America's Home Front

By Jeansonne, Glen | History Today, May 1995 | Go to article overview

America's Home Front

Jeansonne, Glen, History Today

Neither the European theatre where they fought the German war machine, nor the Pacific, where they were locked in deadly combat with the Japanese, was the most lethal area of operations for Americans during the Second World War. in both theatres combined, some 200,000 Americans died in combat. Yet a third front - the home front - was the site of some 300,000 fatalities due to industrial accidents (see Geoffrey Perrett's book Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph, in which he cites statistics on industrial accidents from official figures issued for 1942-46).

The sacrifices of American civilians were instrumental in winning the war, and Americans overpowered the Axis Powers, not so much by force of arms but by massive industrial might. The United States armed forces, more formidably armed and equipped than their adversaries, killed 500,000 enemy soldiers at a cost of $400 billion, or about $800,000 for every enemy soldier killed. It cost the United States approximately $1 million in arms, equipment, and personnel, for every $1 million of Axis property it destroyed. The irony that it would have cost less to buy out the enemy than destroy him is combined with the reality that in a conflict of such massive scope, a war of attrition rather than of finesse or raw courage, the Germans and Japanese had committed themselves to a war they could not possibly win.

The home front was a place of trial and triumph. Many of the more glamourised, essential jobs in industry were dirty and dangerous and Americans took them more out of economic necessity than from a sense of patriotism. Yet there is no denying that an unprecedented effort produced an economic juggernaut that overwhelmed the enemy. During the course of the war American industry produced 86,000 tanks; 296,000 aircraft; 15,000,000 rifles; 5,400 merchant ships; and 6,500 warships. The United States has proven that it can turn out from 8,000 to 10,000 aircraft a month', Stalin said in 1943. Russia can turn out, at most, 3,000 aircraft a month ... The United States, therefore, is a country of machines. Without the use of those machines, through Lend-lease, we would lose this war'.

If the principal Soviet contribution to the Allied effort was manpower, and the British contribution was perseverance and gritty determination, the American contribution was production. Six months after Pearl Harbor, American factories were producing more than all the Axis nations combined; before the end of the war the United States alone was producing twice as much as its enemies. Yet Americans who lived through the war years remember it as a time of minor inconveniences rather than major sacrifices, a time of prosperity and purpose when the nation was more unified than ever before or since.

Such rosy memories overshadow the reality that the purpose of war is to kill and avoid being killed; that it necessitated separation, dislocation, and rapid change that stretched the fabric of national unity. Submerged in the glow 6f patriotic reminiscence were race riots, juvenile delinquency, housing shortages, ethnic tensions, violations of civil liberties, the stridency of demagogic agitators, and the beginning of a trend that saw the nuclear family dissolve under the disparate pressures of work, responsibilities to children, and responsibility to the national cause. The Second World War was a good war not in an absolute but in a comparative sense when one views it in the context of the wars that preceded and succeeded it, wars fraught with moral ambiguity that ended in less than total victory. Fifty years after the conclusion of the world's greatest conflict, Americans continue to marvel at their accomplishments and pay the price for them.

The spectre of the Great Depression that had haunted 1930s America was exorcised by the total mobilisation necessary to rid the world of the totalitarian menace. The shortage of jobs that had plagued the 1930s was supplanted by a shortage of manpower; unemployment not only disappeared but women, including those with children, minorities, the retired, the elderly and to some extent the disabled, were sucked in to fill the vacuum created by the departure of 12 million men in uniform and the unprecedented demand for the products of American farms and factories. …

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