World War II Homefront
Steinbeck's propaganda and correspondent work was only a small piece in the giant war effort nearly the entire nation was engaged in. Similar to World War I, but to a much greater extent, the economy of the United States became centered around the war. Entire industries switched from creating consumer goods to building war materials, new industries developed and thrived in support of the war, and nearly four million men and women were finally back to work in jobs ranging from agriculture to the building of war machinery.
As was the case during World War I, and to an even greater extent than during the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in and took control of large parts of the economy. Prices on many things were frozen and legislation was passed to try to prevent inflation. The War Production Board was created to award military contracts to private companies, distribute resources, and to provide tax incentives for new factories to be built and existing factories to convert to military production. Large corporations benefited the most from these government contracts, a trend that would continue into the Cold War era.
Several new industries grew rapidly during the war thanks to government contracts. Prior to the war the aerospace industry was small. The need for large bombers and fast fighter planes led to millions of dollars in defense contracts. Radar and other communications devices became another of the fastest growing industries. Some of the early founders of the computer tech industry got their start developing radio and computer components for the war. These industries, and many others, continued to grow and expand in the decades that followed.
During World War II the nuclear industry grew in earnest. Fearing that Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb and use it during the war, the United States began one of its largest secret programs ever, the Manhattan Project. Scientific labs, manufacturing facilities, and test sites were built in secret across the country. Each of these sites and the thousands of people who worked at them helped to develop or test different components of what would become atomic bombs. Except for a few people at the very highest levels of the project, the majority of people who worked on the Manhattan Project had no idea what they were helping to build. The Manhattan Project succeeded in building, testing, and detonating the world's first atomic weapons, all in less than five years.
War time jobs, however, meant more than just employment. Wartime propaganda reminded the men and women hard at work on the homefront that they were contributing to the war effort - to the defeat of the country's enemies. Working in the factories and shipyards was a patriotic duty that united much of the nation. That same patriotic spirit, however, made it difficult for labor unions to continue to fight for workers' rights. Strikes were frowned upon as harming the war effort.
Rationing, voluntary or instituted by the government, was another way to support the war at home. Many everyday materials were needed for the war: food, gasoline, rubber, nylon, and much more. The federal government rationed, or limited, the amount of these goods that people could purchase. Many Americans also planted small "victory gardens" to grow some food at home (less food purchased meant more food that could be shipped to the troops) and participated in the many recycling programs (especially collecting scrap metals and rubber).
Mobilizing for war had a broad social impact. With millions of men joining the military, women were encouraged to join the workforce. Rosie the Riveter became the image that called women to do what had traditionally been considered men's work. More than 4 million women worked in defense industry jobs by the end of the war - in munitions factories, shipyards, and much more. Following the war the same patriotic propaganda that encouraged women to join the work force helped to push women out of their industrial jobs and back home - "making room" for the returning veterans to work. Many women, however, wanted to remain in the work force; they had experienced a new life and a new sense of accomplishment that they wanted to hold on to. Their experiences helped to fuel a new wave of the Women's Rights Movement.
Wartime jobs led to a Second Great Migration of African Americans out of the rural South and into northern and western urban areas. From the 1940s through the 1970s, an estimated 5 million African Americans left the South largely for urban areas around the country. Yet even in northern and western cities, African Americans were subjected to segregation and racism. Wartime jobs drew millions of people, black and white, to cities - leading to housing shortages in some areas and racial tensions across the country. Dozens of cities saw racial violence during the war. In June of 1943, race riots broke out in Detroit, Michigan. The riots were fueled by white resistance to desegregation in the work place and in housing. Over the course of three days, hundreds of people were injured and dozens were killed.
Young Latinos were also the victims of racial violence. In July of 1943 white American servicemen attacked Latinos in "zoot suits" during a four day riot. Like many attacks against minority groups, the Zoot Suit Riot was the result of long held racial tensions and was set off by a rumored "assault" on a white person. White police officers often stood by and watched the violence.
Perhaps the most notorious of Civil Rights violations on the homefront was the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fears of an attack on the American West Coast, racist attitudes towards Japanese people, and fear mongering in the press helped lead to the imprisonment of approximately 112,000 men, women, and children. Although a report ordered by the U.S. State Department (known as the Munson Report) explained the relatively small danger Japanese and Japanese Americans posed in the United States, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast of the United States to be sent to prison camps for the duration of the war. Decades later, in the 1980s, the United States government issued an official apology for its mistreatment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during the war.
Despite being imprisoned, many Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in World War II. They served as translators in the Military Intelligence Service as well as combat soldiers in Europe (Japanese American combat units were not sent to fight in the Pacific). The soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, became the most decorated unit in the history of the United States.
Civil Rights Movement
Although there were immense Civil Rights violations during the war, important steps were taken that laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Fair Employment Practices Commission was created to prevent segregation and discrimination in defense industry jobs (except for the military, which remained segregated into the 1950s). The ranks and influence of the NAACP grew, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was founded, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded as well. These groups contributed greatly to the Civil Rights Movements in the decades to come.
Black newspapers and leaders urged African Americans to fight for the "Double V," victory in the war against fascism, and victory at home against racism. The idea that black soldiers were expected to fight and die in the war while Jim Crow and segregation was the rule at home in the United States was glaringly hypocritical.
More than 100,000 African Americans fought overseas during World War II, but much like at home their lives were segregated. Although black units were generally assigned less desirable work, some of the units were assigned combat duty and served with great distinction. The Tuskegee Airmen, for example, were the first African American fighter pilots. Their success not only helped win the war, but showed to many people that African Americans were the equal of whites.
World War II had long a long lasting impact in the United States. The War put an end to the Great Depression and helped create a post war economy that President Dwight Eisenhower would later refer to as the "military-industrial complex," a massive partnership between the federal government and companies that produce goods and materials for the defense industry. Unlike the aftermath of other wars, the United States never fully demobilized following World War II. The arms race and the Cold War continued to funnel millions of dollars into an ever-growing defense industry. The migrations that the war caused, for jobs and for men and women serving in the military, helped to lay the foundation and build momentum for the coming Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements.