World War II: Home Front Summary & Analysis
The Home Front
On the evening of Tuesday, April 28th, 1942, Americans gathered around their radios to listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he spoke with the nation about tremendous challenges ahead.
"There is one front and one battle," the president declared, "where everyone in the United States—every man, woman, and child—is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks."8
The High Price of Mobilization
Five months before, the country had learned of the surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, the first major strike by a hostile power on United States soil, and a devastating blow to a country already weakened by years of economic woes.
Japan's aggression spurred the United States Congress to declare war on Japan, and then on Germany, Italy, and the remaining Axis powers. Within just four days of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was fully embroiled in world war and the country's human and financial resources had to be mobilized for the fight.
Great sums of money, President Roosevelt explained to the nation, "more money than has ever been spent by any nation at any time in the long history of the world," would have to be spent, "to build the factories, to buy the materials, to pay the labor, to provide the transportation, to equip and feed and house the soldiers, sailors and marines, to do all the thousands of things necessary in a war."9
How could a nation still reeling from a cataclysmic economic depression possibly afford such expensive projects? With so much money allotted for defense spending, wouldn't New Deal social programs crumble and the nation's unemployed fall deeper into desolation?
Incredibly, the billions of dollars siphoned out of government coffers for rearmament and national security did far more to revitalize the American economy than any of Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
Doctor "Win the War"
The key to this far-reaching success was employment. Munitions plants, airfields, ship-building factories, and other industries under pressure to meet extraordinary wartime demands needed labor. And lots of it.
Employers couldn't fill openings fast enough. As the war escalated and the demand for military equipment, vehicles, and ammunition multiplied, so too did the number of available jobs.
At the same time, a military draft had drained the labor force of millions of young men, so employers had to open their doors to many of those who'd long been excluded from high-paying, skilled labor positions, particularly African Americans and women. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries, widened the range of occupations available to Blacks. And women filled positions once held only by men, like mail carriers, technicians, bus drivers, railroad operators, plumbers, and construction workers.
All industries competed with one another for employees and were compelled to offer a number of tantalizing incentives like high wages, reasonable hours, on-the-job training, medical care, and—for women workers—paid maternity leave and daycare facilities.
The astounding demand for labor during the war years revolutionized the workplace, creating new opportunities and precious choices for American workers who'd grown accustomed to the limits of the Great Depression.
By 1945, unemployment had virtually disappeared, and wartime manufacturing and economic growth, or "Dr. Win the War" as President Roosevelt called it, had managed to generate prosperity and financial confidence for the American people, two things that federal New Deal programs had failed to do.
The Underbelly of Mobilization
While war mobilization cured the Great Depression, it didn't alleviate all of the social problems that ailed the nation.
Gender discrimination in the workplace continued to stymie the economic advancement of women. Racism also remained one of the most significant obstacles to the full participation of non-whites in American society.
Last but not least, the concern for national security, the fear of foreign enemies, and overpopulation in urban centers due to wartime migration aggravated animosities between whites and non-whites.
Women and the Workplace
Despite the steep increase in the number of women in the labor force, national support for working women, and federally mandated support services for mothers like daycare, health insurance with maternity benefits, and a guaranteed annual wage, World War II didn't thoroughly transform the workplace for women.
Discrimination in hiring, wage discrepancies, dress codes, and unemployment policies still favored male employees. Furthermore, once the war ended and millions of men reentered the labor force, women once again found it difficult to find well-paid work, or any work at all.
Plus, as the demand for labor decreased, employer-supported services like on-the-job daycare disappeared, making it once again quite difficult for working-class mothers to support their families.
By 1941, Japanese Americans formed a small, fairly prosperous and self-segregated portion of the population, and were concentrated primarily on the West Coast.
After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans perceived this group of immigrants and citizens as spies for the Japanese government, linked by blood and therefore sympathetic to an enemy of the United States. Military commanders successfully convinced President Roosevelt that Japanese Americans residing in California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada posed a significant threat to national security.
The solution to the problem? Relocate them and if necessary, contain them. Under the authority of President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, roughly 110,000 people of Japanese descent—Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, as well as Nisei, children of Issei born in the United States—were forced to leave their homes, businesses, and many of their belongings behind to relocate to internment camps in remote regions of the country.
Despite the fact that most of those forced to migrate did so without protest, and despite the fact that not one single case of sabotage, spying, or treason could be linked to any American of Japanese descent, the U.S. military uprooted and detained Japanese Americans throughout most of the war.
And in December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the exclusion of certain groups from certain areas was constitutional—Korematsu v. United States—but that regardless of the constitutionality of exclusion, the government couldn't detain citizens who they believed were loyal to the U.S. (Ex parte Endo).
By early 1945, the federal government finally began releasing detainees.10
African Americans and the Home Front
The expansion of manufacturing, along with federally-mandated desegregation in the war industries, did enable many African Americans to actively serve their country in a number of new ways. But, perhaps more importantly, mobilization enabled Blacks to secure well-paid jobs.
Higher wages and other incentives empowered African Americans, particularly Southern Blacks long stifled by a culture of segregation and racial violence, to move to the Northeast and the West where war industry jobs were plentiful. During the 1940s, over one million Black Americans left their homes in rural regions in the South and the Midwest, seeking freedom and fortune in cities like Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Richmond, Vallejo, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
But many Blacks discovered that material opportunities weren't often accompanied by civil rights or racial justice. Housing discrimination, in particular, limited their mobility. Tarea Hall Pittman, who worked to organize new Black arrivals from the South, explains that African Americans "could see the vestiges of discrimination" in California. Inequality in the West, she explains, "was going to be exactly like Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia and every place else if we didn't do something.11"
And although the nation was engaged in a war against fascism abroad, legal segregation and lynching continued to hinder and devastate the lives of African Americans in the South.
Riots of 1943
Intolerance for ethnic diversity, race mixing, and concern for rising crime rates sparked some of the century's most violent race riots. In 1943 alone, violent clashes broke out in over a dozen cities including Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and Mobile, Alabama, and Beaumont, Texas.
In one instance, white citizens in a Detroit neighborhood organized a protest over the construction of a public housing development. The public display led to fights between white and Black residents and ultimately resulted in a city-wide riot that left 34 people dead and over $2 million worth of property, largely in Black neighborhoods, destroyed.
In Los Angeles, groups of white sailors, soldiers, police officers, and civilian men from all over the West Coast responded to a press-instigated outcry against the "zoot-suiter menace." Mobs seeking to punish those perceived as delinquent, violent, disrespectful, and un-American patrolled downtown Los Angeles, many wielding bats and crowbars.
They targeted anyone wearing the conspicuous zoot suit, an audacious outfit favored by young, urban, Mexican-American and Black men during the 1940s. During the riots, which raged for a full week, hundreds of young people—predominantly Mexican-American, African-American, and Filipino-American—were stripped of their clothing and beaten. Only after state and federal authorities stepped in, did the violence cease.12
World War II As a Watershed
But even if the benefits of wartime mobilization didn't create a level playing field for all Americans, the nation and its people were transformed.
Wartime mobilization—and all the many opportunities and obstacles that came with it—affected the very way people viewed themselves and the society within which they lived. These changes would help set into motion a postwar era of radical social, cultural, and economic changes never before imagined.
Although it was the men who went off to fight the war, the people left behind at home also had a part to play in the war. The Home Front is the name given to the effect of the war on people’s everyday lives.
When the war began in September 1939 the government knew that large cities would be the target for German bombs and that casualties would be high. Evacuation was introduced to move school children, teachers, mothers with children under the age of five and disabled people out of the cities to the countryside where there was little risk of bombing raids.
