World War II

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Michael C. C. Adams. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

There are those times, in human experience, when people hate each other; there are those times when people fight each other; and then there are those times, when people hate each other and fight each other. When these two imperatives coincide, the results can be frighteningly vicious. As John W. Dower tells his readers in War without mercy: race and power in the Pacific war, these conditions combined to lock the Japanese and Americans in a struggle in which the former sought their rightful place as a superpower while the latter sought to destroy the Yellow Peril. To this was added racial hatred, as the Americans saw the Japanese as primitive simians who could only be curbed with violence, and the Japanese saw the Americans as a tainted race that must be marginalized. Thus both sides found themselves in a position in which they had to fight and couldn't lose. From this desperation came the kamikaze and the fire-bombing of Tokyo.

  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from fear: The American People in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

The War Front

Eric Larrabee in his book, Commander in Chief, offers that Roosevelt picked military leaders who were dedicated to serving their country above all else. These leaders were products of the country's military academies, and many of these men already knew each other well before the start of the war. In spite of the strength of military leadership, Roosevelt assumed an active role in the conduct of the war and pushed for leadership on the world stage.

  • Sherry, Michael S. The rise of American air power: the creation of Armageddon. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
  • Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. 2d edition. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

The Home Front

The Untied States military of the late 1930's has been described as 'a few nice boys with BB guns'. Sadly this image is as amusing as it was accurate. At a time when the major powers were rushing ahead with munitions production, the United States lagged well behind. Yet, but 1945, the US military had grown into a juggernaut that stood aside two oceans on the brink of total victory. How was it done? The answer to this question is found inthe pages of Paul A.C. Koistinen's work Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. In this book, Koistinen argues that a combination of New Deal tenets Relief, Recovery, and most importantly, Reform, enabled Military-Industrial complex to form and promote ultimate American victory.

Another aspect of Home Front changes occurred in the American West as, according to Gerald D. Nash, parts of the the West grew from colonial dependency on Eastern institutions to claim positions of power in defense industries, the entertainment industry, mining and energy resources, and the beneficiary of a massive demographic shift as explained in The American West Transformed.


Robert H. Zieger's The CIO, 1935-1955 describes the economic situation and how the recently established Congress of Industrial Organizations dealt with the war at home. Early divisions between those like John L. Lewis and the American communists who sought to avoid war at all costs and Phillip Murray who supported the cause, were overcome and resulted in a huge boom in numbers for CIO unions. More so than ever before, workers felt the government working in their lives through economic controls or arbitration between management and labor. Much to the chagrin of some of the more radicals, the CIO signed a No Strike Pledge in exchange for federal arbitration.


World War II also dramatically changed housing. It took an enormous amount of time, money, and planning to build enough housing for the nation’s workers. War factories needed men and women to run the machines, and they needed a place to live. The result was new whole new towns cropping up around factories. Towns were overrun with migrant workers. There was a huge migration from South to North and from East to West. The combined population of California, Oregon, and Washington increased by 40%. It was up to the Federal Government to find these workers housing. World War II and the American Dream is a collection of essays that analyzes how the nation dealt with this crisis in housing.

In order to supply enough housing, there had to be changes in the way houses and communities were being built. New, modern, styles were incorporated into existing designs so that houses could be built quickly and cheaply. Architects were faced with rationing of standard building materials such as steel, and were forced to improvise. Though not every one of their ideas was a success, many of the materials and design styles that were incorporated into houses during this time are still used in buildings today. Community planning reached new levels and entire “self-sustaining” towns were built that included churches, schools, recreation facilities, and shopping centers.


During World War II the symbolic images of The Wartime Homemaker and Rosie the Riveter appeared. Both existed as iconographic images of the feminized home front. In Eating for Victory, Amy Bentley focuses on the ways in which American women defined themselves based upon varying ideas of obligation and sacrifice within the private domestic sphere of women as well as by stepping outside those socially accepted boundaries into the public sphere traditionally occupied by men.

The Wartime Homemaker symbolized white, middle class domesticity without challenging traditional ideologies regarding gender roles. Her battlefield was her own kitchen and her Victory Garden, areas which existed within the traditional domestic sphere. Within her battlefield she fought the war by growing and canning her own vegetables and by faithfully using her ration stamps as directed by the government to purchase food and other necessities. This image excluded women of color, poor and working class women.

In contrast, Rosie the Riveter symbolized all women who stepped outside of the domestic sphere and took wartime jobs in the public sphere traditionally occupied by men. The image of Rosie the Riveter challenged traditional ideologies regarding gender roles and led women to believe that the sense of equality gained during the war would continue during the post-war period. After the war, some women willingly relinquished their wartime jobs and returned to their traditional domestic roles, but others were reluctant to lose the equality they thought they had earned. The injustice of their loss ultimately led to the third wave of the women's movement during the sixties and seventies.

