World War II was the greatest test of American strength, ingenuity, and willpower to date. Fighting on two fronts – against Germany in Europe and Japan in the Pacific – forced the United States to engage in the full mobilization of resources. This meant drafting men of all races and ethnicities, encouraging women to work in factories and in other traditionally masculine jobs, and putting limits on civilian spending and consumption. When the war ended with an Allied victory, the wartime efforts on the home front and foreign battlefields had caused permanent changes to American society and culture. Because of World War II, we saw the roots of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, widespread college education, and health insurance benefits.
Before World War II: Segregation & Sexism
The US Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865 between the United States of America (“Union” states or “the North”) and Confederate States of America (“Confederates,” “rebels,” or “the South”), saw substantial use of African American soldiers for the first time. Black men fought for the Union and ended up filling approximately 10% of its forces, although they were often relegated only to support roles. During the war, US president Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution formally abolished slavery after the war concluded with a Union victory. Despite many black soldiers serving with distinction and helping the United States remain a single nation, the US military remained segregated. Through World War I, black soldiers served in their own units and were often given tedious and unpleasant duties.
Outside of the military, society was largely racially segregated after the US Civil War as well. Although segregation in the North was not legally enforced, the South – mostly former Confederate states – used Jim Crow laws to legally mandate racial segregation of public facilities, such as schools, buses, parks, and public restrooms. These laws, upheld by the US Supreme Court at the time under the separate but equal doctrine, forced black African Americans to use highly unequal facilities, such as dilapidated schools. For 80 years after the Civil War, there was little meaningful improvement regarding racial segregation in the South.
African Americans were not the only group to face rampant discrimination and prejudice up until World War II. Women were often barred from opportunities given to men. Up through the Great Depression, women were often denied jobs based on the belief that only men should be the “breadwinners” of the family. It was not expected that women should have much formal education or work outside the home, and women’s work outside the home was often relegated to secretarial or clerical work. Women were far more likely than men to attend two-year colleges versus four-year universities, often to become teachers. Socially, it was expected that middle-class white women would be stay-at-home mothers, and notion of having a career outside the home was often regarded as frivolous.
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Full Mobilization: Women & Minorities Needed
The outbreak of World War II put America in an unprecedented situation: war on two fronts! Unlike World War I, where the US fought against Germany in France, World War II saw the US fight against Germany and Japan simultaneously. Massive operations would be needed to fight the Axis Powers in both Europe and the Pacific. As in World War I, a military draft was used to conscript millions of young men for service. Due to the need to conserve resources for the war effort, rationing was imposed on the civilian population. Like the Great Depression, this wartime limitation helped unite people through a shared sense of struggle.
For the first time, women began working outside the home in mass numbers. As men were drafted into the war, women replaced them on factory floors. Swiftly, it became socially acceptable for young women to be working instead of seeking to start families. Between 1940 and 1945, the female labor force expanded by 50 percent! There was even a large increase in the number of married women working outside the home, with 10 percent entering the labor force during the war. Even women who remained at home increased their labor output, with many families creating Victory Gardens to grow their own produce and free up more resources for the troops.
Rosie the Riveter became a famous icon with her “We Can Do It!” slogan for women workers, showing that women could perform the same manual labor as men. Performing skilled jobs like mechanics, truck drivers, and machinists helped women dispel negative stereotypes that they were unsuitable for such work. In the military, women were able to take clerical jobs in intelligence and logistics, proving that they had the mental aptitude for planning and strategy. As opposed to World War I, women were entrusted to a wide range of high-skilled positions during World War II, shattering myths and misconceptions that they were only suited for “domestic” and caretaking work.
Minorities also engaged in the home front efforts to boost production. African Americans supported the patriotic “Double V” movement to both show their support for the home front and insist on equal rights. Although the pre-Civil Rights era still saw intense prejudice and discrimination, the nation’s desperate need for workers eventually allowed some black men into skilled positions. Executive Order 8802 forced defense contractors to end segregation. By 1944, the US government would no longer accept demands for “white-only” labor from defense contractors or certify unions that excluded ethnic minorities. Despite progress for African Americans in the industry remaining slow, their employment increased significantly during the war.
Combat Valiance Leads to Postwar Integration
Just as the rigors of full mobilization on the home front forced the government and industries to allow new roles for women and minorities, the struggles in combat opened new avenues as well. Although units were still segregated by race during World War II, so-called “nonwhite” units were no longer limited to support roles. In Europe in 1944 and 1945, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought with distinction in France. The 100th Infantry Battalion, composed of Japanese Americans, fought valiantly despite many having lived in internment camps early in the war. Despite their families having been unfairly interned for potentially being loyal to, or sympathizing with, the Empire of Japan, the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion became the most decorated fighting force in US Army history when accounting for unit size and length of service.
