Wednesday, August 14, 2002

"a screaming comes across the sky"

"[...] Writing in The New York Times, just over a month
after the terrorist attack, Putnam found a nation
“achingly familiar” to the America that had been
stunned by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He
went on to depict the vast government-backed
grass-roots effort that “taught ‘the greatest
generation’ an enduring lesson in civic
involvement”—an effort that included everything from
the Civil Defense Corps to the Red Cross, from victory
gardens to Boy Scouts collecting scrap and selling war

“All Americans felt they had to do their share,
thereby enhancing each American’s sense that her
commitment and contribution mattered,” he wrote. “As
one said later in an oral history of the home front:
‘You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you
in a restaurant, or someplace, felt the same way you
did about the basic issues.’”
Overall, Americans have kept on a remarkably even
keel, compared with what happened in past wars.

Dr. Putnam is no doubt well-meaning, but his
characterization of the home front in World War II is
also an object lesson in just how careful one has to
be in making the future over in the image of the past.
The war effort at home was undoubtedly one of the
proudest episodes—and possibly the most important
episode—in our history, perhaps even more vital than
the great sacrifices made by our men at the front. It
was U.S. production that sustained not only our own
forces but those of all our allies and that brought
victory around the world. This was not merely a
victory of quantity, either, but one accomplished
while preserving almost all the rights and privileges
of a free people. The war proved that a democracy
could triumph over any modern totalitarian ideology,
something that had seemed very much in doubt just a
few years earlier.

The triumph was incontrovertible, but it did not come
out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The America of the
Second World War was a turbulent and often frightening
place, characterized by immense social upheaval and
dislocation. It might well have been true that the
stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant felt the
same way about things—unless, that is, he or she
happened to be of a different race. Inasmuch as color
was the deepest fissure in American society, it is not
surprising that during the war we fractured most often
along this line.

The most infamous case, of course, was the forced
detention of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans in barren
desert camps while their property was sold off for a
pittance—and their sons formed some of the most
decorated fighting units of the war. But racial
hysteria was hardly restricted to Asian-Americans. In
1943 alone there were 242 race riots in 47 cities as
the war sparked an epic migration of both poor
Southern blacks and whites into urban ports and
industrial centers. The worst was in Detroit, in 1943,
where white mobs ended up roaming through the city’s
downtown, shouting, “Here’s some fresh meat!” while
they beat and shot any African-Americans they
found—often with the help of the local police. Before
it was all over, 34 people died, and pictures of the
riot were gleefully plastered across the pages of
Signal, Germany’s leading picture magazine, as proof
that a “mongrel” country could not win the war.

Discrimination remained routine in all industries,
with blacks making less money than whites for the same
jobs, and with whites frequently refusing to work with
them anyway. The great black labor leader A. Philip
Randolph had to threaten to lead a massive protest
march in Washington, D.C., before the Roosevelt
administration would commit to equal pay for equal
work on war projects.

Elsewhere, protests were not so availing. Mob assaults
on black civilians and even soldiers continued
throughout the Deep South, and the sad fact remains
that the greatest generation was also the last
lynching generation. [...]

The business of the war was sometimes just as sordid.
Harry Truman’s Senate committee turned up one case
after another of war profiteering, and at least 20
percent of Americans surveyed admitted that they
viewed the black market as a legitimate means of
procuring consumer goods.[...] "

continues at:
September 11 vs. December 7 Did Americans behave better back then? by Kevin Baker