Bad News from the Good War: Democracy at Home During World War II
Writing in 1975, the British military historian, Michael Howard, gave a concise analysis of the effects of World War II on the American people:
For most of the American people the Second World War was not seen as a time of suffering in any way comparable to the Great Depression ten years earlier. The unemployed got jobs and business boomed. Only a small minority considered either at that time or in retrospect that America had been mistaken in getting involved in the war; the mistake had been, by ignoring the world outside, to allow it to happen at all.
Howard went on to argue that, as a major consequence, Americans became aware of themselves as a military nation, had fully professional military heroes--specifically George Patton and Douglas MacArthur--and that World War II had been for the United States what 1871 had been for Germany, "not an end but a beginning." Finally, according to Howard, American leadership felt that "the American century had . . . now truly begun." 1
However satisfactory such an analysis may be for one oriented to military and international affairs, social historians have a different agenda, ask other sorts of questions, and examine another order of evidence. Such historians focus on the domestic, rather than the international, aspects of war, on its social, rather than its military, effects. 2
My particular focus is on a paradox: what I call the bad news from the "good war." The paradox is simply this: although the United States entered and fought World War II for lofty aims at home and abroad--the four freedoms and an economic bill of rights--the means used to fight the war were often undemocratic. The war greatly enhanced the power of the federal government--particularly the executive branch--and increased its contact with the lives of ordinary Americans. Although the United States was opposed to international racism, it fought the war with a Jim Crow military establishment and denied justice to members of more than one minority group. Yet, as is so often the case, within the story of bad news there will be some good news as well. One piece of good news--and something that Americans simply take for