Doris Kearns Goodwin
307 Main Street
Interviewed December 27, 1994
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
The Impact of World War II on the Homefront
The approaching 50th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II has elicited great interest in the impact in that war. Within American society there were profound transformations. Your recently published book, No Ordinary Time portrays the homefront and discusses the transformations within our society.
In World War II, as in so many wars, perhaps the most compelling transformation was the one that took place in the economy at large. Think about where the country was in 1939 and 1940, still 17% unemployment, having gone through a decade of depression, with our factories really silent in many parts of the land, and once that mobilization began, the country really became the most powerful, productive nation on the face of the earth with eventually, no unemployment to speak of, people working three shifts a day, and people migrating from one part of the country to the other. In fact, one of the great social changes that took place during the war was the movement of so many people from the South to the North and from the East to the West, creating California in many ways and creating the big industrial cities in the North. The economy that changed during the war offered mobilization and offered a possibility for a better life for Americans, but not all wars end up with social justice accompanying the economic mobilization. Even as the planes and the tanks and the weapons were being made, what distinguishes World War II from other wars is that social justice ran a pace with the kind of economic changes that were taking place.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the area of civil rights. At the start of the war, blacks were blatantly discriminated against in the factories, and they were allowed only the lowest level jobs in the Army and the Navy. Yet as the war got underway, through the combination of a growing civil rights movement that understood that here was a time to fight for black progress, since the rhetoric of the war had to do with fighting racism abroad, it was critical to fight racism at home at the same time. Civil rights leaders were aware that blacks were needed in the factories and needed in the Army and the Navy so they used that need and the democratic rhetoric to advance their cause in wonderful ways during the war itself. At the start of the war, even though blacks were not allowed in the factories, a march on Washington was threatened in 1941 to protest this situation and finally Roosevelt agreed to sign the executive order to create the Fair Employment Practice Commission that forced factories to open their doors to blacks. As a result, somewhere near two million blacks got jobs in factories and at skill levels and skill possibilities that they never would have had before the war. And by and large, they stayed. The statistics show that once they made that move into those factory jobs, even though there was some cutback after the war, they had made progress that they had never made in the American economy before this.
Similarly in the military at the start of the war, blacks were confined to the lowest level jobs as mess men in the Navy, as low level jobs in the Army, but through the fighting on the civil rights leaders' parts and through the blacks entering in large numbers into the Army and Navy, by the middle of the war and by the end of the war, the Navy was almost totally integrated, the Army still had a further way to go, but blacks were serving as officers, as radio men, as pilots, in all manner of jobs, and the courage and skill that they brought to these jobs eventually led to the full desegregation of the Army under Truman after the war. So there is no question but that the progress that was made in civil rights during the war, some historians claim, these are the forgotten years of the civil rights revolution. So often we tend to date the civil rights revolution to the 1950s, but in many ways, they began right here in the ‘40s with that gap between the rhetoric of democracy and the practice of democracy being closed a little bit during the war itself and offering the possibility for the future.
There was a slogan in the civil rights community of a double "V" for victory, not only victory abroad but victory at home at the same time. I think it really served as a rallying cry when a war is being fought and there is a sense of fighting to make the lives that are being lost worthwhile, that sense of having a cause at home to accompany the cause abroad has a certain kind of power to it. The civil rights leaders understood that and mobilized support for blacks not only in the black community at large but in the majority community as well during this period of time.
Now following along with the civil rights changes that took place during the war, there were great advances for women. Almost reluctantly at first, factories knew that they were going to have to hire women. They hadn't been used to doing that very much. In fact, during the 1930s, if a woman was married and her husband had a job, there were actually laws on the books that said that she could not have a job. If you were a teacher, for example, and you got married, you would often lose your job if it was a state or local job, on the theory that only one person in a family should have a job during the depression. So when the war came and jobs were opening up everywhere, it seemed like it would be a great opportunity for women to get back into the work place. At first the factory owners were very reluctant to hire women, fearing that they would never be able to master the complicated machines, fearing even that if women came into the work force, they'd be very disruptive with the men, there would be no toilets for them, what would we do with them once they were on the job, they would distract the men at all points, but eventually as more and more men went into the service, 10 to 12 million in fact serving in the Army and the Navy, the factories had to turn to women in order to fill the productivity gap that was necessary in order to win the war. The women came by the droves into the jobs. They were recruited on all sorts of bases, the romantic basis - "you'll find your husband on the job," then the patriotic basis -- "do this for your country and bring the men home more quickly." I'm not sure the advertisements were necessary because the women knew, I think, by coming into the jobs, that they were having an opportunity to contribute to the war much as the men had in the services themselves. It turned out, the studies show, that the women were amazingly productive in operating these very complicated machineries. In fact, one of the funniest moments of the war was when they did a big study to figure out why the women were so successful, the answer came back that unlike the men, if they didn't know how to operate a particular piece of machinery, they would ask directions. But by the middle of the war, something like 50% of the jobs in the airline factories and 50% of the jobs in the shipyards were held by women. There must have been a great sense of pride. I've read oral histories of women who discussed what it was like to see that ship being set out to sea and know that they had a part in creating that, or to watch the bomber being flown across the ocean and know that that would help the mission of winning the war.
