The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview

1
Introduction: The Home-Front War

Kenneth Paul O'Brien and Lynn Hudson Parsons

Timuel Black, an African American from Chicago, returned to the United States at the end of World War II with deeply mixed feelings about his country. "We're coming up the Hudson River," he told Studs Terkel:

You could see the shore. The white soldiers upon dock said, "There she is!" They're talking about the Statue of Liberty. There's a great outburst. I'm down below and I'm sayin', Hell, I'm not goin' up there. Damn that. All of a sudden, I found myself with tears, cryin' and saying the same thing they were saying. Glad to be home, proud of my country, as irregular as it is. Determined that it could be better. Just happy that I had survived and buoyed up by the enthusiasm of the moment. I could no longer push my loyalty back, even with all the bitterness that I had. 1

His tears, begrudging "loyalty," and "bitterness" were the products of the gulf between the egalitarian rhetoric of what some call the American creed and the reality of living in a multi-racial society that systematically denied opportunities, even rights, to vast numbers of its citizens.

Paradoxically, this gulf had been both exposed and papered over by the American government's need to mobilize all groups behind a war effort that generated millions of posters, words, and images, all aimed at including as many Americans as possible in what came to be called the war effort. 2 This campaign sought to engage the energies of all Americans in the work of war, whether on the battlefield or on the home front. Even those who traditionally had been refused economic opportunities and rights were the subjects of specific appeals, but the unity campaign was waged within parameters set by the traditions of sexism, racism, and segregation. In the organization for total war there were limits to calls for inclusion.

Like all wars, World War II became both a series of discrete events that people had experienced and a collection of memories assigning meaning to those experiences. In time, the remembered terrors, problems, and pains of the war

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