America in the Second World War

51b. The American Homefront

Rosie the Riveter
"Rosie the Riveter" served as both a symbol of women's contributions to the war effort as well as a call to others to join.

America was the largest military power in the world — in theory.

The large population, generous natural resources, advanced infrastructure, and solid capital base were all just potential. Centralization and mobilization were necessary to jump-start this unwieldy machine. Within a week of Pearl Harbor, Congress passed the War Powers Act, granting wide authority to the President to conduct the war effort. Throughout the war hundreds more alphabet agencies were created to manage the American homefront.

First the United States needed to enlarge its armed forces. Because of the peacetime draft, the United States Armed Forces boasted over 1.5 million members. By the end of the war, that number rose to 12 million. A more expansive draft and a vigorous recruitment campaign produced these results. Prodded by Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR created women's auxiliary forces for the army (WACs), navy (WAVES), air force (WASPS), and Coast Guard (SPARS). The colossal ranks of the armed services created a huge labor shortage.

Toward this end a "Work or Fight" propaganda campaign was waged. "Rosie the Riveter" posters beckoned housewives to leave the home and enter the nation's factories. About 6.5 million females entered the workforce during the war years, many for the first time. African Americans continued the Great Migration northward, filling vacated factory jobs. Mexican Americans were courted to cross the border to assist with the harvest season in the bracero guest-worker program. Thousands of retirees went back on the job, and more and more teenagers pitched in to fill the demand for new labor.

"Victory Garden" poster
Posters like this encouraged Americans to conserve energy and resources by producing their own food.

The United States government spent over twice as much money fighting World War II as it had spent on all previous programs since its creation. Tax rates were raised to generate revenue and control inflation. Some people paid 90% of what they earned toward taxes!

Still, more money was needed so the government again launched Liberty and Victory Loan Drives like those that helped finance the First World War. In addition, the size of the federal government more than tripled from about a million workers in 1940 to almost 3.5 million in 1945.

The United States managed to raise enough food and raw materials in the First World War through voluntary measures. This time, federal officials agreed that only through rationing could the demands be met. Americans were issued books of stamps for key items such as gasoline, sugar, meat, butter, canned foods, fuel oil, shoes, and rubber. No purchase of these commodities was legal without a stamp. Victory speed limits attempted to conserve fuel by requiring Americans to drive more slowly. Rotating blackouts conserved fuel to be shipped overseas. Groups such as the Boy Scouts led scrap metal drives. Consumer goods like automobiles and refrigerators simply were not produced. Women drew lines down the backs of their legs to simulate nylon stockings when there were such shortages. Backyard gardens produced about 8 million tons of food.

Bing Crosby
Crooners like Bing Crosby kept America smiling during the war with hits like "Goodbye Mama, I'm Off to Yokohama."

Additionally, the Office of War Information sponsored posters and rallies to appeal to patriotic heartstrings. Songs like Bing Crosby's "Junk Will Win the War" and "Goodbye Mama, I'm Off to Yokohama" were on the lips of many Americans. Propaganda movies shot by famed directors such as Frank Capra inspired millions.

The accomplishments of the American public were nothing short of miraculous. The navy had fewer than 5,000 vessels prior to the bombing at Pearl Harbor. By 1945, they had over 90,000. In addition, over 80,000 tanks and nearly 300,000 aircraft were produced during the war years. Millions of machine guns and rifles and billions of ammunition cartridges rolled off American production lines. New industries like synthetic rubber flourished, and old ones were rejuvenated.

At tremendous cost to the American taxpayer, the American people vanquished two evils: the Axis Powers and the Great Depression.

On the Web
The Women's Army Corps
The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps numbered more than 150,000 and performed duties that ranged from forecasting the weather to working with sheet metal during World War II, as the many photographs at this website illustrate. Although inequalities were evident in pay and status between male and female soldiers, the WAAC signaled the first exodus of many women from the home.
The Homefront during World War II
Gettysburg College presents an interview with M. Francis Coulson, 20 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
Private Art: WWII Letters To and From Home
Private Arthur Pranger served in the U.S. Army for two and a half years during World War II. Like most soldiers, he wrote home to tell his family of his European tour of duty. Now "Private Art" has created his own website, pulling together all of his pictures and letters detailing his times in the war. Beautifully designed and stocked with images and information, this is a site to see!
Produce for Victory
The Smithsonian Institution has put together a virtual exhibition of wartime posters found throughout the American homefront during the Second World War. These posters were used to motivate workers to increase their production at work and in the home to create and conserve supplies for their soldiers overseas. The posters here are presented in color, each explained in a short excerpt.
If the spirit of America were killed, even though the Nation's body and mind, constricted in an alien world, lived on, the America we know would have perished.

-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from his third Inaugural Address
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The movie A League of Their Own was based on true events in the lives of American women who played professional baseball while American men served overseas during World War II.
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