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Useful Notes / Home Front USA

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The United States during the Second World War. WW2 largely had an indirect effect on the United States as the actual fighting barely touched American shores but it did trigger profound shifts in American society and the US economy.

Arsenal of Democracy

It's simply not possible to discuss the American industrial contribution without being accused of America Wins the War because the actual numbers are so astounding. The US entered the war on December 7, 1941 with 51% of the world's industrial capacity—by definition more than all of the other combatant and neutral nations combined—a disparity that was only to increase as the United States geared up for war. Most importantly, the US produced the majority of the world's steel, coal, and oil. The US also produced a majority of the world's precision machine tools and had near monopolies in the production of heavy earthmoving and agricultural equipment, three industries critical to bootstrapping a wartime economy. The results were nothing short of astounding: 1,265 warships (10 Battleships, 27 Aircraft Carriers, 110 Escort Carriers, 211 Submarines, and 907 Cruisers, Destroyers and Escorts) 41,000 artillery pieces, more than 100,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 200,443 combat aircraft including 35,425 four engined bombers, 12,500,000 rifles and carbines and approximately 41,000,000,000 rounds of ammunition. In addition to all of the new construction, US shipyards repaired, overhauled or refitted every major warship at least twice, including four of the six battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor and many of the capital ships of the Free French and Royal Navies. By 1944 every single US navy ship lost in the vicious battles of 1942 had been replaced by a new ship bearing the same name, and ten more besides. By 1945 US industry proved capable of producing a four-engine bomber every 35 minutes, a cargo ship every two days, and a Destroyer in less than a month. To use just one class of ships as a comparative example, the US completed 52 cruisers during the war, the Japanese 9, the Germans none and the Italians 6.

Excess industrial capacity meant full industrial mobilization was not restricted to purely military equipment: The US's industrial capacity allowed them a huge advantage in the so-called "sinews of war": 7,500 railroad locomotives, 95,000 support aircraft, 124,000 boats and ships of all types including 82,000 landing craft, and 2.4 million motor vehicles, including tens of thousands of bulldozers and enough tractors and harvesters to replace all of the farm workers lost to war work. The US also produced the millions of engines and transmissions required to power all of these machines (as well as a significant percentage of the engines used to power British production) and all of the industrial machinery required to produce them. For example, Ford's vast Willow Run aircraft factory, constructed in only six months, had more floor space than the entire Japanese aircraft industry under one roof, while the US shipbuilding industry literally produced merchant ships faster than U-boats could sink them. Ironically it was this advantage in support that was to prove decisive: When General Eisenhower was asked to name the four key elements of the allied victory he identified the 2-1/2 ton truck, the C-47 transport, the bulldozer and the M1 rifle, only one of which was an actual weapon. In a war where bulldozers were to prove just as important as tanks only the US had the resources to produce both.


Eggheads, Experts and Analysts

Science, research and technology took a front seat in the war, jumpstarted by research sent from England during the dark days of the Blitz (The famous Tizard Mission) before the US even entered the war. Unlike Fascist, but Inefficient Germany and We ARE Struggling Together Japan, where the various armed services had their own, often competing, research programs, the US followed the British model and deliberately mobilized and organized their scientific resources directly under the national government. The result was a huge explosion of science and technology, particularly in the fields of automation and electronics. Superior communications and radar gave allied forces a significant edge over their Axis enemies, particularly in the air and sea battles, where the ability to spot your opponent before he spotted you could make the difference between life and death and the ability to coordinate forces in real time using effective and reliable voice radios often provided the margin of victory. Scientists working at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Labs produced airplane-mounted millimetric radars that scoured the U-Boats from the surface of the Atlantic and automatically tracking anti-aircraft gunlaying systems that allowed US and British AA guns to shoot down 30% of the buzzbombs aimed at London. Advances in petroleum chemistry allowed engineers to increase the power of Allied aircraft engines 30% over the course of the war.

Of course, we all know the ultimate result: the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb, which ultimately employed more and 100,000 people and cost more than a billion dollars, enough to build ten Iowa class battleships and a very a significant figure at a time when a P-51 Mustang cost just $35,000. What most people don't know is the B-29 Superfortress program that delivered the atomic bomb was actually more expensive, though the aircraft it produced included and refined virtually all of the technologies, from lead-computing radar gunsights to bombing radars, advanced radio navigational equipment, aerodynamic improvements and superior fuel and lubricants that had all been invented in three short years of intense wartime research.


