The American People in WWII

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David M. Kennedy. The American People in World War II: Freedom from Fear Part 2. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. ($19.95). Paper: ISBN 0-19-516893-3 (pt.2 pbk.)


The American People in World War II is the second part of David Kennedy’s master narrative of US History Freedom from Fear. This volume covers the years between 1940 and 1945, and concludes with the end of the Second World War. While it is paired with the first volume (The American People in the Great Depression), its scope is much broader and its perspective is higher. Kennedy concentrates much less on “American People” than he does on world leaders and events. In this way, the book mirrors the wartime emergence of the United States from an inward focus and isolationism to a place of primacy on the global stage.

Kennedy’s argument is a continuation of the one put forward in Volume 1. In that volume, Kennedy claimed that the real legacy of the New Deal was political – that it transformed the way that the federal government viewed itself and also how the citizenry viewed their relationship with that government. In Volume 2, the World War replaces the New Deal as the galvanizing force behind the continuing transformation. The narrative in Volume 2 is chronological but in two parallel paths. The first path continues the national focus of Volume 1, while the second path adds the international aspect of overseas conflict and high-level relations between the allies. The main character in the story is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the volume starts with his attempts to navigate a path of neutrality between an America that was still strongly isolationist and international allies that were growing increasingly desperate for relief. Kennedy characterizes Roosevelt’s position as the “agony of neutrality,” and the image of political agony is omnipresent as the American president attempts to chart a course between positions that have no common ground.

While Kennedy does spend time documenting the military campaigns of the war, the true value of the book lies in its narration of the struggles between the allied leaders. There are three chapters with the home front and the nation as their subjects. The remaining chapters narrate operations in the war theaters and the power struggles between the allies.

The American People in World War II closes with Roosevelt dead, a Republican Congress in power, and the New Deal being largely dismantled. But Kennedy does note that some new deal reforms remained untouched by conservative backlash such as farm supports, child labor legislation, banking and securities regulation and most importantly social security. The core of the New Deal remained intact in that the federal government’s position as guarantor of security was firmly established over laissez faire market forces (358).

John Lillard Spring 2010

If Kennedy captures one recurring theme, it is that of Roosevelt as truly caught between two conflicting camps as he attempts to prepare for war and influence events abroad. His baby-steps toward war such as the movement of the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, selective embargoes against Japan, and attempts to supply England, please no constituency completely – not the isolationists, not the interventionists, not the military, certainly not the Republicans, and not even his own fragile Democratic coalition. Kennedy himself is fairly harsh in his characterization of Roosevelt’s maneuvers, calling them hesitations, evasions and misrepresentations to the public (40). He cites polling data of the general public that would seem to have supported a more interventionist position on Roosevelt’s part (73). Such data is all well and good, but it does not include the formidable roadblock posed by an isolationist Congress which was not immediately responsive to public opinion. Kennedy does acknowledge however that the US national position prior to the war was not entirely the presidents doing, but reflective of what he calls a “gap between national wish and national will (77).” This gap, and the dilemma that it posed to Roosevelt, was neatly summarized by Eleanor Roosevelt judgment of Wendell Willkie (350). Roosevelt, unlike Willkie, had to deal with the realities of an unwieldy and cantankerous coalition.

When he does focus on the Home Front, Kennedy spends substantial time discussing Roosevelt’s emphasis on the US obtaining “crushing superiority of equipment.” But it is not completely obvious where Kennedy himself stands on this policy. He characterizes it simultaneously as cynical and almost cowardly on one hand and as pragmatic playing to strengths on the other (184). If Kennedy seems ambivalent regarding the benefits of this industrial philosophy, German Minister of Production Albert Speer was not, and Kennedy quotes him as totally comprehending the US policy of mass production quantity having a quality all its own (223).

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