Episode 36: World War II (2) – the war at
home Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. History and today we’re going to discuss how World War II played out at home and also
the meaning of the war. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, so is this going to
be, like, one of the boring philosophical ones, then?
Oh, Me From the Past, I remember when you were idealistic. I remember a time when all
you cared about was the deep inner meaning of … mostly girls. But, you’ve changed,
Me from the Past, and not in a good way. intro
So anyway World War II brought about tremendous changes in the United States, in many ways
shaping how Americans would come to see themselves and how they would want to be seen by the
rest of the world. Some of these ideological changes were a continuation
of the New Deal, others were direct results of the war, but one thing we can say is that
by the end of the war, the country was very different.
For starters, World War II strengthened the federal government of the United States. This
always happens when a country goes to war, but World War II brought about even more governmental
intervention and control than we had seen in World War I.
It was like the New Deal on steroids. Like federal agencies, like the War Production
Board, War Manpower Commission and Office of Price Administration took unprecedented
control of the economy. There was massive rationing of food and supplies,
entire industries were completely taken over by the government. The federal government
fixed wages, rents, prices, and especially production quotas.
Like, if you’re looking to buy a 1942 model Ford, or Chrysler, good luck because there
weren’t any. The government told those car makers not to create new models that year.
So basically FDR was president for life and controlled all the industries. I mean, how
did this Communist end up on the dime? Well the answer is that while it might have
sucked not to have a 1942 Ford, most people were just happy to be working after the Great
Depression. Unemployment dropped from 14% in 1940 to 2%
in 1943. Of course 13 million Americans were serving in the military in some capacity,
so that helped employment. But in general the war kicked the American
economy into overdrive. Like, by 1944 American factories were producing an airplane every
five minutes and a ship every day. U.S. Gross National Product went from $91 billion to
$214 billion during the war. Why did this happen? Well that’s controversial,
but primarily because of federal spending. Government expenditures during the war were
twice the amount they had been in the previous 150 years. Combined.
Although a lot of this was financed with debt, much of the war was paid for with taxes. Like,
the federal government began the practice of withholding taxes from paychecks, for instance,
a practice I first became familiar with when working at Steak N Shake discovering that
instead of being paid I don’t know, like, $100 a week, I was being paid -$30 a week
because I had to declare my tips. Because my dad made me.
Before World War II only 4 million Americans even paid federal income taxes; but after
the war 40 million did. Also big business got even bigger during the
war because of government contracts. Cost-plus contracts guaranteed that companies would
make a profit, and the lion’s share of contracts went to the biggest businesses. So, by the
war’s end the 200 biggest American corporations controlled half of all of America’s corporate
assets. And all this government spending also spurred
development, like defense spending basically created the West Coast as an industrial center.
Seattle became a shipping and aircraft-manufacturing hub. And California got 10% of all federal
spending. And Los Angeles became the second largest
manufacturing center in the country, meaning that it was not in fact built by Hollywood,
it was built by World War II. All of this was pretty bad for the South,
by the way, because most of this industrialization happened in cities and the South only had
two cities with more than a half a million people.
And organized labor continued to grow as well, with union membership soaring from around
9 million in 1940 to almost 15 million in 1945. Besides union-friendly New Deal policies,
the government forced employers to recognize unions in order to prevent labor strife and
keep the factories humming so that war production would not decrease.
And, from a human history standpoint, one of the biggest changes is that many of the
workers in those factories were women. You’ve probably seen this picture of Rosie
the Riveter and while there wasn’t actually a riveter named Rosie, or maybe there was
but, she’s an amalgam. But by 1944 women made up 1/3 of the civilian
labor force in addition to the 350,000 who were serving in the military.
And the type of women who were working changed as well. Married women in their 30s outnumbered
single women in the workforce. But the government and employers both saw
this phenomenon as temporary, so when the war was over most women workers, especially
those in high paying industrial jobs, were let go.
This was especially hard on working class women who needed to work to survive and had
to return to lower paid work as domestics or in food services, or, god forbid, as teachers.
Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document? The rules here are simple.
