*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- America home front

America during World War II: The Home Front (1941-45)

American World war II home front
Figure 1.--American boys as part of school or Scout activities participated in a variety of activities to support the war effort. These Boy and Cub Scouts in a 1942 photograph are collecting scrap medal.

American children were not affected by World War II like children in Europe and Asia. The Atlantic and Pacicific Oceans acted as an affected barrier to the Germans and Japanese. Many American children lost their fathers, but unliked European children were not orphaned or displaced. American children, however, did particiapte in a variety of war-time activities to support the war effort. Children studied current events. Air raid drills and alerts were common. Both children and their families were involved with conservation and recycling of goods. The Scouts and other youth groups were actively involved in may home-front activities. Children often worked in sponsored rallies, parades and cultural events (such as dances) to raise money to buy war stamps and bonds to finance the war. Some children were more adversely affected by the war. Althiough not separated from their patents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration camps. Italian and German families were also interned, but only those who parents were believed to have been involved in subversive activites.

Arsenal of Democracy

President Roosevelt first used the term "Arsenal of Democracy" on December 29, 1940 in a radio broadcast to the American people. Her explained the importance of supplying the people of Europe, at the time primarily Britain with the "implements of war". He said that the Unites States "must be the great arsenal of democracy". The very day he spoke, a Luftwaffe raid on London severely damaged famous buildings and churches in the city center and engulfed St. Paul's Cathedral in flames. [Gilbert, p. 356.] Hitler feared America more than any other country, but was convinced that Britain could be defeated before America could be mobilized or American industry could be effectiverly harnessed for the war effort. Neither the NAZIs or the Japanese had any idea just how effectively American production could be converted to war production. Air Marshall Goering sneered. "The Americans only know how to make razor blades." Four years later with the Luftwaffe in tatters, Goering said he knew that the War was lost when American P-51 Mustangs appeared over Berlin escorting waves of bombers. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the outcome of the War.

Agricultural Production

American farmers had played a major role preveting mass starvation in Europe after World war I. Millions of children were saved from starvation. The American farm economy, however, after the War, however, experienced an economic decline and depression conditions. Declining markets were exacebated by the Dust Bowl. The Wall Street crash and industrial decline resulting in the Great Depression created even more problems. Many farmers lost their land. President Roosevelt and the New Deal made national agricultural policy a major priority (1933). The New Deal attempted to raise farm prices by limiting production. At the same time, The New Deal adopted a system of price supports that guaranteed farmers "parity" prices set at levels during more favorable market times. Another New Deal initiative was the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) which helped make electric power available to frmers. Rural highway construction and soil conservation programs also aided farmers. The New Deal did not solve the farm problem, but it did put a break on farm bankrupsties. The New Deal policies also improved the quality of farm life as well as increased the efficency and productive capacity of American farmers. And World War II was to create even greater demands on the American farmer.

Conservation and Recycling

The Government organized a major conservation and recycling effort. Cities and states were given quotas. Children and their families were involved with conservation and recycling of goods. Many children participated scrap metal, used tire, and paper drives to collect materials iseful to the war effort. Contests were held to meet established quotas. Newspapers reported on the quantities of material collected. Some comapnies sponsored drives and offered prizes. Children would even brought their own old toys in for scrap drives. At that time toys were much mpre likely to be made from metal than in our plastic society today. While these activities and drives were very widely publicized, we are not sure just how useful the amterials collected actually were. We have not yet found any studies indicating the actual value of these drives.


America experienced rationing for the first time in World War II. Some products that were rationed during World War II were sugar, meat, coffee, typewriters, fuel oil, gasoline, rubber, and automobiles. Food rationing probably affected most Americans the most. Each American was issued a book of ration cupons each month. Rationed goods were assigned a price and point value. Families were not restricted to certain quantities of rationed goods. But once their cupons were used up, they could not buy rationed goods until the next month. Families were incouraged to plant victory gardens. These gardens supplied a mjor part of the vegetable supply during the War. Rubber and gas were the most vital product rationed. Limited fuel supplies during the war affected America in many ways. Gas rationing was done differently than food rationing. Car owners had to register and were given windshield sticker based on how the car or other vehicle was used. Pleasure driving was prohibited. We have less information about clothing at this time. I do not believe that clothes were actually rationed, but the availability of civilian clothing was very much affected. Certain fabrics like silk or synthetic fibers were not available for civilian use. Shoes were rationed in America. Stamp 17 in War Ration Book 1 was good for one pair of shoes until June 15. (Probably about every 3-4 months) Families could pool the coupons of all members living in the same household. Even tennis shoes which had become popular in America were hard to get because that had rubber soles.

