As America approaches the seventy-fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, author William M. Christie provides a detailed history of the United States on the eve of World War II. 1941: The America That Went to War presents not only the military events of 1941 and specific areas of interest like sports, home life, and transportation, but also an overall portrait of the country.
The America of 1941 was very different from the country we know today. Most people were just getting back on their feet after the struggles of the Depression, their interests personal and inward. Access to the political process was uneven, yet there was no general assumption that all citizens should have an equal voice in government. Magazines and radio provided all the cultural experiences people expected to be able to enjoy. Ethnic stereotypes were widely accepted, and concerns with social justice were only beginning to expand. After the Depression, most workers found jobs related to the growth of the American defense industry, but the nation was fearful of the foreign wars that made increased armaments necessary. Yet everything was about to change with the forced entry onto the world stage. Christie describes all this and more, demonstrating that one cannot understand the United States during and after World War II without understanding the country that entered the war.
Organized in a series of vignettes representing focal events of each month, 1941 brings readers into the mind-set of 1941 America. These stories show both what Americans were doing and how they saw themselves and the world in that last year of peace.
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About the Author
William M. Christie is a linguistic scholar who has brought significant changes to the universities where he has worked, such as Wingate University and the American College of the Building Arts in South Carolina. He has written numerous articles and reviews; published two books, A Stratificational View of Linguistic Change and Preface to a Neo-Firthian Linguistics; and edited Current Progress in Historical Linguistics: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Christie resides in Brevard, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
ARMED SECRET SERVICE agents sat in the gallery of the church when the president arrived for prayers. Heavily armed federal agents kept watch on rooftops. Cars with armed Secret Service agents flanked the presidential limousine on the way to the Capitol. Armed Secret Service agents stood on the roof of the Capitol, where for the first time ever visitors were not permitted.
Americans had never seen anything like it. The level of security for Franklin Roosevelt's third inaugural was completely unprecedented.
War was raging across the world. America's possible role in that conflict was being hotly debated in the halls of Congress and across the country. For the first (and only) time in history, an American president was being inaugurated for a third term. And this particular president was both widely admired and widely hated.
In a year filled with passions and uncertainties, many people could remember the day forty years earlier when President William McKinley had fallen to an assassin's bullet. On this Inauguration Day the Secret Service was taking no chances. Monday, January 20, 1941, was a bitterly cold day in Washington. The high temperature that afternoon was only 33°; and it was closer to 28° at 10:30 in the morning when President Franklin D. Roosevelt left the White House for the brief trip to St. John's Church on H Street, just on the other side of Lafayette Park. The sky was clear, and a sharp wind blowing off the Potomac River made the air feel even colder. As on previous Inauguration Days, President Roosevelt attended a brief prayer service before going to the Capitol to be sworn in for a new term. The mood this day, however, was different from the hopeful atmosphere that had surrounded his first inaugural in the Depression year of 1933. It was even more different from the triumphal atmosphere following his landslide re- election in 1936. The chill in the air matched the subdued, cautious feelings in the crowds that gathered for this unprecedented occasion.
At noon the inaugural party appeared on the freshly painted platform on the East Front of the Capitol. As the Marine Band played "Hail to the Chief," Roosevelt entered, leaning on the arm of his son James, a captain in the Marines. The Capitol Plaza was filled, but not crowded. Newsweek's estimate of a million spectators was surely much too high. Vice President Henry A. Wallace was sworn in by his predecessor, "Cactus Jack" Garner. Then Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, white-haired, seventy-eight years old, himself once a candidate for president (losing narrowly to Wilson in 1916), now only five months from retirement, stepped forward to administer the oath to Roosevelt. It took less than a minute, and the president turned to address the crowd:
On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States. In Washington's day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation. In Lincoln's day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within. In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without.