Top Down History

In No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin presents a top down history of the American home front during World War II as seen and experienced by those at the pinnacle of United States political leadership, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and their circle of friends, family, political and military associates. This is not simply a political history of the war on the home front, but also encompasses social and cultural history and women's history as well as racial issues captured within a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.

  • Amy Bentley. Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity. University of Illinois Press, 1998. 238 pp. $22.
  • Lotchin, Roger W. The Bad City in the Good War: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego. Bloomington: Indiana U. Pr., 2003. 314 pp.
  • Donald Albrecht and Margaret Crawford. World War II and the American dream. Washington, D.C. Cambridge, Mass.: National Building Museum; MIT Press, 1995.
  • Lotchin, Roger W. The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second World War. Urbana: U. of Illinois Pr., 2000. 245 pp.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin. No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front In World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1994. 759 pp.

Race and the War

Eric Muller, Free to Die for their Country. The Story of Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xx + 229pp $ 27.50)

Although modern Americans might remember Rosie the Riveter and other patriotic, unifying symbols when they think of the Second World War, the home front definitely featured division and protest. In Free to Die for their Country, Eric Muller shows that Japanese Americans had mixed feelings about serving their country, especially after the nation they had pledged loyalty to confined them to internment camps. While many adhered to tradition, serving honorably in the war, others chose to resist, even as they retained their feelings of loyalty to the United States.

Lee Finkle Forum for Protest: The Black Press During World War II Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, Inc. 1975.

Although blacks had served honorably in American wars since the Revolution, they had never received the recognition--or equality--they justly deserved. Would World War II prove different? Unfortunately, much of the racism surrounding black troops and their fighting abilities continued into this era. However, it was also during this time that a conservative black press began pressing the issue on blacks in the military. This activism led to their "discovery" by white liberals and a new era in civil rights agitation.

Blacks did not just use the press to voice their concerns. In her book, Broadcasting Freedom, Barbara Diane Savage says that African Americans actively sought to use radio as a means to tell the story of black America. In spite of black demands, whites in the broadcast industry and in government were more interested in using radio as a means of improving black morale during the war.

Daniel Kyder in his book, Divided Arsenal, also addresses the attitudes of the Roosevelt administration towards racial reform. He asserts that Roosevelt's policies were guided by the desire to increase production in the country and to secure his own reelection. Thus, Roosevelt's reforms were neither guided by the ideal of egalitarianism or the baseness of racism.

To hate is one thing, to fight is another. In his book War Without Mercy, author Joun W. Dower tells his readers when these two imperatives coincide, the results can be frighteningly vicious. During the Pacific phase of the Second World War, the Japanese and Americans were locked in a struggle in which the former sought their rightful place as a superpower while the latter sought to destroy the Yellow Peril. To this was added racial hatred, as the Americans saw the Japanese as primitive simians who could only be curbed with violence, and the Japanese saw the Americans as a tainted race that must be marginalized. Thus both sides found themselves in a position in which they had to fight and couldn't lose. From this desperation came the kamikaze and the fire-bombing of Tokyo.

Blacks at home also suffered. Robert H. Zieger's The CIO, 1935-1955 shows that while there were some new opportunities opened for black workers, there were numerous race-related strikes. The CIO took the unprecedented step in 1941 and explicitly endorsed racial equality. The Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination (CARD) was established with the hope that workers could see past color to their common economic plight.

World War II presented many blacks with new employment opportunities, yet they were still treated as second-class citizens. Margaret Crawford’s essay in World War II and the American Dream demonstrates the horrible living conditions black workers were subjected to. White Americans rioted to keep black wartime housing from being built in their neighborhoods. Crawford sees these conflicts as the precursors to the Civil Rights riots that would break out a decade later.

Edward J. Escobar contends that the zoot-suit riots between Hispanic youth in Los Angeles were exacerbated by police creating a policy that supported a theory of the "inherent criminality of racial minorities" (Escobar, 285, The War in American Culture). Discriminatory practices targeted youth who dressed against conservative war-time norms and whose teenaged actions were deemed "pathological, antisocial, and even criminal" (287). Escobar suggests that actions of a subgroup that deviated from the cultural norms of wartime America, norms that dictated conservative behavior, clothing, and hairstyles, led to a codification of discrimination under heightened wartime emphasis on conformity.

  • Brandt, at. Harlem at war : the Black experience in WWII / Nat Brandt. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press 1996.
  • Poliakov, Leon. The Aryan myth; a history of racist and nationalist ideas in Europe. New York, Basic Books, 1974

Japanese American Internment

On December 7, 1941 Japan's military forces bombed the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, and the next day the United States declared war on Japan. Being at war with Japan led many Americans to not trust people of Japanese ancestry that were living in the United States. They were believed to be capable of sabotage and the success of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was assumed to be the result of Japanese American spies living in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Even Japanese Americans born in the United States were believed to be Japanese loyalists. The military felt that a Japanese invasion was a very realistic threat and that Japanese Americans would be more likely to support the Japanese invasion force, than citizens of the United States.