We use primary sources for learning as this is a serious show about history and then if
I guess the author wrong, I get shocked. Okay, what do we got today? Let’s take a
look. Certainly this is no time for any of us to
stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social
revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious
about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our
people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all.
I mean, that’s some pretty hardcore New Deal stuff right there. And, uh, the biggest
New Deal-er of all was FDR, BUT I remember last time when I guessed FDR and it was actually
Eleanor Roosevelt. So. You wouldn’t do Eleanor Roosevelt twice. Or would you? Hm. No it sounds
more like a speech. FDR. YES! So, I mentioned at the beginning of this video
that World War II was an ideological war, and nothing better encapsulates that idea
than FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” which were: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom
from want, and freedom from fear. During the war the National Resources Planning
Board offered a plan for a peacetime economy based on full employment, an expanded welfare
state and a higher standard of living for all.
In 1944 FDR even called for a new Economic Bill of Rights that would expand governmental
power in order to create full employment, and guarantee an adequate income, medical
care, education, and housing to all Americans. As FDR put it: “True individual freedom
cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
But that didn’t happen, largely because Southern Democrats in the House and Senate
didn’t want it to because it would have meant a larger role for unions and also extending
greater equality to African Americans, and they weren’t about to let that happen.
I mean, their jobs were literally dependent upon African Americans not being able to vote.
But, Congress did pass the GI Bill of Rights – officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment
Act — to attempt to prevent widespread unemployment for returning soldiers. It worked amazingly
well, and by 1946 more than one million former soldiers were enrolled in college and almost
4 million got assistance with mortgages, spurring a post-war housing boom.
Levittown and all the towns since that look like it came after the war.
So, we talked about FDR’s Four Freedoms, but big business added a fifth freedom – free
enterprise. Advertisers helped on this front, trying to make the war about consumption,
telling Americans that they were fighting to “hasten the day when you … can once
more walk into any store in the land and buy anything you want,” according to an ad for
Royal Typewriters. And FDR’s vision of extending freedom wasn’t
limited to the United States, like Henry Luce, the publisher of Time Magazine published a
book called The American Century claiming that the war had thrust upon the U.S. the
opportunity to share with all people their “magnificent industrial products” (that’s
a quote) and American ideas like “love of freedom” and “free economic enterprise.”
Now, of course, there wasn’t complete agreement on this liberal, government-led vision of
freedom. Like, Frederick Hayek in 1944 published the Road to Serfdom, claiming that government
planning posed a threat to individual liberty. And even though he claimed not to be a conservative
because conservatives liked social hierarchy, Hayek’s equating New Deal planning with
Fascism and socialism became a foundation for later American conservatives.
The struggle against Nazism also helped re-shape the way that Americans thought of themselves.
Like, because the Nazis were racists, Americanism would mean diversity, and tolerance, and equality
for all people. The federal government supported this version
of America. FDR claimed that to be an American was “a matter of mind and heart,” not
“a matter of race or ancestry.” Of course, it wasn’t a matter of race and
ancestry, we’d already killed 95% of the indigenous population.
This was also, not coincidentally, the period where American intellectuals began publishing
books debunking the supposed “scientific” basis of racism.
Now this didn’t mean that Americans suddenly embraced equality for all people. Anti-Semitism
still existed and contributed to the government’s not doing more to help the Jews who perished
in the Holocaust. In fact, only 21,000 Jewish people were allowed to come to the U.S. during
the course of the war. And white peoples’ fear over minority groups
contributed to race riots in Detroit and the Zoot Suit Riot against Mexicans in Los Angeles
in 1943. Not just a song by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies,
also a tragic moment in American history. The war years saw a dramatic increase in immigration
from Mexico under the Bracero program (which lasted until 1964). And about 500,000 Mexican
American men and women served in the armed forces during the war.
