taxis and began to seek out Hispanics in Zoot Suits to beat up.  When they could, they stripped off their Zoot Suits and made bonfires of them.  Similar riots spread to other cities. 


*Initially the media blamed the riots on Mexicans, but other people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, said it simply showed a larger problem caused by the poor conditions that poverty and prejudice forced many Mexican-Americans to live in.


*On the other hand, Hispanics served in the US military in large numbers, particularly as a percentage of their portion of the US population.


*Despite these problems, the Home Front and its amazing productivity, allowed America to truly be the Arsenal of Democracy that Franklin Roosevelt had hoped she could be, and did supply the Allies with what they needed to win the war.

This page last updated 13 November, 2018.
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