The months immediately following the attack were extremely difficult for Japanese Americans. Even though there was no proof that Japanese Americans were not loyal to America the federal government and its military leaders decided to severely restrict their actions in order to stop any possible sabotage and prevent any pro-Japanese actions. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, at the time Commander of the Fourth Army on the West Coast, believed that, “the military security [of the United States] required assertive measures.” As a result, alien Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada were forced to hand over all “contraband,” such as shortwave radios, binoculars, cameras, and weapons. In addition, a curfew between 9 pm and 6 am and a five mile travel restriction were placed on all alien Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. While these restrictions were quite severe there were some people that insisted that even more drastic actions be taken. Two such individuals were Henry L. Stimon, Secretary of War, and John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War. Both men believed that an evacuation was necessary and they were not alone in their beliefs. On February 13, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt received a report from the Pacific Coast Congressional delegation which went along with what Stimson and McCloy proposed. The group unanimously recommended the immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage and all others, aliens and citizens alike, whose presence shall be deemed dangerous or inimical to the defense of the United States from all strategic areas.

Their lobbying efforts were not in vain. Under the pretense of military necessity President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order gave Stimson the power to designate “military areas” from which “any and all persons may be excluded.” It asserted that “the successful prosecution of the war require[d] every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage.” The issuance of Executive Order 9066 marked the beginning of a series of executive, military, and congressional events that would forever change the lives of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. On February 20, Secretary of War Stimson appointed Lieutenant General DeWitt the military commander of the Western Defense Command, which put him in charge of executing Executive Order 9066. On March 2, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation no. 1, stating that the western halves of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the southern portion of Arizona were military areas and that some people would have to be evacuated from those places if deemed necessary. On March 18, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which created the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The purpose of the WRA was to ensure that the evacuations took place in an orderly manner and to oversee the internment camps.

The evacuations began on March 23, 1942 when DeWitt ordered that all people of Japanese ancestry in California, and parts of Arizona, Washington, and Oregon report to temporary detention centers near their homes, where they would remain until the official campsites were ready. Typically the evacuees had only a few days notice before they were to be shipped out. Most had to sell their homes, land, businesses, and other possessions at great losses ans some lost everything without compensation. The families were only allowed to take a few possessions with them and many families lost practically everything they owned except what they could carry. The evacuation took until November 3, and in that eight month period approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in 10 concentration camps.

Books to be read

  • Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America, Japanese in the United States and Canada during WWII. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1991.

Daniels believes that the wartime internment of the Japanese was just a continuation of racism against Asians in America. He traces the history of discriminatory attitudes on the west coast even after the second generation accepted American culture and spoke English. Daniels opens the question of whether the discrimination against the Japanese was based on race or the practice of non-Christian religion.

  • Fernandez, Marilyn and Stephen S. Fugita. Altered Lives, Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember their WWII Incarceration. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2004.
  • Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Using Roosevelt's own writings, his advisors' letters and diaries, and internal government documents, Greg Robinson reveals the president's central role in making and implementing the internment and examines not only what the president did but why.

The Manhattan Project

  • Peter B. Hales. Atomic spaces: living on the Manhattan Project. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Sherwin, Martin J. A world destroyed: Hiroshima and its legacies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Towards a New World

  • Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam; the use of the atomic bomb and the American confrontation with Soviet power. New York, Vintage Books 1965
  • Schlesinger, Stephen C. Act of creation : the founding of the United Nations : a story of superpowers, secret agents, wartime allies and enemies, and their quest for a peaceful world. Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, c2003
  • Armand van, Dormael, Bretton Woods : birth of a monetary system. London : Macmillan, 1978

Towards a New America

Jennifer E. Brooks' book, Defining the Peace, tells the story of veterans who came home to Georgia after the war eager to change the political landscape of the state. The primary goal of these veterans was to find ways for government to provide greater economic opportunities for working class Georgians. Although they were united in their desire for good government in Georgia, ultimately issues of race and acceptance of unionization divided the veterans. By playing on fears of racial amalgamation, old line Democrats were able to maintain power in the state, but they had to increase funding for education and infrastructure improvements to keep the vote of white veterans.

The War in Popular Memory

  • Black Koppes , Clayton R. & Gregory D. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics,Profits & Propaganda Shaped WWII Movies. Free Press 1987. ISIN: B000LCA2JQ
  • Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch. The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II. University of Chicago Press 1996.
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