Civil Defense

The United States began Civil Defense planning even before entering the War. The United States had ahuge advantage in its CD planning--the benefy of distance from agressor mations ad a two ocean shield. The World War I Council of National Defense was reactivated by President Roosevelt and created the Division of State and Local Cooperation to assist the Council's efforts. [SEMP] As a result, civil defense preparations began as a continuation of what had been implemenbt during World War I. Officials involved soon concluded that giving significant responsibilities to local and state councils was an inadequate resoponse to the dangers involved. The President vested responsibility primarily at the Federal level with the creation of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) within the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP) in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) (May 20, 1941).[SEMP] The OCD was originally headed by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and was charged with developing both protective measures and suppoting national morale. La Guardia was to work with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but the two did not get along. The matrix of American CD agencis effort was expanded just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with the creation of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP was assigned responsibility for commissioning civilian pilots to patrol the coast and borders. They were also to engage in search and rescue missions as needed. And this woud soon be needed when German U-boats appeared off the American Atlantic coast. Pearl Harbor lent great urgency to th CD programs. And there was a near panic after Pearl Harbor about possible air attacks, especially on the West Coast. Many schools practiced air raid drils.

Youth Organizations

All the important youth groups sponsored activities to promote the war effort. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were the two most impoprtant organizations. But a variety of other organizations were also active. Groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts reached a much wider range of the country in the 1940s than was true in other countries with smaller middle classes. The Boy Scouts were very active during the War. Scouts begin campaign selling Defense Bonds and Stamps in 1941. They sponsored a variety of scrap drives beginning in 1942. The most important were for newspapers, scrap metal including tin cams, and old tires. The Girl Scouts was and continues to be a separate organization from the Boy Scouts in America. Girl Scouts collected silk stockings. Silk was needed for parachuttes and before the War, Japan had been a major supplier of silk to America. Camp Fire in the 1940s was exclusively for girls and known as the Camp Fire Girls. They sponsored programs in flag etiquette, first aid, and nutrition. The Minute Maids were active on college campuses during the War. They sold war stamps and bonds among other activities. There were also a varirty of other organizations, including local groups, which involved children in the War effort.

Home Life

World War II accounts of course focus on the desperate fighting fought out on the far-flung battlefields of the War. An important topic is also the home front. This is especially true of America which in President Roosevelt's words became the great Arsenal of Democracy as well as its breadbasket. American war production exceeded that of all the Axis countries combined. We have begun to collect information on American homelife during the War. It armed not only its own forces, but helped armed its allies as well. Concerning the Ameroican home front there are a range of interesting topics, including advertisng, rationing, popular culture, and much more. The American homefront not only played a major role in the winning the War, but the vast effort to expand productio also changed Ameica in many fundamental ways.


Many American children became aware of the war listening on the radio (there was of course no television yet) with their parents to Edward R. Murrow, "London calling ..." during the NAZI blitz of England in 1940. American school children studied current events much more closely than before the war. Certain subjects like geography were maningless to many children until December 7, 1941. Soon every child knew where Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, Guadacanal, Stanligrad, Sicily, Normandy, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and other places were located that they had never heard about before. All schools conducted air raid drills and alerts. Ameroca was not actually attacked, but everyone had seen newsreels of Japanese bombing raids on Chimese cities (especially Shangahi) and German bombing of Europeanncities (Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and other English cities). If the War had lasted longer, the Germans would have also targeted American cities. At school children line-up and dutifully followed their teacher into the hallway and sat down against the wall. Schools also organized after school activities related to the war effort. High school students might learn Morse code. Recerve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was a popular activity at many schools. Civil Air Patrol classes taight children to identify types of American and foreign aircraft. Schools often sponsored rallies, parades and cultural events to raise money to buy war stamps and bonds to help finance the war. Dances were especially popular. These were conducted through both schools and other organizations. Liberty stamps cost $0.10 each which was the cost of a comic book.


