The War in American Culture

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Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch, editors. The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1996. (Price). Hardcover: ISBN 0-226-21511-3. Paper: ISBN 0-226-21512-1



The War in American Culture is a collection of thirteen essays on particular aspects of how the Second World War affected American society. The aggregated argument of these essays is that wartime interaction between the government and media on one side and racial and cultural groups on the other redirected American culture (4). These essays are grouped in four parts to focus on different aspects of popular culture, namely manipulating and controlling information, changes to the working class (especially gender), conflicts between visions of ethnic pluralism and realities of racism, and how wartime mobilization exacerbated racial conflicts.

Part One on the manipulation and control of information contains essays by Perry Duis on infringement on privacy, George Roeder on censorship, and Lary May on filmmaking. Roeder makes a case for a censorship of images of the realities of war being too strict, and argues that a more liberal policy of release releasing photography might have allowed a more mature understanding of the war (65). This is a valid argument in theory, though based on contemporary response to sensational press he may be giving the general public too much credit. May’s essay describes the government’s call for the film industry to promote class and cultural consensus as new American way (73).

Part Two on changes to the working class contains essays by Gary Gerstle on working class community on Woonsocket RI, Elaine May on women in the war industry workplace, and Lewis Erenberg on the popular music of Glenn Miller as reflection of the affect of war on popular culture. Of the three essays, Gerstle’s is the most compelling. He leverages his book Working-class Americanism; The Politics of Labor in a Textile City and discusses the racial tensions inherent in the assimilation of different ethnic groups into the culture, where “becoming American meant becoming white (118).” Editor Erenberg’s essay is less compelling, being largely a chronicle of bandleader Glenn Miller’s brief military career.

Part Three on conflicts between visions of ethnic pluralism and realities of racism contains essays by John Dower on racial aspects of the war with Japan, Reed Ueda of changing requirements of naturalization, and Carol Miller on the role of Native Americans in the war. Dower’s richly illustrated essay examines how the combatants viewed each other through the prism of race, and how America’s view of Japan was much more racially charged than their view of Germany. Dower points out the irony of American fighting for world freedom with a segregated army, but he does not make his essay (or his book) a one-sided screed against the US. He gives equal time to Japanese visions of homogeneity and separateness that were integral parts of their culture (189). As proof of how this vision affected Japan’s war aim, he analyzes the Japanese report Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus (196). Dower’s subject is given full treatment in his 1987 history War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Ueda’s and Miller’s essays have the unenviable task of following Dower, and are much less effective. Miller devotes much of her analysis to a review two works of fiction, and her argument that these are truly representative of the experience of all Native Americans during the war lacks rigor. Ueda traces changes in the pattern and rate of naturalization during the war, and argues that although the internment of Japanese Americans was part of a federal tradition of denying citizenship to Asians, the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1943 opened the door to eventual inclusion of Asians in the definition of American citizenship.

Part Four on how wartime mobilization exacerbated racial conflicts contains essays by Susan Hirsch on gender and race issues at the Pullman railcar industry, by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore on the migration of African Americans to California, and by Edward Escobar on the outbreak of violence between whites and Mexican-Americans in California. Moore’s essay on the explosive growth of the shipbuilding industry in Richmond CA and the attendant growth of a vibrant African American community there is a microcosm of the Great Migration. It illustrates how African Americans from different regions congregated there, sharing their different cultural experiences and preferences, particularly in music. Escobar’s essay on the Zoot-Suit Riots of 1943 is a disturbing reminder of how inequitable law enforcement and police brutality can exacerbate a tense situation into a violent one (286).

The final essay by Alan Brinkley summarizes the collective argument of the book, and discusses how race, ethnicity, and gender became dominant issues for liberals postwar, rather than secondary as they had been in the New Deal. Overall, as in Reagan’s Planning for a New America and Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear, The War in American Culture shows how the war solidified and institutionalized the increasing role of the federal government in the everyday lives of Americans.


Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

The essays in The War in American Culture were based on a conference at Loyola University held in March 1992 in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society entitled "Chicago Goes to War." The organizers, Lewis Erenberg and Susan Hirsch, describe the book of essays as "focus[ing] on the tremendous but paradoxical effects the war had on American identity, racial and ethnic subgroups, and women's roles long after the conclusion of hostilities." (2) While some of the contributors (Elaine Tyler May, Gary Gerstle, John Dower, Alan Brinkley) are quite well-known in the field, other contributors (Edward Escobar, Carol Miller, George Roeder, Jr) are less so. Their essay contributions were welcome additions, as they were able to pull from their backgrounds in Chicano Studies, Native American Studies, and Visual art in order to provide a more inclusive study of the American culture during World War II.

Having read several of the essay contributor's works from which these essays pulled, I found myself drawn to the essays that focused on alternative viewpoints and experiences. George Roeder's work on the censorship of photographs--those that were too visually graphic, showed mixed-race couples, might confuse the good vs. evil rhetoric, or depicted mental problems caused by the war--was fascinating and raised questions about modern-day wartime censorship. Edward Escobar's essay on "Zoot-Suiters and Cops," describing the 1943 zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, demonstrated the wartime reaction of a angry community tired of being singled out as a cause for rising crime. Their techniques of rebellion (the zoot suit required a lot of fabric, a rebellion against wartime cloth restriction) and the reactions of the LAPD, are instructive both as a view at a community virtually ignored by World War II scholarship and as a precursor to modern day police policies in Los Angeles.

Other essays were less successful. Lewis Erenberg's essay on Glenn Miller seems out of place, with too much biographical focus on Miller and not enough on why the popularity of swing music mattered. John Dower's decision to direct his readers to War Without Mercy to find his source material (he also neglects to provide source information for all of his included illustrations) is disappointing. While Carol Miller's essay on Native American wartime participation and the post-war implications of this participation, is an interesting topic, it might have been better served had she not focused so much on literary works, whether based in fact or not. In all, however, The War in American Culture directed me toward essays, experiences, and arguments with which I was not previously familiar, and demonstrated the wide range of reactions to the new relationship between citizens, society, and government which the war inspired.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

The War in American Culture is offered as a corrective to past histories that have presented a more celebratory attitude toward World War II. The war is seen as an agent of significant change in American life, both temporary changes brought about by circumstances as well as permanent change in society such as the transformation of the ethnic and racial make-up of towns like Richmond, California, covered in Shirley Ann Wilson Moore’s essay, that drew many people to wartime industry. A positive contribution of this collection of conference papers is its coverage of race through the experiences of some of America’s minorities during the 1940s including Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians, as well as African Americans. The war provided opportunities for these groups in terms of jobs and acceptance into the armed services but they still experienced continued racism. The prejudice that Native Americans faced during the war and the injustices experienced by young Mexicans in Los Angeles are lesser-known stories and their inclusion here is important and informative. These essays broaden our knowledge of the experiences of the average American and beg the question, just who is the average American anyway?

Two of the essays examine the fine line between censorship and propaganda. George Roeder’s piece on censorship of photographs raises many important questions. The vilification of enemies and the cover-up of the realities of American casualties as well as atrocities, whether accidental or purposeful, may have been seen necessary at the time. Lary May’s piece on Hollywood’s active participation in creating a state sanctioned presentation of American society. Old prejudices were tossed aside and inclusion became the winning method of casting films and the topics that were chosen. African-Americans and ethnic Irish and Italians, among others, became celebrated in film and war movies conscientiously included minorities in supporting roles. This selective propaganda, like the censorship of war images causes discomfort. One cannot help but wonder to what extent this treatment of photographic evidence leads to dangerous and extreme nationalistic attitudes that do not lend themselves to making lasting peace and Roeder notes that “release of some of the censored photographs might have allowed more Americans to achieve…a mature understanding [of the realities of war] (p. 65).”

