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When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, life changed almost overnight for those on the battle front and on the home front. Learn about the war’s dramatic and lasting effects on American government, economy and society.

WWII at Home

World War II had been raging for more than two years before the United States entered in December 1941. Life was changed almost overnight – not just for the 16 million men and women who joined the armed services, but for those who stayed home, as well. World War II had a profound influence on American government, economy and society.Personal decisions, like what to have for dinner or what to wear to the office, were shaped (if not dictated) by the needs of the army.

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There was a rationing program that controlled the purchase of certain items needed for the war, like gasoline, and distinct shortages of other goods. Prices and wages were fixed. A massive propaganda campaign run by the United States government urged Americans to conserve wherever possible, grow their own vegetables in a ‘Victory Garden’ and clean their plates. Even fashion was affected by war shortages, since commercially-produced fabric was needed for uniforms – not for long ball gowns, vests or cuffs.Civilians organized drives and held contests to see who could save the most scrap metal, aluminum cans, fats and rubber.

They boosted production at the work place and in the home. They used it up, wore it out and did without, yet 70% of the American people said that they hadn’t had to make any ‘real sacrifices’ as a result of the war.

Entertainment During WWII

Even entertainment was affected by the demands and interests of a wartime nation.

When 95% of professional baseball players traded in jerseys for uniforms, including even Joe DiMaggio, a ‘second string’ of athletes got a chance at the big leagues – including women. Many of the nation’s most famous actors, such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, also joined the armed forces, but Hollywood still cranked out feature films. Movies typically started with updates and footage from the front lines, often adding cartoons with negative caricatures of the enemy, followed by the main feature.But the radio was by far the most important source of information and entertainment during World War II. Networks reached more than 80% of American households, broadcasting battle reports, performances from overseas military bases, messages from the president, radio dramas and patriotic music.

Government and Economy

World War II had an enormous impact on the federal government. A network of new agencies emerged to coordinate the war effort on the battle front and the home front. Most of these were dissolved after 1945, but Americans still became accustomed to looking to the president and Washington for solutions to problems, rather than local or state government. And even though measures like price and wage fixing ended with the war, there was also a lasting influence when it came to federal oversight of the nation’s economy.The propaganda machine cranked out posters encouraging American production and investment.

Even before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had promised America’s allies that the nation would become the world’s ‘arsenal of democracy,’ and it did. The United States unleashed its productive might, lifting the nation out of the Great Depression and forging lasting links between the military and industry. Factories that had once manufactured consumer goods converted to war production. For example, Ford Motor Company could build one B-24 bomber every HOUR. American workers produced 14,000 ships, 80,000 landing craft, 100,000 tanks and armored cars, 300,000 airplanes, 15 million guns with 41 billion rounds of ammunition, and two atomic bombs. Through it all, posters on factory walls reminded workers that every accident, every sick day, every extra minute on a break was time lost to the enemy.

The war not only encouraged the growth of big business, it also accelerated the growth of commercial agriculture. American farms multiplied their output of wheat, corn and other foods. Ironically, American civilians faced shortages of many food items.All this factory and farm production was paid for by the federal government, which promised to cover costs, plus a fixed-percentage profit. In the end, World War II cost the U.S.

government about $340 billion, NOT adjusted for inflation. Where did all that money come from? The American people. Nearly 2/3 of all citizens purchased war bonds, loaning the government half of the money it needed for the war.

Revenue also increased, as more than four times more people were now paying income tax, and business taxes expanded.

Social Effects

Finally, World War II had dramatic social effects. Many jobs that had previously been closed to women and African-Americans suddenly opened up when millions of men went overseas to fight.

Thanks to a popular 1942 song, women in the war industries were nicknamed Rosie the Riveter, epitomized by a now-famous poster from the Westinghouse Company. By the mid-1940s, more than a third of American women were in the workforce, up nearly 50% from before the war. While most women left their positions when the men returned, their experience laid the groundwork for the women’s rights movement in coming decades.

The war also spurred change for African-Americans. Before the war, they had suffered legal discrimination and segregation and had twice the rate of unemployment. When World War II started, 50% of all defense manufacturers refused to hire black men. They were banned from the Marine Corps and Air Corps, and could only serve as messmen in the Navy. In the army, African-Americans were generally restricted to service duties. A 1941 protest agitated for the chance to serve equally in the military and in war production. The shortage of labor caused many employers to relent, and the defense industries were desegregated by executive order.

Similarly, casualty rates opened up combat positions to minorities, and by the end of the war, African-Americans served with distinction in all ranks in many positions, including pilots and medics. The races still weren’t socially and legally equal, but World War II was a milestone in the fight for civil rights.On the other hand, Japanese-Americans experienced increased racism and violation of personal rights.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine fired missiles at an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California. The following night, a 3-hour barrage of anti-aircraft fire awakened a terrified Los Angeles, inciting fear that a Japanese invasion of the mainland had begun. The U.

S. military nervously conceded that the so-called ‘Battle of Los Angeles’ was a false alarm (though conspiracy theorists still propose myriad cover-ups). However, mixed reports kept suspicion high that the Japanese had help from the inside, drawing support for the implementation of Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned around 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent along the west coast (most of whom were citizens). No one tried to pretend that it was fair. There was simply no time to investigate; it was safer and easier to intern all potential saboteurs and sort out the bad guys later. After being relocated to 10 camps in seven states, internees not only lost their freedom for the duration of the war, but collectively lost $4 billion in property and income. Still, more than 30,000 Americans of Japanese descent volunteered to fight for the United States in World War II.

Lesson Summary

World War II had dramatic effects on the government, economy and society of the United States. Some were temporary and caused little disruption, like changes in the entertainment and fashion industries. There were inconveniences, like food and gasoline shortages. But World War II altered America in some drastic ways, too. The power and scope of the federal government increased permanently, especially over the economy.

Women, epitomized by Rosie the Riveter, entered the work force in droves and found their opportunities expanding, as did African-Americans. But the internment of Japanese-Americans, authorized under Executive Order 9066, represented a significant violation of civil liberties.

Learning Outcomes

After completing the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recall the changes that occurred in the U.

    S. during the war

  • Identify the opening of the women’s movement and civil rights
  • Explain the racism involved in Japanese-American internments

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