Church attendance and membership was very strong in America atvthe tome of World War II and churches were very important community institutions. I am not sure at this time what role churches played in the Isolantionist movement. After Pearl Harbor and American entry into the War, American churches played an important role on the home front. They were involved in a wide range of activities. This varied widely from church to church. They sponsored groups like the Red Cross, Boy and Girl Scouts, blood donor groups, and many community programs which played roles in the war effort. Churches at the time were only one of a range of community institutions that sponsored Scout troops. After the War churches helped returning veterans adjust to civilian life. The War was also a major mile stone in Church history. This is largely due to the move to the suburbs that followed the War. The congregations of many city churches moved toi the suburbs. Thus the ethnic makeup of city churches chngeed. Also until World War II, most American churches were built on substantial lots that provided an area large enough to provide congregnts with burial facilities. This was true even in major cities. The chiurches built after the War were generally built without adjacent burial facilities.


American factories geared up for the War effort and many new factories were opened. The unemployment so severe during the Depression was no longer a problem. In fact there was now an increasingly severe lanor shortage. This was not only a matter of increasing production, but also the draft tghat begun in 1940 began to take men out of the work force. This was increadsingly important after Pearl Harbor (December 1941), wae production was increased to unprecedent levels and millions of men were drafted or enlisted in the military. The vacancies in the work force was made up with youths, women, and minorities. Sometimes older children worked part time along with their mothers to support their families. Child labor laws were suspended during the war. Millions of children between the ages of 12-17 years were employed in a wide range of jobs. Even in factories it was common to see boys of 16 and 17 years of age working. It was not just mom in the form of Rosey the Riveter that went to work during the War. Jobs were opened to minorities, especially blacks, that were formerly excluded from many jobs. Both the British and Russians adopted similar policies to mobilize the civilian population for War work. The Germans took a very different approach. Instead of women and youths, they employed slave labor to keep their factories going.


Movie studios and the U.S. Government agencies were involved in propaganda during World War II. The studios were involved before Amerixa entered the War. The Government mostly after America entered the War. Quite a few Hollywood films addressed World War II. The most interesting period was before America entered the War aftervthe Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (December 1941). Before that there were no Government censorship or directiveds on content. Even so the films made were strongly critical of the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. The most interesting fact is that during this period, there were no films made which endorsed the strong isolatiionist sentiment that was widely held by Americans. It is also interesting to note how Hollywood ignored the Soviet aggressions. After Pearl Harbor, of course, Hollywood enthusiastically signed up for the war effort. There were also a number of related films made after the War.


For a country that was sp intent in staying out of the War, the United States after Pearl Harbor entered the War with a vengence. Thgere was not a lot of good news a first, but there was virtually unnimous support for the troops and war effort the momment the first Japanese bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor. There was almost no opposition to the War once we were in it. President Roosevlt's hesitation to enter the War until the American people were firmly behind him was vindicated. And this support continued throughout the War, eeb whgen tge dreadful images of Tarawa appeared in the mnovie newsreels. Civilians supported their servicemen like no other home front in the history of the War. And the American military made sure that letters and packages got through to the most isolated battlefields of the War. There is a notable image of a GI with a slightly battered, but well wrapped Christmas present and the ruins of the city behind him. You can bet tht not many German soldiers fighting in the Bulge received Christmas presents. Letters and packages from home were just one way of supporting the troops. Tgere were also bond drives. School children could purchase War stamps. And Hollywood unlike the modern interation of pampered stars went overseas with the USO to entertain the trrops.