The Great Economic Migration

Ironically, the world's exemplar of free-market capitalism moved straight to full industrial mobilization immediately, something Germany did not attempt until 1943 and Japan until 1944. As a result vast swathes of the rural population migrated to the coasts and to the cities for wartime employment, a movement made possible because the fully mobilized US had sufficient economic capacity to replace rural farm labor with new and improved agricultural machinery. Wartime demand meant farmers could finally afford the expensive Combine Harvesters that eliminated the need for a lot of rural farm labor just as their former farm laborers were leaving for new jobs in the war industries. The America that entered the war was still largely rural and agricultural, by the end of the war the swing to a new, mostly urban America was underway. And a new America halfway between the two — the suburb— was rising rapidly.

Swing Shifts and Swing Music -

"Over There" is replaced by "Keep 'em flying" and Rosie the Riveter becomes a national icon

The huge new factories and shipyards came a commensurate demand for new factory workers, and with much of the able-bodied young male population going off to fight this resulted large numbers of women and minorities entering the workforce. Shift work became common as the factories and shipyards ran 24 hours a day. Overall US workers were twice as productive as Germans, and four times as productive as Japanese. Unlike the inherently conservative right-wing Axis dictatorships which sought to keep women in their traditional roles as long as possible, the more egalitarians and commerce-minded Americans quickly recruited their surplus young women into the industrial workforce. After all, with all of the best young men off in the service, what else did they have to do? Naturally, all of these new workers crowding into the cities triggered a housing crisis and resulting in overcrowding and eventually in a building boom. "Rosie the Riveter" became the face of the wartime factory "girl"—many but not all actually were quite young, but riveting was by far not the only thing they did. Interesting tidbit: one young "Rosie" named Norma Jean Baker later went on to fame and fortune under a different name as Marilyn Monroe.

Hollywood Canteen

America Wins the War starts here, folks

It should come as no surprise that Hollywood took front and center when it came to supporting the war effort. Large numbers of stars joined up for the duration; some, like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. rose to command ranks and served with elite units. Other members of the film industry, like Jackie Coogan, the Former Child Star famous for his role in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, served in less glamorous but often equally dangerous roles; Coogan was an air assault glider pilot.

Some actors, as well as professional singers and musicians, traveled to far-flung locations entertaining the troops. Of these, some, like Glenn Miller, would do so as service members; Miller himself was declared MIA when his flight disappeared en route to the next gig. Others remained civilians, though this hardly made their work less impressive. Most famously, Bob Hope's heroic efforts with the USO in this regard would continue for more than a half-century and five more American armed conflicts.

Still other filmmakers served documenting the war effort for the folks back home; the book and later documentary Five Came Back details John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens remarkable work – and the effect the war had on all of them. More controversially, some actors, like John Wayne and future president Ronald Reagan, stayed home and made propaganda and training films for the duration. Finally, Disney, Warner and others produced Wartime Cartoons.


If anything, the war enhanced the power of Hollywood, since the US had plenty of resources to spare for filmmaking and the Roosevelt Administration was well aware of the power of the media to shape public opinion. However, the America Wins the War trope also has its origin with wartime Hollywood. With most film production elsewhere curtailed or limited by the war, Hollywood came to dominate the worldwide film industry even more than ever. And as the American film industry Hollywood naturally preferred to shape its stories for their primary audience — America. So the films tended to be on American subjects, or American characters were added to give the audience someone to empathize with. While there were some efforts to acknowledge the other Allies - Humphrey Bogart's Sahara being one of the most famous examples — Hollywood films were primarily aimed at the home audience. And since virtually no one else was making movies, the American side of the story was what got told. Ever notice that no one ever seems to complain about the total lack of notable British films about the American war effort?

Rationing and the Black Market

"Kill the black market with your ration stamps" meets "yeah, right."

