I recently happened upon an old paper that I had written at some point in college for one of my American history class. I don't remember what the whole prompt for the paper was, but the title I had given it was "World War II: Effects on American Democracy". I am not the greatest writer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do remember thinking at the time that it was one of the best papers I had ever written. Anyhow, I thought I would throw it on here because I find WWII interesting and, if nothing else, it is mildly informational. Let me know what you think, enjoy!
Somewhere beyond the sunshine sparkling off of the rippling water, beyond the waves lightly knocking on the sea wall; past the voices of seamen carrying with the wind and the clatter of forks and knives on breakfast dishes, and far beyond the expectations of the merry men, came a fleet of over 180 torpedo planes, dive bombers and fighter planes all bearing a distinct and prideful red circle. A surprise bullet shot through a window, knocking a butter dish from the table; another whizzed past a head of blonde hair and burst through the calendar marked December 7th. Men stumbled out of their headquarters; ears flooding with a loud buzzing sound, they watched the black cloud take over the sky above them. Suddenly, a member of the mass of planes swooped down from the sky and there was an explosion. The waters were on fire. Men ran from every direction. Some men didn’t run at all, but already lay lifeless on the ground. A second fleet could be seen closing in on the once lush—but now dreadful—landscape. Men gripped their artillery with clammy hands, brows sweating, and aimed at the oncoming horde. Alarms blared, guns fired, and bombs dropped for a devastating two hours. This ‘day of infamy’ finally closed with six large battleships and multiple auxiliary vessels resting on the ocean floor and over 3500 men dead on the ground and in the murky waters.
The first day of America’s direct involvement in World War II was nothing shy of astonishing. It was impactful and tragic, to say the least, and forced a wary President Roosevelt to dive into the war. Although one may argue that the attack happened in the first place because of who we are, it is not just why a war happened that characterizes it--it is what it has succumbed to in the end. This war is not justly defined by who started it and their motivations behind their actions, but by its impact on the American people and the dimensions of American life. World War II was a catalyst for social change, and war and war production were the chief priority for the government during this time; this goal alone shaped multiple cultural and economic aspects of life on the American home front and these changes would have a permanent place in the construct of how America works.
President Roosevelt’s actions as the executive can hardly be differentiated from the structure of his personality: a little bit messy; sometimes evasive; and undeniably riveting. Earle Looker described him as “turning men’s opinions easily—perhaps too easily—and made them blind to faults…” Roosevelt dominated the scene with his popular New Deal coalition in the thirties to combat the Great Depression. Many people revered his patriotic ambitions and unwavering persistence and owed much of their better lifestyles to his legislation; but Roosevelt would later find that these same tactics could not be employed during wartime. During the forties that government had a complete turnaround in their actions; in the thirties Roosevelt had to limit productive output, create as many jobs as possible, and promote a small amount of inflation. But during the wartime of the forties he had to find workers for defense plants, increase industrial and agricultural output as well as stunt wages to stop inflation. During this time the government also wanted to inspire American pride and loyalty and gain support for the war by directing civilian energies into tasks that would assist the war effort. Agencies presented citizens with a “V Home Award” for conserving food and materials, buying war bonds and planting ‘victory gardens’. The slogan “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was popularized during this time along with the very popular “V” for victory.
Even with the overflowing sense of unity and pride shared amongst Americans, America still lacked in the racial equality department. The Great Depression had been able to hide the racial injustices of the time but because social reform was of little priority during the war the racial differences had become clear again. African-Americans lack of trust in accommodation during World War I led to their use of militant means of expressing their concerns. They held several strikes such as the march on Washington in 1941 where they protested against discrimination. In response, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802. This stated that government agencies, defense contractors, and job training programs had to put an end to discrimination. In addition, he created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate any violations. Groups such as the NAACP were propelled by the war and expanded greatly during these years. They helped to eliminate segregation in public places in Detroit, Chicago, and Denver. Another milestone in racial equality was the 1944 court case Smith v. Allwright where they ruled that political parties were agents of the state and could not eliminate the right to vote through racial discrimination. The armed forces proved to be just as defiant of racial equality as the industry but the war placed precedence over all else and so the military began allowing them into the navy and army and slowly desegregated ships and training camps. By the fall of 1944 the number of blacks in armed services had increased sevenfold. Tolerance towards Irish Catholics, Germans, Italians, eastern Europeans, and Jews was important and kept intact. The only group of immigrants that lost its rights was the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Found guilty by association, they were herded into internment camps where most of them remained until 1945. This decision reflected a severe lack of respect for and a fear of Japanese-Americans. General DeWitt said that “the Japanese race is an enemy race.” Time magazine said that “the ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing… indicates it.” Perhaps the greatest social jump was with women in the workforce. Commonly symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter”, women had joined the labor force in defense work and heavy industry related work. Due to the depletion of the male labor force and the loss of workers to the armed forces, heavy investment in war industry, and the rapid economic expansion, the need for women workers was at its highest. Between 1940 and 1945, about 6 million women had joined the workforce and before the war ended more than one-third of workers were women.