As did 25,000 American Indians although Indian reservations being largely rural, didn’t
really share in the wartime prosperity. Asian Americans are probably the most glaring
example of the failure to be adequately pluralistic. Although things did improve for Chinese Americans
because America couldn’t keep restricting the immigration of its ally in the war, Japanese
Americans suffered horrible racism and one of the worst violations of civil liberties
in America’s history. Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 expelled
all persons of Japanese descent from the west coast. 70% of Japanese Americans lived in
California and as a result of this order more than 110,000 people, almost 2/3 of whom were
American citizens, were sent to internment camps where they lived in makeshift barracks
under the eyes and searchlights of guards. A man named Fred Korematsu appealed his conviction
for failing to show up for internment all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost
in yet another horrendous court decision. Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
The group that experienced the greatest change during World War II was probably African Americans.
They still served in segregated regiments in the armed forces, but more than 1 million
of them answered the call to fight. And just as important, continuing the Great
Migration that had begun in the 1920s 700,000 African Americans left the south, moving to
northern and especially western cities where they could find jobs, even though these mass
migrations often led to tensions between blacks and whites and sometimes these tensions exploded
into violence. World War II also saw the beginning of the
Civil Rights Movement. Angered by discrimination in defense employment, black labor leader
A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington demanding access to defense jobs, an end to
segregation and a federal anti-lynching law. He didn’t get all those things, but he did
get Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in defense hiring and created the Fair Employment
Practices Commission. The FEPC couldn’t enforce anti-discrimination but as a compliance
agency it helped African American workers obtain jobs in arms factories and shipyards.
By 1944 more than a million black people were working in manufacturing, and 300,000 of them
were women. The rhetoric of fighting a war for freedom
against a racist dictatorship wasn’t lost on African Americans and many saw themselves
as engaged in the double-V campaign, victory over the Axis powers abroad and over racism
in the United States. The war saw ending segregation and black equality become cornerstones of
American liberalism, along with full employment and the expansion of civil liberties.
Eventually even the army and navy began to integrate, although the full end to discrimination
in the military would have to wait until well after the war.
Thanks Thought Bubble. So if America was isolationist before the war – and I’ve argued that
it actually wasn’t really – after the war it certainly wasn’t.
FDR took a very active role in planning for a more peaceful and prosperous post-war world.
And conferences at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam clarified war aims, and established the idea
that Germany would be divided and Nazis tried for war crimes.
These conferences also laid the foundation for the Cold War in allowing Soviet influence
in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, so that wasn’t such a good thing.
But, the 1944 conference Bretton Woods, in beautiful, freedom loving New Hampshire, established
America’s economic dominance as the dollar – which again would be backed by gold — replaced
the pound as the main currency in international transactions.
It also created World Bank to help rebuild Europe and also to help developing countries
and the IMF to stabilize currencies. How well that’s worked is debatable, but
this isn’t: the United States became the financial leader of a global capitalist order.
The United States also took a leading role in establishing the United Nations at the
Dumbarton Oaks conference in 1944. Why do we not have a UN commission on improving the
names of historical events? And then America adopted the UN charter, which
was endorsed by the Senate because apparently we had learned our lesson after the League
of Nations debacle. The goal of the UN was to ensure peace, and
the United States’s position as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council
signaled that it intended to take an active and leading role in international affairs.
And we had to because by the end of the war only the United States and USSR were powerful
enough to have any influence. So, World War II ended the depression and
transformed America’s economy. It cemented the new definition of liberalism established
by the New Deal, and opened up opportunities for diverse groups of Americans.
It also transformed definitions of freedom both at home and abroad. I mean, even before
the U.S. entered the war it issued the Atlantic Charter along with Britain affirming the freedom
of all people to choose their own government and declaring that the defeat of Nazi Germany
would help to bring about a world of “improved labor standards, economic advancement, and
social security.” At home and abroad World War II became a war
that was about freedom, but was also about what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed
– a belief in equality, justice, equal opportunity, and freedom.
I want to be clear that we have done a terrible job of living up to the American Creed, but
the story of American history is in many ways the story of ideas pulling policy, not the
other way around. American history is an economic and political
and social history, but it is also a story about the power of ideas. And World War II
helped clarify those ideas for America and for the world.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course U.S. History is made by all of
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don’t forget to be awesome…boom. Oh god. It was worse than I expected. ________________
 quoted in Foner Give me Liberty p. 927