The speech, a little under 1,400 words, was not one of Roosevelt's better efforts. It was full of generalities, mainly a paean to democracy and the spirit of America. He was interrupted five times by muffled applause, muffled by the gloves and mittens everyone was wearing. At the end he waved his top hat to the crowed, turned, and left the Capitol. At the White House he reviewed an inaugural parade that was also different from the cheerful events of the past. There were the usual contingents of West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen, the usual cars loaded with dignitaries. But the bulk of the parade was a demonstration of America's military might, such as it was. Tanks and armored cars were mixed with light and heavy field artillery. They drove by fast, as if eager to get back to business. The president, too, was eager. As soon as the parade was over, he returned to the White House and got back to work.
Politics in the America of 1941, as has been true for most of the past century, was a bafflingly complex array of parties and alliances, interest groups and personalities. To be understood properly, it must be considered separately on the national, state, and local levels, where party affiliations and personal alliances had very different meanings. Sometimes these interests and affiliations aligned; but more often they crossed in complex ways, making it difficult to construct one unified picture of the American political scene.
On the national level there were three principal political viewpoints represented in the two main political parties. The contrast between the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties had for many years been largely economic. Throughout the twentieth century, the center of American political and economic opinion shifted back and forth. In periods of great prosperity, like the 1920s, when millions dreamed of gaining riches from speculation in the stock market (though only 1 percent of Americans were active in the market), corporate America was held in something like reverence. During the Great Depression opinion shifted strongly toward government action to help the working class. Wherever the center lay, however, the Republican Party by and large supported corporate interests, while the Democratic Party generally supported the workers. Of course, such a sweeping generalization had many exceptions. There were Democrats whose economic beliefs were as conservative as those of any Republican. And the Republican Party had a progressive wing, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, that sought to restrain the corporations and benefit the workers.
Yet there was still a third tradition, strongly populist in character, that distrusted all government intervention and regulation. Big business and organized labor were equally regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. The stronghold of this sentiment was in the South, and members of Congress who held this viewpoint constituted the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. For cultural reasons associated with this region, the Southern Democrats showed two additional characteristics that distinguished them. First, they strongly supported the American military establishment. During all the debates on intervention and rearmament, only one Southern Democrat, Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina, consistently opposed the president. All the rest backed the defense buildup and the president's interventionist actions. In the second place, Southern culture and Southern politics were solidly grounded in racial segregation. Any proposed legislation, economic or social, would be measured against the Southern racial standard. As a result, Roosevelt often could not move as far or as fast as he and other Northern Democrats would have liked. The Southern faction in the party was strong enough to block any congressional action that was perceived as a threat to Southern institutions.
Apart from their racial views and their dislike of organized labor, the Southern populists found themselves more in agreement with the mainstream Democratic Party than with the Republicans on both domestic and foreign affairs. Their affiliation with the Democrats was also strengthened by memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when the Republicans had been the party of the abolitionists. With few exceptions, then, the Republican Party was not a factor in Southern politics.
Despite the persistent economic division between the two major parties, presidential elections could and did turn on non-economic issues; and in 1940 the economy was not the dominant issue that it had been in 1932. Of course, Democrats could point to a strong economic record that was only slightly compromised by the recession of 1937. In fact, the employment picture was improving to such a degree that Republicans were unable to make the economy a direct issue in the campaign. Instead they used the proxy issue of big government intruding into people's private lives, a reflection of the constitutional tradition of weak federal government. New Deal programs could not be attacked as having no benefit to ordinary people. They clearly had. But they could be attacked as an improper and perhaps unconstitutional extension of federal power at the expense of the states and of private interests.
Prominent in the campaign was an issue that was highly emotional for many people. Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, and there was a strong feeling that George Washington's two-term tradition should be respected. All over the country, and especially in the Republican Midwest, one could see political campaign buttons saying, "NO THIRD TERMITES." Democrats responded with their own buttons saying, "BETTER A THIRD TERMER THAN A THIRD RATER." But resistance to a third term was muted by the international situation and the threat that war could come to this country. The Republicans had limited themselves on this issue by nominating their most strongly interventionist figure, Wendell Willkie. New York District Attorney Tom Dewey, who had built his reputation as a corruption fighter, had gone into the 1940 Republican convention with a lead in delegates and an air of invincibility. But a carefully orchestrated "spontaneous" demonstration for Willkie had stampeded the convention and taken the nomination away from Dewey. As a Wall Street lawyer, Willkie appealed to the conservative economic interests in the G.O.P., but the economic planks of the Republican platform sounded like little more than some uninspired tinkering with the Democratic agenda. As an interventionist, Willkie also had difficulty making defense preparedness a significant issue. He strongly supported rearmament as the best way to keep America out of the European war, and his interventionism limited his ability to attack the president. The best he could manage was the assertion that Roosevelt was moving recklessly toward confrontation with Germany and that the re-election of Roosevelt would guarantee our involvement in the war. Weak as the charge sounded, it had enough of an effect that Roosevelt had to respond. In Boston on October 30 he came out with a categorical statement that his critics enthusiastically repeated after Pearl Harbor:
And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.