Unlike other countries the United States was effectively self-sufficient in energy and foodstuffs, but rationing was imposed anyway, in part to induce a feeling of "we're all in this together", in part to ensure sufficient supplies were available to supply millions of US troops and civilians serving overseas. Feeding Britain was a vital concern, as the UK imported 70% of its foodstuffs and was cut off from nearly all of its continental sources of supply, while the Germans, intent on starving the British into submission, did their utmost to prevent food from the US and Canada from reaching the UK. This meant a lot of food ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic, while the global nature of the war meant a lot more was lost to wastage and spoilage. Fabrics were rationed, which had a significant effect on the fashion industry: hemlines went up and cuffs disappeared. Rubber was rationed, which made tires hard to get, but so was gasoline, which meant you were less likely to wear them out. Signs that read "Is This Trip Necessary?" appeared in every railroad and gas station—the American equivalent of "Keep Calm and Carry On". note  Small appliances and housewares were not available at any price as their manufacturers were all engaged in war work. Even famed toy train maker Lionel switched to producing navigation instruments for the Navy. Naturally a thriving black market arose in all of these things. Former bootleggers left at loose ends by the end of prohibition found this new black market a perfect fit for their career skills, and nearly everyone engaged in what minor Black Market activities their consciences would allow. In the end it all proved successful, because US troops were for the large part well supplied. They may have complained about the quality of the food but they very rarely went hungry — a huge advantage in combat, where calories often count as much as bullets.

Scrap drives, War Bonds and Victory Gardens

"We can do it" and "Save Scrap for Victory"

Other efforts to encourage a sense of patriotism and participation included scrap drives to gather metals for the war effort, War Bonds, which civilians bought to fund the war effort, and "Victory Gardens", small kitchen gardens planted on pretty much everywhere space was available. Paper, metal, rags, rubber and even fat were all collected for recycling. Boy Scout troops and other civic organizations competed to see who could collect the most scrap —sometimes from people who didn't realize their old cars or cast iron fences were scrap until they came home and found them missing—and some PR genius hit on the brilliant idea of scrapping all of the captured WWI German equipment on display at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, to the despair of future historians. Abandoned or unproductive railroad branch lines were torn up for their rails even as the mainline railroads experienced their greatest traffic boom in history, signaling the postwar shift from rails to roads for all but the bulkiest and heaviest cargo.

The scrap drives proved to be purely a morale-building exercise, allowing American civilians (even children who were too young both to fight and to work in the factories) to feel like they were contributing. There is no evidence that even a single ounce of scrap metal from the drives actually went to support the war effort. War Bonds on the other hand did prove legitimately useful, enough though they didn't actually directly fund the war. The real value was that they temporarily removed money from circulation during a time of massive deficit spending to build up the military, thus helping to keep inflation under control. Once the war and therefore the massive military spending ended, the bond holders were paid back with fairly marginal interest, putting the money back into circulation and allowing the population to resume the normal peacetime economy with that cash infusion.

Fighting for Democracy at Home and Abroad

Minorities - primarily but not entirely the African American community - finally get a bigger piece of the pie - and decide that it's not enough.

The huge increase in war workers did not mean racism and sexism were vanquished overnight; far from it. However, the insatiable demand for labor was the wedge that allowed women and minorities (particularly African Americans) to escape rural agricultural labor for higher waged factory jobs, and the equally high demand for fighting men meant some were going to be taken into service. Unfortunately, military service was just as segregated as the rest of American society at the time (a legacy of the way Black troops were introduced into the military during the Civil War, as separate units under the command of White officers), and black servicemen were largely shunted into support services due to the pernicious combination of prejudice that insisted they'd do poorly in combat and the equally powerful fear that they wouldn't do poorly in combat and thus prove the prejudice groundless. However, war has a way of forcing reality upon even those who wish to deny, and two of the segregated American military's most elite units were minority ones: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, consisting entirely of ethnic Japanese (mostly American-born Nisei), and the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whose pilots were all Black. The 442nd was particularly ironic, as many if not most of them had volunteered or even been drafted out of the internment camps. Factories and shipyards were just as segregated, with separate production teams and even entirely segregated work shifts in some instances.

However, some progress was made, the US Armed Forces were formally desegregated in 1948, and it was these returning veterans and their children who would go on to make up the core of the Civil Rights movement in The '60s. Not for nothing was it Jackie Robinson who desegregated the Major Leagues in 1947: in addition to his talent as a ballplayer, he had been an Army officer during the war, which both confirmed his status as a "race man" (out of indignation from being discriminated against despite being an officer), and gave him the discipline he needed to tough out the barrage of abuse he suffered from teammates, other teams, and the public.