Now it is true that as the war wound to a close, the older kinds of traditions began to reassert themselves. The women were fired from their jobs and all the support services that had been set up to help the women during the war were undone. There was an amazing group of support services during the war -- day care in many factories, three shifts a day, 24 hours, really operating as a Head Start kind of program. They actually had hot meals prepared for the women to bring home to their families at the end of their shift so they wouldn't have to worry about cooking and shopping. They had shoppers who did their grocery shopping for them; they would present a list at the beginning of the day, the list would be filled by the end of the day. There were community laundries. Everything was done to help women balance family and home life with their working responsibilities because the country was so dependent on the productivity to help keep the mobilization going. In many ways, the tanks, planes, weapons, and the ships that the women and the men built during the war were critical to our success in beating the Axis powers. By the middle of the war, we had not only caught up to Germany and Japan, but we were actually producing more than all the Allied and Axis powers combined, and our weapons were helping all our Allied friends win in their sectors of the world.
I think it is also true that even though at the end of the war, women were cut out of the jobs and the day care centers were shut down, there must have been a consciousness that was raised, a sense of pride, a sense of camaraderie during the war that settled in these women's hearts and was passed on to their daughters and probably became part of the seedbed for the women's movement in the next generation.
There is no question that Eleanor Roosevelt's role in both the civil rights progress during the war and the women's advances was absolutely central. Her voice was critical at the highest levels of power, arguing, for example, that the Fair Employment Practice Commission should be created to force industry to open their doors to blacks, arguing with the factory owners that they had to hire women and give them the day care centers in order to help them to be productive. Certainly there were groups in the society who were arguing as she was, but those groups needed a voice in Washington, and Eleanor was consistently that voice -- so far ahead of her time in both of those aspects.
She was also instrumental in helping Roosevelt to make the decision to go to the Congress for a GI Bill of Rights in 1944. The argument then was that as the boys were starting to come home from the war, there had to be opportunities for them to advance so that they could feel that they hadn't lost time by being in the war, but instead could gain momentum and advancement and possibility because of the sacrifice they had made for their country. So this incredible piece of legislation was passed in 1944, which allowed all the veterans coming back to have the equivalent of a college education or if they preferred, a vocational advancement education. Their tuition was paid for, their room and board was paid, a salary was given to them to allow them to go to college so that they could actually be making money while they were going. It meant nothing less than a revolution in higher education because a whole generation of men, particularly who would have not gone to college, many of them, estimates show that at least 60% of them probably came from working class families, and college wouldn't have been the natural route, ended up going to college between 1946 and 1950. In fact, it turned out that they were the most mature, the most responsible that colleges had had in a long period of time. It also revolutionized higher education because in order to accommodate these men who were often by then married and living in the cities with their families, they had to create urban universities because the older pattern of rural colleges no longer fit the new generation that was going to college. So a lot of urban universities got their start and a lot of community colleges got their start during this period of time. In many ways, it represented a democratization of education as well as bring this whole group of people to college that never would have been there. Think of the impact of that group of people going to college, that meant that they had that expectation for their children, so once again it was creating something that was affecting not only that generation but the generations that came after that as well.
One of the big worries when the GIs came home was that there was a huge housing shortage and it was going to take a while to build the houses that were necessary in order to make room for all the people. There was going to be a big baby boom that occurred after the war, but as the GIs went to college, there were dormitories that were created for them, there was housing for married people around them, and that sprawl of the urban campus did indeed help the housing problem.
I think there is no doubt also that the government created a new form of partnership, both with the people and even with business. In some ways, the government's partnership with business during the war was the most productive that it had ever been. It's partnership with the universities took research to a whole new level, government-supported research in weaponry and advances during the war had enormous peace time effect afterwards. Much of the medicine that eventually came out of the war, much of the advances in radar and technology, and a whole series of scientific endeavors were in part because the government sponsored basic research to help in the war that eventually had great peace time impact as well. I think in the social areas as well, once the government got behind the civil rights movement, once they got behind the social progress of women, once they got into the GI Bill of Rights and education, it meant a whole new contract with the government and the people that would really last for at least 50 years.
