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America and World War II, The Nation at War

Detroit race riots, War Manpower Commission, War Refugee Board, War Relocation Authority, Fair Employment Practices Commission

Even before Pearl Harbor, the American government had begun to mobilize for war. After the attack, the United States focused its attention on the war effort. World War II greatly increased the power of the federal government, which mushroomed in size and power. The federal budget skyrocketed, and the number of federal civilian employees tripled. The war also made the United States a military and economic world power.

The armed forces expanded as volunteers and draftees enrolled, growing to almost 12 million men and 260,000 women by 1945. Roosevelt formed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a military advisory group, to manage the huge military effort. New federal agencies multiplied. The Office of Strategic Services gathered intelligence and conducted espionage, the War Production Board distributed manufacturing contracts and curtailed manufacture of civilian goods, and the War Manpower Commission supervised war industry, agriculture, and the military. Other wartime agencies resolved disputes between workers and management; battled inflation, set price controls, and imposed rations on scarce items; turned out propaganda; and oversaw broadcasting and publishing.

As the United States moved to a wartime economy, the depression ended, and the U.S. economy came to life. Industry swiftly shifted to war production, automakers began turning out tanks and planes, and the United States became the world’s largest weapons manufacturer. New industries emerged, such as synthetic rubber, which compensated for the loss of rubber supplies when Japan seized the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. The war economy brought new opportunities. Americans experienced virtually full employment, longer work weeks, and (despite wage controls) higher earnings. Unions gained members and negotiated unprecedented benefits. Farmers prospered, too. Crop prices rose, production increased, and farm income tripled.

Labor scarcity drew women into the war economy. During the depression, the federal government had urged women to cede jobs to male breadwinners. However, when the war began, it sought women to work in war production. More than 6 million women entered the work force in wartime; women’s share of the labor force leaped from 25 percent in 1940 to 35 percent in 1945. Three-quarters of the new women workers were married, a majority were over 35, and over a third had children under 14. Many women held untraditional jobs in the well-paid blue collar sector—in shipyards and in airplane plants, as welders and crane operators. Women found new options in civilian vocations and professions, too. Despite women’s gains in the workplace, many people retained traditional convictions that women should not work outside the home. Government propaganda promoted women’s war work as only a temporary response to an emergency.

Members of minorities who had been out of jobs in the 1930s also found work in the war economy. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated from the South to Northern industrial cities to work in war industries. More than 1 million black people served in the armed forces in segregated units; the government ended its policy of excluding blacks from combat.

As Northern black urban populations grew, racial violence sometimes erupted, as in the Detroit race riots of June 1943. African Americans linked the battle against Nazis abroad with the fight for racial justice at home. Membership in the NAACP increased tenfold, and another civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), began in 1942. Early in 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph met with Roosevelt administration officials to demand equal employment for blacks in industries working under federal government defense contracts. Randolph threatened to lead 100,000 African Americans in a march on Washington, D.C., to protest job discrimination. In response, Roosevelt issued a directive banning racial discrimination in federal hiring practices and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Like African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans had more job opportunities.

For all Americans, war changed the quality of life. World War II inspired hard work, cooperation, and patriotism. Citizens bought war bonds, saved scrap metal, and planted victory gardens. They coped with rationing and housing shortages. The war also caused population movement. Americans flocked to states with military bases and defense plants; 6 million migrants left for cities, many on the West Coast, where the defense industry was concentrated. School enrollment sank as teenagers took jobs or joined the armed services. People became more concerned about family life, especially about working mothers, juvenile delinquency, and unruly teenagers.

The United States began to receive reports of the Holocaust—the Nazi effort to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews—in 1942, and the State Department recognized Hitler’s genocide by the end of that year. However, the U.S. government gave precedence to other war matters and did not found a War Refugee Board until 1944. The board aided in the rescue and relocation of surviving Nazi victims, but its effort was too weak and too late to help Europe’s Jews; approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe was murdered during the war.

In the United States, civil liberties were casualties of the war. In February 1942 the president authorized the evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast. The U.S. government interned around 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them native-born U.S. citizens, in relocation centers run by the War Relocation Authority. The internment policy reflected anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast that was rooted in economic rivalry, racial prejudice, and fear of Japanese sabotage after Pearl Harbor. (The policy affected only the mainland United States, not Hawaii, where more than 150,000 residents of Japanese descent lived and where the United States imposed martial law for almost three years.) Forced to sell their land and homes, the West Coast internees ended up behind barbed wire in remote western areas. In 1944 the Supreme Court ruled that the evacuation and internment were constitutional in Korematsu v. United States. By then, however, the government had started to release the internees. In 1988 Congress apologized and voted to pay $20,000 compensation to each of 60,000 surviving internees.

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