The essays portray the home front during World War II as being much more complicated than many celebratory treatments and illustrate the level of change that came to American society. However, the essays highlight the dark side of the home front and it would be welcome to read some positive ways in which national unity was achieved. Perhaps I am influenced by the memories of my parents’ generation, which may have filtered out the negative experiences. However, it does seem that many people realized that they were taking part in something that had immense importance; not only to themselves, but to the country and the world and that a sense of unity did exist.

Scott Abeel Spring 2011

The War in American Culture is a collection of essays that arose from a conference at Loyola University in 1992. Accordingly, the writings are reflective of a historiography that deviates from the previous standard narrative of the “Good War”. In aggregate, these essays greatly contribute to the understanding of home front culture in terms of gender studies, ethnic studies, labor relations, and governmental relations with the populace.

One essay, “Making the American Consensus: The Narrative of Conversion and Subversion in World War II Films”, this reader found problematic. The central question, one that is debated between Chartier and Darton in the joust over the origins of the French Revolution, is how much effect media has over causal changes in culture. Although Chartier and Darton argue over the effects of literature, by extension the same question can be raised concerning film. Specifically did government censorship and direction of film content lead to the cultural changes and formation of a national consensus before and after World War Two? May argues that it did: “As these recollections suggest, the transformation in American culture and politics unfolding in the war did not stop with the conflict.” (94) However, this reader questions this interpretation.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

This collection of essays offers a provocative view of “the meaning of the war in the lives of ordinary Americans” (3). Contributing essayists examine the rationale of the “good war” framework and how government and cultural forces worked together to create a united front of the good American in the fight against global and domestic enemies and how marginalized groups reacted to these images. Essays demonstrate how an American identity was solidified during the war through an emphasis on home front duties, symbols of order and unity, and a characterization of American exceptionalism in opposition to the evils of the Axis powers or to the forces of disorder. In reality, these messages also revealed the contradictions and prejudices inherent in these cultural messages and the essayists bring these stories to life. As many groups moved from traditional or rural cultures into new hyper-Americanized or urban cultures, conflicts arose when faced with these messages of the ideal American identity failed to meet the reality of discriminatory work, housing, education, or police protection practices. These essays explore the nature of this imposed cultural identity, the attempt to live up to the ideal, the identity crisis when expectations failed to meet reality, and the pursuit of adapted or alternate identities.

Perry Duis’s study of domestic privacy reveals that government programs (daylight savings time, war bond drives, scrap metal collections, civil defense) and war work (swing shifts, carpools, dual working parents, lack of childcare) affected normal patterns of childhood, parental supervision, family relationships, and household routines. This in turn caused a “life is short, have a fling” lifestyle that influenced juvenile delinquency and also created a heightened sense of government control over personal lives and the ordering of time (34). Duis also points out that the war-weariness by 1943 led to reduced patience with the “substitute culture” of “temporary replacements for artifacts, institutions, and social relationships” (32). The broader implication was the return to private lives after the war, but during the immediate period, more resistance to these restrictions on time and behavior appeared in social groups besides the family groups of Duis’s study.

Edward Escobar considers the white middle class reaction to youth resistance in Los Angeles as expressed by the zoot suit culture of the Hispanic teens. Officials representing middle class authority deemed this clothing style and cocky attitude symptomatic of the “inherent criminality of racial minority” rather than a typical youth form of expression and implemented a program of targeting Hispanic youth in the name of social control (285). This clear violation of civil liberties based on racial prejudices perhaps derived from earlier determinations of racial differences by the county health department as discussed by Natalie Molina in Fit to Be Citizens?. The absence of comparative descriptions of treatment by the police department of other minority youth groups would add to knowledge of social control for teen groups in general during this time period.