One of the things that comes out of the war is the military-industrial alliance. The government and the military were so closely allied in creating the weapons for the war, and once the war was over, that productivity, that weaponry didn't just go away, and clearly there was then a need to figure out what are we going to do with these weapons on a worldwide basis. How is America going to relate to these other countries that have not emerged into the world scene? We had now become the most powerful country on the face of the earth, and so in the middle of the war even before the war ended, the kind of pressure that eventually led to the United Nations and the creation of the first real international building since the League of Nations had failed after World war I, that desire for such a body to be created was felt even in the middle of the war, and by the end of the war, had indeed been created. It was a way of assuring the world at large that the most powerful, productive nation in the world would not revert to its isolationist stance as it had after World War I. There was such a feeling that part of what created the vacuum that created World War II was the response to World war I that meant that people no longer wanted to be part of the world and lose that responsibility. Now America was finally mature enough to say that we realize where we are and we will take responsibility, and the Marshall Plan was part of that to restore devastated Europe and the United Nations was another huge part of that as well.
The country and the world were indeed very lucky that Franklin Roosevelt happened to be President during the war itself because what he had that I think distinguishes him from many other leaders was a sense of anticipation of the future. So that even as he was strategically worrying about how to win the next battle of the war, he was thinking about what the war would do to the country, what the war would do to the world at large. He was able, somehow with his incredible focus on winning the war, to think about the next steps at the same time, to ensure that somehow the steps he was taking to win the war didn't set the country back, didn't move the advances that the New Deal had made in the society at large, or didn't lose the opportunity for cooperation among the nations after the war itself. It takes a very broad visioned leader to be able to operate on many different fronts at the same time. That's where Eleanor Roosevelt's role became critical because she kept his focus on those social justice issues. She didn't let him forget that while he was worrying about the war itself.
There's no question that one of the two great failures of the Roosevelt administration during the war were sending the Japanese-Americans to the relocation camps. It was thought at the time that it was a military necessity to do so; that was not true at the time, it was certainly not true later as we understood it. A whole generation of Japanese-Americans were forced to have relationships with their parents hurt during that period of time. Especially the parents being forced into inactivity when they had been so productive before that. Their homes, their land, their wealth, all their possessions were taken away from them. It's one of the great black marks on American history.
Secondly, there is no question that I believe the Roosevelt administration could have done more than it did to help the Jews of Europe during those early years when refugees were still being allowed into the United States and into other countries. America could have taken a greater lead in allowing more refugees here which might have opened the doors of other countries as well. The combination of anti-Semitism, fear of foreigners, the depression mentality which didn't want any competition for the scarce jobs at the time meant that our doors were not open sufficiently in the 1939-41 period when Hitler was still allowing the Jews out of Germany and out of Europe. Then once he closed the doors and the Holocaust began, there were certain steps that I think could have been taken, even if they might not have really changed the course of what happened to the Jews of Europe, had the Americans been more willing to bomb the train tracks going to Auschwitz, had they been even willing to bomb Auschwitz itself, even if only one Jew had been saved, it seems to me our standard as a moral leader would have been preserved better than it was.
For most people who lived through this period of time there was such an intensity that coupled with the enormous sadness obviously of anyone who lost or had a casualty during the war, there was also this incredible feeling of power, of pride, of feeling connected to the other American people. When a democracy gets mobilized as it did in the war and you feel a collective sense of identity and you feel the nation moving forward together, there is a sense of probably of largeness to your life, of expansion that we don't have in ordinary times. It is clearly in the memories of those who lived through this period, I think, almost not so much even in nostalgia, as an awareness that it was one of the high dramatic moments of their lives.
Until the war, there were many people who were really frozen in their little communities and they were often ethnic communities. Most people hadn't traveled outside of their county much less their state, so in some ways what the war did was like an explosion that opened up roads and opportunities for people. As they moved from their small ethnic communities into the Army or Navy or into the factory or to the North or to the West, it meant that you were getting a greater sense of diversity in the communities that you were living in. More people had a sense of their identity now as Americans, as opposed to Polish-Americans or Jewish-Americans or Italian-Americans. There was a real sense of a common enemy, and when there is a common enemy out there, you forge together as Americans. So in many ways, it was a broadening experience for the great majority of the American people during this period of time, both psychologically and physically as they actually moved from their homes.