Staying in Touch: The Mail

The United Stated had a very small military as late as 1939, less than 0.4 mullion. The U.S. Army was smaller than the Romanian Aemy at the time. And it only increased to 0.5 million in 1940 the year the NAZIs launched their massive Western offensive and shocked the world by defeating the French innonly a few weeks. Congress (1940) passed the first peace-time draft law in American history. The law was narrowly renewed (1941). Of course Pearl Harbor changed everything (December 1941). American began building a massive military. The military peaked at 11.4 million in 1944-45. The Selective Service boards attempted to avoid drafting fathers, but many were drafted or enlisted. They were authorized to draft 18-year old, but generally avoided doing so. As a result of the War, millions of Americans were separatee from their families. Not all of the servicemen were deployed overseas, but even if they had stateside assignments, they were usually separate from their families as well, although state-sude leave was possible. Unlike more modern wars, those deployed overseas were deployed for the duration. Military personnel sent to Europe and the Pacific stayed there for the most part until the War ended. Only military personnel severely wounded or contracted serious illnesses were brought home. Deployment overseas began shortly after Pearl Harbor, but American troops did not go into combat until late 1942 (North Africa and Guadacanal). Large numbers of American combat troops did not reach the front until 1943. They were thus overses for any where from 1-3 years. Calling home was very expensive so for the most part the only way of keeping in touch was mail. The result was huge quantities of letters and packages. Mail became very precious both for the families at home and the servicemnen overseas. Shipping was a major constraint during the War, so the military came up with 'V-mail'. Letters were photographed and then miniaturized for transport. The mail of service people was censored. Interestingly this was not the case in the German Wehrmacht.

War Bonds

The United Service Organizations (USO)

Several groups supported American Doughboys during World War I, but there was no coordinated effort. As war raged in Europe in became increasingly cler that America would ultimately be involved. Important welfare and service groups began to prpare for the effort ahead. These included the Salvation Army, Young Men's Christian Association, Young Women's Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association, the National Jewish Welfare Board, and other smaller groups. This achieved new urgency when Congress passed the firsrt peacetime Feaft Bill (1940). President Roosevelt saw the need for a coordinared effort. He formed the United Service Organizations (USO), with the objective coordinating efforts to provideemotional support for U.S. servicemen. the troops needed. Supporting America's fighting men was from the beginning the first mission of the USO. The USO was organized (April 17, 1941). America was still at peavce. Throughout the War, the USO worked to meet the the religious, spiritual, and educational needs of the men and for the first time women in the military services. USO clubs were opened throygout the United ttes and oversaes. They were finnced by the public contributions. Volunteers, mostly young women, organized USO clubs sponsored a variety of activities for service personnel that included dances, sporting events, and dinners in the homes of local families. Perhaos the best known USO activity were the shows that Hollywood stars, unlike the modern interation of pampered stars, put on for thge troops. Many of the biggesrt stars went overseas with the USO to entertain the troops and in many cases very close to the front lines. Here Bob Hope became a national icon.


The Europeans in the early-20th century were still not sure that America was a real nation, made up as it was of people of so many etnicities. The British had the clearest outlook, wanting from an early stage to involve the United States. The Germans were less focused on America. In the end they decided that the United States was not a real threat. In World War II there was a geater realization of the potential power of the United States. Hitler was cautious. He was not about to turn away from war, but decided that he could complete the conquest of Europe before America could or would interfere. And here ethnicity was at play. Some of the most important ethnic groups were stronly against involvement in another European war. The Germans were the largest ethnic minority and they were strongly isolationist. This was not because of any support of Hitler, but more a general support of pacifism and isolationism and certainly did not want to fight Germany again. Another large ethnic minority was the Italians. Here Mussolini was more popular with Italians and Italian-Americans dis not want aore with Italy. The Irish wre not pro-German, but they were anti-British. Other ethnic groups like the Chinese, Jews, and Poles as well as other groups like the Dutch, Greeks, Norwegians, and Serbs became pro-involvement after their countries were invaded, but they were relatively small groups. All these ethnic differences largely disappered after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declsration of War, a signal as to how well America had assimilated immigrant groups. America was still a very segregated society in the 1940s. Many of the initial actions taken against Jews by the NAZIs were not unlike the Jim Crow segreagation laws in the South. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 began to develop a radically different priogram of removing Jews from the national economy rather than the focus of the American segregation laws which was exploit blacks economically. Still there were similarities as both systems were designed to destroy or precent the formation of a culture and a political roll in scociety. Other groups were also desriminated against to various degrees including Catholics, Chinsese, Jews, Mexican Americans, and others. It was only after the War and the horrors of the Hollocaust reached American newspapers and newsreels that an increasing numver of American began to question their own mistreatment of minorities and fuel the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Displaced Children