The actions of Asian Americans fighting in Europe helped dispel stereotypes that they were outsiders who were potentially disloyal to the United States. Many actually had to petition the government to let them serve, as Japanese Americans living in Hawaii had been designated as “enemy aliens” after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a step forward for the Civil Rights movement, in 1988, the United States officially apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and in 2000 US president Bill Clinton awarded 22 Medals of Honor to Asian Americans for their valiance during World War II.
African Americans took on new roles during World War II, serving as pilots and officers for the first time. The Tuskegee Airmen were black combat pilots who served with distinction in North Africa and Europe. The best-known group was called the “Red Tails” for the color of the tails of their fighters, and they escorted bombers on flights over German-held territory. Black soldiers also served in combat with white soldiers for the first time during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. Faced with steep losses during the German offensive, the military allowed black soldiers to volunteer for front-line combat with white units. Some 2,500 men bravely volunteered and were later commended for their performance.
Women were also allowed the first opportunity to fly for their country during World War II. Roughly 1,100 women flew military planes of all sorts from factories to bases and tested the planes’ airworthiness. These WASPs – Women Airforce Service Pilots – also participated in military training by towing targets for ground-based gunners to practice on. In 1944, commanding general Henry Arnold of the US Army Air Forces declared that women “can fly as well as men.” Combined with women’s hard work in factories, the skills of the WASPs helped erase misconceptions that women were unsuited to the challenges of military service.
Shortly after World War II, US president Harry S. Truman, himself a World War I veteran, used Executive Order 9981 to integrate the armed forces. He also expanded the roles women could fill in the military by signing the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Truman’s Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall, established an advisory committee regarding women in the military. Although racism and sexism would remain common in American society for the next few decades, World War II had birthed the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements by helping to give minorities and women the opportunity to show that they were deserving of equal rights.
After the War: A Wider Worldview
In addition to demonstrating the previously disregarded skills of women and minorities, World War II had the overall effect of opening the eyes of countless Americans to different cultures. Native Americans, in particular, leaped at the chance to volunteer, and many left their reservations for the first time. They served with distinction, including as “code talkers” in the Pacific. Unlike English, Native American languages like Navajo were largely unknown to the Japanese and thus could not be deciphered. After the war, Native Americans were far more mainstreamed into American culture than before.
Men from all different backgrounds were mobilized into units during World War II. Unlike previous wars, it was important not to put men from the same town into the same units: World War I saw towns devastated as all their young men were wiped out in battle. For the first time, World War II saw a thorough mixing of young men in terms of geography, social background, and religious affiliation. Men who served were sent to exotic locations at a time when migration and extensive travel were relatively rare.
The expanded worldview of many Americans, especially veterans, after World War II can be seen as an extension of that experienced after World War I. In 1919, a song by Walter Donaldson and others famously asked, “How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree?).” Millions of Americans returned home from World War II having visited the famous cities of Europe, including recently-liberated Paris and Rome. They brought back new ideas, styles, fashions, and even foods like modern pizza.
Wage Controls at Home Stimulate Work Benefits
During World War II, full mobilization required rationing and firm price and wage controls. Businesses, especially factories of munitions and military equipment, were limited to how much they could pay workers per hour (wages). This was meant to prevent inflation, or the increase in the general level of prices, due to high government spending. Preventing excessive wages and prices also limited war profiteering and the ability of companies to make unethical levels of profit.
Since businesses could not offer higher wages during the war, they began to offer fringe benefits like health insurance, paid holidays, and pensions. These “perks” became popular and were quickly normalized for full-time jobs. For a few decades after the war, the economic boost from high military spending and the generous benefits offered by full-time jobs, coupled with veterans’ benefits like the GI Bill, decreased income inequality and expanded the American middle class. Today, many of the workplace benefits enjoyed by full-time professional workers can be traced back to World War II.
Post-World War II: The College Experience Becomes Normalized
In addition to compensation changes in the workplace resulting from price and wage controls during World War II, a great expansion of white-collar professional jobs occurred in the following decades. The GI Bill, passed in 1944, gave military veterans money for college, and millions could complete the credentials needed for fulfilling careers. As a result of the massive increase in college enrollment after World War II, the “college experience” became a middle-class staple for the next generation – the Baby Boomers. World War II turned higher education from being reserved only for the wealthy to an expected and mostly attainable pathway for the middle class.
Taken together, the unifying national struggles during World War II and the resulting changes in higher education and the workplace made American culture more egalitarian and cultivated. Women and minorities received empowering opportunities that spurred many to demand equal rights via the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And, enjoying economic prosperity not seen since the Roaring Twenties, millions of citizens could enjoy consumer culture and more comfortable lives.