Every time I teach World War II we spent a couple of days on the home front.
I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the actual war itself – the battles and so on. They’re fascinating, of course, and to be honest that was my gateway into American history – the first serious book of American history I ever read was a 500pp history of US naval operations in World War II, after all. I was 12 years old at the time. There’s a reason I’m a professional historian now, and it’s not for the money or fame. But in the greater scheme of things – in the broad sweep that one must take in a survey course, where you have to fit a century and a half into twenty-seven class periods – the individual battles don’t matter as much as the end result, which is that the Allies won. Someday I’ll teach a WWII class and then I’ll have all semester to go through things in detail, but today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.
So we go through the lead up to the war and the actual fighting in a single class period and then we spend the next class or two on what life was like at home during the war, the specifics of which always come as a bit of a surprise to my students.
As one Red Cross worker put it bluntly at the time, “The war was fun for America. I’m not talking about the poor souls who lost sons and daughters. But for the rest of us, it was a hell of a good time.” My students don't expect that.
The US home front was at least three thousand miles away from the fighting, though, and here in Wisconsin the front could be as much as six thousand miles away. Other than a few balloon-launched bombs that managed to kill a couple of picnickers in Oregon, the 48 US states in the 1940s saw no damage whatsoever. Also, the war did what the New Deal couldn’t – it ended the Depression. Unemployment disappeared. Real income per capita almost doubled, and net income (purchasing power after taxes and inflation) rose 50%. People had jobs and money, and that's what good times means to most people.
All of this was paid for out of public money, by the way – the federal government spent roughly $250 million per day during the war, and that money then circulated throughout the economy, stimulating it and reviving a consumer economy that had been dormant since 1929. The lesson here is two-fold. First, that demand-side economics actually works in a demand-side economy and you should plan your politics accordingly. And second, that the takeaway from the New Deal was not that it was misguided but that it was too small. When you have to dig out from under a crisis as big as the Depression, you need a bigger shovel than the New Deal had to offer. World War II was not small.
And the simple fact was that life got better for most Americans during the war. Malnutrition – a serious enough problem during the Depression that the US actually had difficulty finding enough healthy men for the military at the beginning of the war (so don’t let people tell you that the lack of a social safety net isn’t a national security issue) – vanished, even as American farmers were tasked with feeding not only our military and civilian populations but large chunks of those of our allies. People could afford health care for the first time in over a decade, and for those in the military free government-run healthcare was part of the deal. The rates of chronic diseases such as typhus, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, all of which had become common in the Depression, dropped sharply, and infant mortality dropped by a third. Even if you include combat and other war-related fatalities, American life expectancy rose by three years during the war, and if you take out the combat deaths 1942 has the lowest death rate in all of American history.
No wonder that 70% of Americans surveyed during the war said they had experienced “no real sacrifices” because of it. They were good times.
This is not to say that there weren’t sacrifices to be made by those so far away from the actual fighting. They weren’t great sacrifices if you didn’t have someone on the front lines to worry about, but they were there. The most obvious of these, of course, was rationing.
The federal government effectively ran the US economy during the war and determined how much of what could be accessed by both military and civilians in order to devote as much as possible to the war effort. When I teach my class on the atomic bomb we discuss this in the context of how the Manhattan Project managed to get the highest level of supplies possible – “Silverplate” – and could pretty much requisition anything it wanted, if it could be had. Not everyone could do that, though.
And for civilians, at the bottom end of this, well, you made do. A generation that had just passed through the Depression already knew how to do this of course, which is why it didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to them, but to my students – accustomed to abundance on demand – it is a whole other world.
Rubber and gasoline were strictly rationed and civilian passenger cars were not manufactured at all during most of the war, so driving was something you had to think very, very carefully about. Shoes and clothing were also rationed, which further restricted travel (even on foot!) but also had its little benefits for those so inclined – when the amount of cloth allowed for bathing suits was reduced, for example, two-piece bathing suits became patriotic. Food in particular was also rationed – sugar, meat, butter, cheese, alcohol, and so on. You got little coupon books with stamps to use, and you only got so much before the next round of stamps came to you.
It was a different time.
One of the things I use to try to get the whole idea of rationing across is an old Bugs Bunny cartoon called “Hare Conditioned.” In this 1945 cartoon, Bugs is being chased through a department store by the manager, who has a shotgun. Eventually he gets into the elevator and by the time the manager gets on he has put on an elevator boy costume, and the two of them peacefully ride upwards, staring vacantly as one does in elevators. At the top Bugs says, “Sixth floor! Rubber tires, nylon hose, bobby pins, girdles, alarm clocks, bourbon, butter, and other picture postcards!”
I never got that joke until I was in high school. There’s a lot in those old cartoons that wasn’t aimed at kids. Everything on that list was rationed during the war. The only way you were ever going to find that stuff in a department store was on a postcard.
My students don’t even know who Bugs Bunny is.
They don’t really show Bugs Bunny anymore, not like they did when I was a kid, when you could be pretty much assured of finding a Bugs Bunny cartoon on one of the UHF channels at any time of the day. My own children have only the vaguest notion of Bugs Bunny, and mostly because of this story (also, “Rabbit of Seville”).
I suppose that makes sense. World War II was a long time ago now. It ended two decades before I was born. For most of my students, that’s Jimmy Carter. For some of them it’s Ronald Reagan.
It’s a strange old world sometimes.