A similar expression of youth rebellion was the threat to “stable family life and to the moral fiber of the nation at war” presented by single women as described by Elaine Tyler May (133). May argues that new found freedoms for single women in the workplace led to government messages restricting female sexual behavior while confirming a sexual double standard for men, a subtle message that women should remain faithful to an ideal of marriage and fidelity. Lary May’s analysis of films suggests female movie stars eschewed romance outside of marriage while “focusing energies on making the home the ideal that the men would return to when the war was over” (91). George H. Roeder’s analysis of censored photographs revealed concerted efforts to make invisible suggestions of overly sexualized female workers, homosexual themes, or behavior outside of unified cultural norms. What this suggests is not that these behaviors did not exist, only that a concerted government propaganda and home front effort to make them invisible framed a powerful collective memory of a good war and created unified standards for “acceptable” behavior.

Despite these messages for conservative behavior, there was resistance and rebellion, especially during the flashpoint of 1943 when race riots, police attacks against the zoot suiters, declining interest in civil defense activities, and increased black market activities revealed a fracture in American society away from the perceived and propagandized united cultural front. Yet, despite these fissures, post-war middle class society seemed content to return to the domestic values of home, family, and a wage-earning male head-of-household. The essays conclude that it would be the marginalized groups: minorities, single women, and the children who would push for change.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

This collection successfully challenges the idea of World War II as “the good war.” This is achieved by looking at the paradoxical effects of the War on American identity, racial and ethnic subgroups, and women using the broad themes of national unity, the “American Way,” race and resistance, mobilization, and politics. As each of these areas were touched by the War, so too were the lives of American citizens changed forever, and not always for the better.

While each individual article had its own strengths and weakness, to me the strongest articles were those by John W. Dower and Edward J. Escobar. Dower’s article, “Race, Language, and War in Two Cultures: WWII in Asia,” looked at the “formulaic expressions, codewords, everyday metaphors, and visual stereotypes” of race which were displayed in popular culture about the war in the Pacific. (pp. 171) The greatest strength of this article was that it looked at both US and Japanese propaganda prints so show how the two cultures articulated race in similar and challenging ways. Escobar’s article, “Zoot Suiters and Cops: Chicano Youth and LA Police Department During WWII,” analyzed the 1943 Zoot Suit riots, hispanic discrimination in Los Angeles, and police procedures. The greatest strength of this article was in looking at the LA Police Department’s response to the 1943 riot and alleged Chicano crime wave not as another instance of discrimination, but as the first time that a police force had specifically linked race with crime. This led them to create a program specifically targeted at Mexican American youths that would lead to racial profiling, police brutality, and would have profound effects on LA and the nation through today.

I also greatly enjoyed the articles by Roeder, Larry May, Elaine Tyler May, Erenberg, and Moore for their use of diverse cultural sources including music, film, censorship, and propaganda. Each of these articles were able to use their cultural sources in unique ways, while their analysis supported the collection’s overall goal of showing the War’s impact on the everyday lived experiences of Americans.

Perhaps the weakest article in the collection was Carol Miller’s “Native Sons and the Good War: Retelling the Myth of American Indian Assimilation.” This article looks at the experience of Native Americans during and after WWII with regards to military service, economic opportunities, leaving the reservation, and assimilation through an analysis of the protagonists of the novels “House Made of Dawn” and “Ceremony.” I have read each of these novels, and they are both excellent pieces of literature which should be celebrated. However, after reading the article I do not think that the true impact of the War on either Abel or Tayo would be apparent to a reader who had not read the novels. This makes the article somewhat irrelevant as a literary criticism, what the piece truly is. “Native Sons in the Good War” is not actually a piece of historical scholarship. This is because Miller uses fictional characters to represent the lived experiences of actual Native Americans rather than using primary sources about real people. Miller claims to use Tayo and Abel as her evidence because their experiences of discrimination, culture shock, poverty, and deteriorating reservation life are representative for many Natives. But she does nothing to prove this to the reader.

Despite this article’s misstep I believe that overall “The War in American Culture” was a successful collection which gives its reader a diverse understanding of the lived experience of WWII in America.