Only a small number of American children were displaced by World War II. These wee almost entirely the children of Americans taken captive by the Japanese in the Philippines (1942). They were held in terriblr conditions and many died or were near starvation with Anerican forces liberated the camps (1945). America also took any many displaced children and families with children. This took place after the War. Refugees were a contentious political issue before the War. The United States enacted very restrictive emigration laws during the 1920s. These laws prevented any massive effort to provide refugee to the victims of Fascist tyranny in the 1930s. And there was widespread opposition to any changes in those laws. Had the Roosevelt Administration attempted to do so, the effort would have failed in Congress and it swould have emperiled efforts to prepare militarily and to support the Allies (Briyain and France. There was a program after the fall of France (June 1940) to take in British children. These were not war orphans, but children sent to America and Canada for saftey. This progrm was ebded by the British after the RAF's victory in the Battle of Britain madfe invasion unlikely and children were lost in U-boat attacks. After the War America did accept war orphans and refugee families. This was made possible in part through changes in the emigration laws.

Chaitable Relief Efforts

The U.S. Government played a much greater role in both overseeing private charitable relief effort and in conducting its own relief and rehabilitation efforts. The Governmenbt to a far greater extent than in World War I asserted control over the many voluntary agencies that attempted to assist the vistims of World War I beginning with Belgian Relief--(Commission for Relief in Belgium--CRB). And with World War II it was not an entirely novel effort as it was in Witld War I and there were individuls and groups with valuable experience. A major difference between World war and World war II was the Neutrality Laws which required detailed information from organizations conducting activities with countiries at war. Charitable groups involved in overseas activities, including relief efforts had to obtain a license from the State Department. State flatly refused to permit relief programs for refugees in Axis-occupied countries, although there seems to have been some xceptions. The fear was, and it was not unfounded, that Axis officials would divert the food and other supplies. These restrictions continued after the United States entered the war (December 1941). Former-president Herbert Hoover continued to be involved in relief efforts. He organized the Committee on Food for the Small Democracies to deliver relief aid similar to the World War I CRB. President Roosevelt adamently refused, however, to permit relief aid to reach German-occupied countries believing this would assist the German war economy. The Government role was also different in Wotld War II. The primary trelief organization was not the Amerucan Red Cross as it was in World War I, but an entirely new orgization created to be administerd by the planned United Nations--the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). UNRAA was theoretically an international relief agency, but in World war II before the United Nations was actually founded, largely dominated and funded by the United States. The U.S. Government supportd other efforts, but UNRRA was the primary Government effort.

A Changed America

World War II changed peoples lives in a myriad of ways. The pattern varied from country to cuntry. In many of the major combatant countries, the coinsequences werehorebndous. This was not the case in America. Many Americans paid a terrible price. About 0.4 million Americans were killed and many others greviously wounded. For most Americans, however, the War brought new experiences and opportunities. The war finally ended the Depression. Employment opportunities expanded dramatically, including opportunities for blacks and other minorities that had been previously been unable to obtain good paying jobs. And opportunities for women also opened up which would in part lay the fondation for the post-War woman's movement. Americans who had never traveled much beyond their immediate neigboirhood were all of the sudden involved in military operations in virtually every corner of the world. Than after the War, American of all classes through the G.I. Bill obtained access to higher education. The experiences of blacks in the armed frces and in defense industries played a role in the developing civil rights movement as did the reaction to NAZI racism. And adding to the diversity of American society were the war brides that arrived with the returning soldier.

Individual Experiences

One little girl at the time remembers her immigrant Polish grandmother. In the front window of her Provincetown, RI home were five stars--one for each son serving in the military. The little girl's father was a career naval officer serving in the Pacific. The girl lived in New London, Conneticut--a Navy town. When a classmate was absent, they thought the father might have been killed in action, not about a sick day. She remembers going to the movies and seeing the newreels. They cheered the Allies and booed the Axis. After school the children rolled bandages and knitted afghans. She ewrote mant letters. Her mother wrote her father every day and the image of her mother writing those letters is still strong today. [Zabilsky Scalan]


Zabilsky Scalan, Mae, "Pride, purpose and worry," The Washington Post May 28, 2004, p. W12.


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Created: June 7, 2002
Last updated: 10:00 PM 4/22/2022