The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II (1996)

The book examines changes made in American culture by the second world war. The war altered the identity of the U.S. from a strictly white-dominated one to a somewhat mixed-race one. To be included in the new national identity one had to be patriotic to the country, and place self-interest second. One of the benefits was that this helped bring the issue of race more to the foreground which helped later led events into the civil rights protests, and then (theoretical) equality for blacks after that.

The first chapter deals with families in Chicago. The civil defense captains were to gather information about everyone in their assigned area, including the layout of their dwellings, who lived there, when they would be home, where they worked, etc. This was, of course, for them to help spread information quickly and efficiently but, in today's world, would be seen as a massive intrusion on privacy.

There's a number of items in this book which I have not seen referred to anywhere else. For example, short supplies of meat forced many people to abandon their pets. The rationing also forced many to use landromats rather than do clothes at home; people tended to eat out at restaurants more, and people bought more from bakeries due to shortages of products they would need to make the same things at home.

Labor shortages caused by men being drafted raised the need for workers, and this was somewhat filled by people moving into Chicago such as Japanese Americans who had been in internment camps, and African Americans who migrated from the south.

Toys for children began to be more war-related than before hostilities began.

During 1943 there was a growing intolerance for the rationing system, and people did not support home front programs as much. A black market began to be developed.

The second chapter is called Censoring Disorder. The authors note the problems with blacks and whites being in the same pictures for a production of Othello.

Here's one thing I hadn't read elsewhere: 'Early in 1941 the Joint Army and Navy Public Relations Committee had proposed, at an initial cost of $50 million, a system for complete censorship of publications, radio, and motion pictures within the U.S.A.' FDR rejected the idea and set up a less powerful censorship board.

The military had its own censorship relating to who was allowed to take photos and movies of combat, who they had to submit those two, and what things could and couldn't be releases for the general public. For example showing dead U.S. soldiers was not allowed for a good while. American weapons were supposedly killing only enemy soldiers, not any civilians. Even photos of accidental civilian deaths were censored. The enemy was the only one taking trophies; it wasn't until much later that the fact of U.S. soldiers taking bones from Japanese soldiers became known. Any photos that showed anything that could lead to sympathy for enemy soldiers were also barred.

Once the internment camps in the U.S. were set up for persons of Japanese ancestry photos taken inside them were censored. Photos of any wounded blacks from the black Ninety-second Division, or burial of blacks from that division were also censored. This was done supposedly because of '....the tendency on part of the negro press to unduly emphasize' its achievements.

Photos of American dead that showed decapitation, dismemberment, and limbs twisted into unnatural positions were also censored. Also censored were photos of soldiers displaying any mental problems.

Basically, then, the idea was to present an image of American troops who could do no wrong, who suffered nothing horrible, who did not kill civilians, who were fighting a 100% evil enemy, and where black troops stayed well in the background.

The book then explores the relationship between Hollywood movies and the war effort. One of the things that is noted in the role of women in the films, and part of that was to keep them from getting to be too independent. The role of women's sexuality is covered, and how they were supposed to channel sexual expression into taking care of their home.

In another chapter some negative things the government did are noticed, including the internment of the Japanese Americans, the segregation of the military, and awarding contracts to the largest American corporations, helping produce the huge (and basically out-of-control) ultra-conglomerates we have today.

The author spends a lot of time talking about the role of blacks in this time, and how they could not embrace the war effort the same way most whites were doing, the segregation of units in the military being noted, and the way whites did not really want blacks taking prominent place in the 'celebration of national diversity.' (A continuation of 'blacks are okay as long as they keep to their proper place' mode of thinking that had gone on for so long and still does among many today.)

Women were urged to enter the military, but at the same time to maintain their femininity and not express their sexuality, all with the goal to going back to being nice housewives once the war was over.

'With few exceptions, Americans were obsessed with the uniquely evil nature of the Japanese.' This is noted in a chapter dealing with the Japanese and language in the war.

In the U.S., Britain and most of Europe, anti-Semitism was fairly strong and the plight of the Jewish people was not of main interest. The Germans were not vilified as a people; only their leaders. They were, after all, white. The Japanese, on the other hand, saw not just their leaders being pictured as rats, cockroaches, monkeys and other forms of lower life, but the Japanese soldiers and the Japanese civilians were seen that way. They were the inscrutable Orientals, after all.

Of course, the Japanese themselves were also racist. They felt they were better than the white race, but they also felt they were better than any of the other Oriental races, especially the Chinese and the Koreans.

The approach to the Japanese was to dehumanize them and make it easier for American soldiers to kill them, and for Americans to stand firm in their support of the war effort. This approach was seen in songs, movies, and on radio. There were a number of posters that depicted wicked Japanese soldiers slavering over helpless white women, for example.

The Japanese soldiers were also seen as 'supermen' for a while, at least until, say, Guadalcanal and Midway showed that they were not invincible at all. This related to the concept of the Yellow Peril, something which went back for decades, long before the war broke out.

The author also looks at the Japanese thinking of that time, noting that some racial revenge was evidence in their celebration of their early victories over white-dominated areas. In their movies the Japanese were emphasizing their racial 'purity' which made them better than non-Japanese. The believed they had almost supernatural spiritual qualities, and this included loyalty. They also demonized Americans, even though they treated their Asian conquests more harshly than Americans did.

There is one thing I was a little confused about, and that is zoot-suiters. The book ties them in to Mexican-Americans. From the internment camp newsletters I had picked up that some Japanese youth were dressing in that style, and acting in that style, but nothing indicated its origin. They must have picked it up from the Mexican-American youth, apparently.

Other Sources

America in the Pacific: The Clash of Two Cultures
V was for Victory

Main Index
Japan main page
Japanese-American Internment Camps index page
Japan and World War II index page