Evacuation was voluntary and the government expected more than 3 million people to take advantage of the scheme. However, by the end of September 1939 only 1.5 million people had been evacuated and most of those returned to their homes when there were no bombing raids. When the Battle of Britain and the Blitz began in 1940, evacuation was re-introduced.
The children to be evacuated assembled in the school playground. They all wore name tags and had to carry their gas mask as well as their belongings. After saying goodbye to their parents they travelled by train or by coach to their destination where they met the people who were to house them. Most of those evacuated had no idea what their life as an evacuee would be like nor when they would see their parents again.
Britain has always imported food and other goods from overseas. Being an island this means that goods come into the country by ship or air. In 1939 most goods were transported to Britain by ship.
From the beginning of the war, one of Hitler’s tactics against Britain was to use submarines to torpedo ships bringing supplies to Britain. This meant that imported goods were in short supply.
The government introduced rationing to make sure that everyone had a fair share of what was available.
Every man, woman and child was given a ration book for food and had to register with a grocery store. The grocery store was only given enough food for the people on their list. When someone bought rationed food, the grocer stuck a sticker in his or her ration book to show that that week’s ration had been purchased.
At first only butter, sugar and bacon was rationed. By the middle of 1940 all meat, eggs, cheese, jam, tea and milk was also rationed. Clothes were rationed from June 1941 due to a shortage of raw materials and also to allow the factories and workers to concentrate on producing weapons, aircraft and ammunition for the war.
One Person’s Weekly Food Allowance
lard or butter
Vegetables were not rationed but were often in short supply. People who had gardens were encouraged to plant vegetables instead of flowers. The government called this ‘Digging for Victory’ and produced posters to persuade people that they were helping to win the war by planting vegetables.
The only fruit that was available was that grown in Britain e.g. apples, pears, and strawberries. Bananas, oranges, peaches and other imported fruit were not available at all.
Dried egg powder was available and was used to make scrambled eggs.
Everyone was given a book of 66 coupons to use to buy new clothes for one year.
This was cut to 48 in 1942 and 36 in 1943. Each item of clothing cost a certain number of coupons.
Second hand clothes were not rationed and children’s clothes were handed down from one child to the next or sold on to other families. The government used the slogan ‘Mend and Make Do’ to encourage people to repair or patch torn or worn clothes.
As more and more men were ‘called up’ to serve in the forces, women were called upon to take over the jobs traditionally done by men.
Women worked in the factories producing aircraft, ammunition, weapons and other goods needed for the war effort. They worked long hours and could earn as much as 40 shillings (£2.00) a week. This was quite a good wage in the 1940s but was less than the men had been paid for doing the same job.
The women who worked in the fields and on farms were known as Land Girls. They were given a uniform and had to live on the farms where they were sent to work. They worked long hours and the work was hard. Land Girls were paid 32 shillings (£1.60) per week.
Other jobs done by women included:
Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), Air Raid Wardens, Auxillary Territorial Service (ATS), Women’s Auxillary Air Force (WAAF), Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Special Operations Executive (SOE) [known as Secret Agents or Spies], Entertainers
The Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was formed in 1940 when there was a real risk that Hitler might invade Britain. The men that served in the Home Guard were all volunteers and were mostly those that were too old (over the age of 40) or too young (under the age of 18) to serve in the forces. They became known as ‘Dad’s Army’.
The men were issued with a uniform and an armband with the letters LDV to show that they were members of the Home Guard. Members of the public were asked to donate any rifles, pistols or shotguns that they might have to provide the Home Guard with weapons. Those that were not provided with weapons made makeshift weapons from pieces of pipe or knives.
Most of the men had full time jobs and trained in the evenings. As well as preparing themselves to be ready to fight off a German invasion, the Home Guard also guarded buildings that had been bombed to prevent looting, helped to clear bomb damage, helped to rescue those trapped after an air raid, guarded factories and airfields, captured German airmen that had been shot down and set up roadblocks to check people’s identity cards.