Despite these advances in social reform, it was still overshadowed by the priority of military objectives. While the ambition of American citizens was making an impact that would persist for the decades following the war, President Roosevelt was tackling the wartime crises that plagued the economy. He started his focus on resources and materials, and at the heart of this was the War Productions Board. Created in January 1942 by Executive Order 9024, it replaced the peacetime Supply Priorities and Allocation Board and the Office of Production Management. Headed by Donald Nelson, the goal was to “establish a set of rules under which the game could be played the way industry said it had to play it.” In other words, the War Productions Board wanted voluntary cooperation from businesses and that would only happen if business could make profits as well. They did this by: underwriting much of the cost of plan expansion by permitting industry to repay those costs over a five-year period; guaranteed military contractors a profit above his costs and removed almost all risks from accepting war orders; and granting immunity from antitrust laws. As a result, output was nearly doubled between 1939 and 1942. The government also stimulated output by: creating a new synthetic rubber that would make up for their short rubber supply; creating the Controlled Materials Plan which allotted fixed quantities of scarce materials such as copper, steel, and aluminum; controlling the railroad system to prevent transportation bottlenecks. The emphasis on industrial expansion lead to the creation of big businesses and the number of small businesses began to shrink. Big business also gained much of the prestige and political influence that it lost during the Great Depression. With the growth of these large organizations, organized labor began to become more of a problem. In response to the 1943 strike of the 400,000 members of the United Mine Workers, Roosevelt created the War Labor Disputes Act which made it a crime to encourage strikes in plants taken over by the government. But, knowing that coal could not be mined without the union, Roosevelt had to negotiate. He vetoed War Labor Disputes Act and permitted bargaining within the workplace and granted them a raise. Roosevelt’s work with the union granted him a lot of support in the 1944 election as well.
Another economic issue of great importance was inflation. To control inflation, government implemented several different methods including wage ceilings, price controls, rationing, taxation, and war bonds. In 1942 the National War Labor Board instituted the “Little Steel” formula that allowed for a 15 percent wage increase but nothing else and they did all that they could to eliminate wages from collective bargaining. Wages were, of course, dependant upon the prices that people had to pay. In April 1942 the Office of Price Administration (OPA) required every merchant to set a price ceiling at the price they had charged that March. The OPA also took advantage of rationing to control prices: gasoline was rationed to conserve tires; coffee was rationed to reduce the burden on ocean transport; and canned food to conserve tin. The next method to control inflation was the withholding tax system. Before 1935, tax withholding had not been used for 18 years and it was put into place again in 1943 with the Current Tax Payment Act. This would shape what is now the income tax that we pay today. The last method of inflation control was through selling war bonds. These helped boost morale for the war and gave the government all the extra money that it could get. These proved successful, as in 1944 more than 7 percent of the nation’s personal income went toward purchasing bonds.
After the war the United States benefitted from the enormous growth of the middle class, a period of economic prosperity, and becoming a major power in the world after Europe was dismantled. Between 1940 and 1945 the GNP had doubled from $100 billion to $200 and United States produced 50 percent of the world’s goods. This was due to the destruction of our competitors in Western Europe and Japan and a decline in birthrates before and during the war. A lot of the wealth had also come from government spending and factory building. As a result, the government would always have a hand in the American economic machine. Regardless, the United States also bore the burden of many costs. The life cost for Americans of the war was 405,399; 292,131 combat deaths, 115,187 deaths from accident and disease. U.S. soldiers had about a 1 in 100 chance of being killed in action or dying from wounds. The war also led to tensions with Russia and the arms race of the Cold War. Russia was tightening its grip in response to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan which led Truman to move to a tougher military position to combat USSR communist spread in Europe. Secretary of Navy James Forrestal concluded that the US and Russia would conflict politically, ideologically, and militarily around the globe.
Every significant change during the war had been a direct result of it and during this time the government expanded well beyond any size that it had ever been before; suffering from the Ratchet effect, it would never return to the size that it had been before the war. World War II provided for a reshaping of the fabric of democracy through social and economic changes that would have permanent effects. Historian Gerald Nash described WWII as having “greatly hastened the development of a more highly organized society in the United States” and “strengthened the faith of millions of Americans in the role of big government, big business, agriculture, and labor unions in dealing with the nation’s major problems.”
-Walter LaFeber and Richard Polenberg and Nancy Woloch, The American Century: A History of the United States Since the 1890s (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2008)
-Earle Looker, The American Way: Franklin Roosevelt in Action (New York: The John Day Company, 1933), 25
-“War Production Board,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/w/wa021.html
-John W. Jeffries, “Part I: Mobilization and its Impact”, World War II & the American Home Front (2007)
-“Understanding the U.S. Tax Withholding System,” Investopedia, http://www.investopedia.com/articles/tax/10/understanding-tax-withholding-system.asp
-“The Human Cost of World War II,” Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945), http://www.jrwhs.com/uploads/WHBHumanCostsofWar.pdf