Even as World War II was ending 73 years ago, Americans already knew it had transformed their country. What they didn’t know was just how much or for how long.
In that last wartime summer of 1945, the seeds of a new America had been sown. Not just postwar America — the Baby Boom, the Cold War, the Affluent Society, the sprawling suburbs — but the one in which we live today.
Look closely at the war years, and you can see those seeds.
•Two brothers who had opened a drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., were struck by working families’ desire for cheap meals served fast — faster than their carhops could serve them. Their name was McDonald.
•While building homes for federal war workers, a family-owned Long Island construction company had learned how to lay dozens of concrete foundations in a single day, and preassemble uniform walls and roofs. The firm’s name was Levitt & Sons.
•A young, black Army lieutenant was court-martialed in 1944 after he refused to sit in the back of a military bus at Camp Hood, Texas. The trial prevented him from serving overseas, but he was acquitted. His name was Jackie Robinson.
•In 1944, an Army Air Forces photographer discovered a beautiful young woman working on an aircraft assembly line in Burbank, Calif. One of his photos helped land her a modeling job. Her name was Norma Jean Baker. Later she would change it to Marilyn Monroe.
•In 1945, engineers were finishing a sort of “electronic brain” for the Army. Equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes instead of the usual electrical switches, it could do about 5,000 computations per second — 4,996 more than the best electric calculator. They called it an Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Only the last word stuck.
In the next decade, the Levitts would build Levittown, N.Y., the most famous postwar suburb. McDonald’s, focusing on assembly line hamburgers, would begin its ascent to global fast-food dominance. Robinson would integrate Major League Baseball.
And Monroe would become the first “Playmate of the Month” in a new magazine called Playboy, whose editor got his start in media during the war at a military newspaper. His name was Hugh Hefner.
World War II also marked the beginning of trends that took decades to fully develop, including technological disruption, global economic integration and digital communication.
More broadly, the wartime home front put a premium on something that’s even more crucial today: innovation.
It helped explain America’s production miracle. A nation that in 1938 was making almost no weapons was, by 1943, making more than twice as many as of all its enemies combined.
“Never before had war demanded such technological experimentation and business organization,” historian Allen Nevins later wrote. “The genius of the country of Whitney, Morse, and Edison precisely fitted such a war.”
America not only made more weapons than its enemies, it kept making new and better ones. By the end of the war, it was said that no major battle was won with the same weapons as the battle that preceded it; innovation had become a constant.
The Office of Scientific Research and Development, directed by mathematician Vannevar Bush, organized the scientists and engineers who developed many valuable weapons.
Radar, improved depth charges and long-range bombers turned the tide against German submarines; the long range Mustang fighter protected Allied bombers over Europe after 1943; the B-29 Superfortress allowed the Air Force to pulverize Japan with virtual impunity by 1945.
The nation’s science labs were mobilized. Annual federal spending on research and development increased more than 20-fold during the war.
Medical researchers produced a class of pharmaceuticals whose nickname — “wonder drugs” — pretty much summed them up. Streptomycin, the first drug effective against the cause of tuberculosis, was the best known in a series of new antibiotics.
Penicillin, which had been discovered in 1928, was mass produced during the war to treat blood poisoning and battle wounds. A new process to produce dried blood plasma allowed battlefield transfusions.
Other developments included quinine substitutes to fight malaria, and numerous repellants and insecticides (including, unfortunately, DDT) used against pests causing epidemics of typhus and malaria.
Government scientists refined products (television, air conditioning) and developed new ones. The computer introduced at MIT in 1942 weighed 100 tons and had 2,000 electronic tubes, 150 electric motors and 200 miles of wire.
In Palo Alto, Calif., a company started in a garage by electrical engineers William Hewlett and David Packard was making radio, sonar, and radar devices, as well as artillery shell fuses. Packard ran the company while Hewlett served in the Army Signal Corps, unaware that they were founders of what would become Silicon Valley.
Wartime shortages gave rise to products whose greatest days were ahead, including plastics (used to replace scarce metals), frozen foods (which saved trips to the store) and microfilm (for shipping civilian-military “V-mail” overseas).
The war also raised issues that would become even more pressing in years to come.
The war was witness to the greatest single violation of civil rights in U.S. history — the internment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans (two-thirds of them U.S. citizens) living in Pacific Coast states. Supposedly designed to fight espionage and sabotage, the move in fact was motivated by war hysteria, racism and political expediency.
For years, this outrage was all but forgotten. In 1988, however, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee. But the Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of government powers in wartime in the Korematsu case, which upheld the internment, has never been overturned.
The internment was the result of an executive order, a presidential prerogative that has become increasingly controversial. But during the war the executive branch also banned pleasure drives and sliced bread, and seized control of the strike-bound retail giant Montgomery Ward under the legal justification that it was “useful” to the war effort. When Ward’s president refused to leave his office, government agents carried him out in his chair.
Decades before Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying, military censors on the home front had authority to open and read every piece of mail that entered or left the country; to scan every cable; and to screen every phone call. A letter from a soldier overseas often arrived with a few words, a sentence or an entire paragraph snipped out, and the envelope resealed with a bit of tape bearing the label “Opened by Censor.”
Problems developed during the war that would bedevil the nation for years. Los Angeles had its first smog attack in 1943. In New York City, there were more and more reports of an old crime with a new name: mugging.
And anyone who thinks red-baiting was a postwar innovation should listen to Thomas Dewey, the 1944 GOP presidential candidate, who called President Franklin D. Roosevelt “indispensable to Earl Browder” the head of the American Communist Party.
A communist, Dewey told an audience, is “anyone who supports (Roosevelt’s) fourth term so our form of government may more easily be changed.”
Income inequality? Although Rosie the Riveter was the patriotic, symbolic personification of the 5 million U.S. women who went to work during the war, their pay on average was 60% of men’s — despite government rules banning such discrimination in war plants.
By war’s end, Americans were used to looking to Washington for solutions. But the war also reinforced an attitude that remains resonant today: skepticism about government.
For instance, after Pearl Harbor the government tried to discourage the practice of planting home “victory gardens,” which were popular in World War I. The nation already had an agricultural surplus, and more production would hurt farm prices.
Undeterred, within a few months Americans had planted victory gardens on Ellis Island and Alcatraz and everywhere in between — about 10 million in all. Within two years, 20 million victory gardens were producing 8 million tons of food.
By then, the victory gardeners’ instincts had been vindicated; snarled transportation and farm labor shortages produced spot fruit and vegetable shortages. The amateurs, the secretary of Agriculture admitted, “surprised a lot of people.”
All the war’s changes, apparent and embryonic, contributed to a rich irony: Although Americans away in the military lived on memories of the land they’d left behind, by war’s end that America was already disappearing.
The demands of winning a war would transform the home front into something almost as exotic as the places where the soldiers fought — a land more affluent and more just, more open and more mobile, more polluted and more violent than the one of which they’d dreamed.