Alex Bradshaw, Fall 2012

This is a collection of essays that seek to challenge, yet not overturn the popular perception of World War II as “the good war.” The essays focus on various themes which, at least in 1992, have been under-appreciated, including censorship of visual products during the war, World War II films, the new roles of women during the war, the depiction of race as a tool of war, and the experience of the working class during the war. These essays struck me as often inviting introductions to the ideas that they presented, but echoed themes that, as a student of the United States in the twentieth century twenty years after the publication of this collection, I heard frequently. It is difficult to imagine reading this collection in 1992 and the reaction that I might have felt then, so I am stuck with the opinion that this is a group of writings that discuss very important topics and introduce themes that certainly add a level of nuance to the historical interpretation of the war that I am assuming prevailed at the time of this book’s publication. Particularly interesting to me was Roeder’s essay about the censorship of visual imagery during the war. One of my readings for this week was his book about the same topic, from which the essay was taken, and Roeder went much further in his implications for the future and continued relevance of this topic in the book, but, fortunately, I read the essay first. I was fascinated to read about the different things that were censored and their reasons, such as Roeder’s assertion that, once the European war had ended, there was a tendency among the working public in the U.S. to lessen in their war-inspired vigorous attitude toward their work, so the government chose at that time to release for publication images that depicted the pain and suffering of soldiers so that they could renew the original wartime zeal of the people at home. I was also particularly interested in May’s article about women’s responses and activities during the war. Much of the essay spoke of women’s participation in wartime employment and the discrimination and troubles that they faced in their employment, as well as the expectation that they fulfill traditional “women’s roles” at home as part of the war effort. I was disappointed, however that May did not go farther than passing mentions of sexuality, whether it was the increased sexual freedom experienced many working women at the time or lesbianism, which makes me wonder if her restraint is related to either the constraints still present in the time that she was writing, or if it is realted to trends in historical writing of the time.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

This collection of essays conveys the diversity of Americans and their experiences during World War II. While some essays are less convincing, the overall tone of the collection conveys the importance of race, gender, and ethnicity during the war and the continued impact of wartime experiences on later twentieth-century America.

As previous students have noted, Dower and Escobar’s essays are standouts for their clarity of argument. Although Dower fails to document his sources, his balanced appraisal of the ways Americans and Japanese were portrayed in each other’s propaganda adds a global touch to the perspectives in the collection. Escobar’s essay makes explicit the way the stress of war contributed to existing white anxieties about race and thus had a lasting impact on race relations in Los Angeles. Both of these essays contextualized the different worldviews of the populations involved.

A paragraph in Erenberg’s essay on Glenn Miller and swing music caught my attention. Miller was apparently frustrated by the repetitious nature of his military band’s set, playing the songs which were popular before the war rather than the current hits back in the States, with which the GIs were unfamiliar.(154-155) In a book of essays which largely focuses on home front changes during the war, this anecdote made me think about the potential gap between the experiences of the GIs and their communities back on the home front, and the subsequent challenges of demobilization and reentry to civilian life.

===Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

The War in American Culture is a collection of essays that collectively explored the interaction between the war and popular culture. The authors argued that “ordinary Americans actively shaped official conceptions of the war but also resisted them, and they helped create a whole set of unanticipated consequences that had a profound effect on American culture and racial relations.” Expanding the definition of American pluralism to include African-Americans, for example, was one such result. After the war, blacks demanded real inclusion in what it meant to be an American citizen, not just the symbolic inclusion that was part of American propaganda during the war. Similarly, the postwar environment required patriotic Americans to suppress their “class dissatisfactions” to work together to combat a new foe, Communism.

Topics covered in this collection included the increased intrusion of the federal government into the private lives of its citizens ostensibly to buttress the war effort, the activities of labor unions during the war, the impact of efforts to restructure the economy along “gender neutral lines,” and the affect the war had on Native American communities. The book concluded with an essay in which the author tied all of these themes together, arguing that the war transformed “the nature of American liberalism,” a transformation that informed the next “great episode in liberal policy experiments: the Great Society of the 1960s.”

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