As Americans began to feel the dangers of war coming ever nearer, they voted by a rather narrow margin not to change leadership in a time of uncertainty.
The election of 1940 and Roosevelt's third inaugural thus marked a significant turning point in American politics. Until then, most Americans had held a view of the federal government in general and of the presidency itself that was very much like that of the authors of the Constitution a hundred and fifty years earlier. In this view government was a necessary evil that should be kept as small and weak as possible. Within the governmental structure that the Constitution created, the president was far from the central figure. The very structure of the government emphasized the power of Congress to limit the power of the presidency. Yet as Harold Laski pointed out in The American Presidency, "the Congress is not a body capable of constructive leadership; the functions it performs most effectively are those of criticism and investigation rather than responsibility for the direction of affairs." In the minds of most Americans, the Great Depression was a crisis that called for powerful presidential leadership; and the acquiescence of Congress in Roosevelt's legislative program during the first one hundred days of his presidency supported Laski's viewpoint.
Initially the difficulties of Roosevelt's second term seemed like a renewal of the old pattern. Congress began to reassert its power and the president had more and more difficulty advancing his program. But the storm clouds over Europe and the ensuing debate over America's role in the world (Chapter 6) caused people to start to re-think the nature of government and the presidency. Gradually they perceived a need for continuing strength in the White House, not just strength in time of acute crisis. They also perceived a need for presidential strength in the face of congressional opposition. In Laski's words, they came to understand that "no democracy in the modern world can afford a scheme of government the basis of which is the inherent right of the legislature to paralyze the executive power." The need for consistent leadership from a strong president was, as much as anything else, at the heart of Roosevelt's election victory. The American people knew what they had in F.D.R. What they did not know was what continuity of strong leadership for another four years might mean to the American political system. In many ways the political life of 1941 was an attempt to figure out the answer to that question.
The sense of threat from without was perhaps inevitably matched by concern with threats from within. Martin Dies was a young congressman representing Texas's Second Congressional District. He was an ambitious man whom the New Republic described as "in a great hurry to make a national reputation." With the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the admiration some Americans were expressing for Hitler and Mussolini, Dies thought he had found his cause. Beginning in 1932 he steadily introduced bills, which just as steadily died, to establish a House committee to look into un-American activities being carried on in this country by outside agitators. In 1938, with tensions increasing in Europe, his persistence paid off; and the Special House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities was established for a period of two years. Dies was made chairman, and he asked for a budget of $100,000 to carry out his investigation. The House allowed him a quarter of that. He began hearings in August to ferret out subversives and expose their activities. Although he repeatedly said he would not allow the committee "to become a three ring circus," he soon established a pattern of receiving all manner of unsubstantiated allegations, no matter how ridiculous they might seem. People would be named and their reputations tarnished, but they seldom had a chance to respond.
Although Dies began by looking into the activities of Fritz Kuhn's German American Bund, he soon found he could get more public attention by concentrating on Communists. At this point others began using Dies for their own purposes. The American Federation of Labor, which claimed to represent the whole American labor movement, was engaged in a bitter dispute with John L. Lewis and his breakaway Congress of Industrial Organizations (Chapter 10). A number of open or covert members of the Communist Party were involved with the C.I.O., although they never came close to controlling the organization. But their mere presence offered an opportunity for representatives of the A.F. of L. to go before the Dies Committee and use it as a forum for attacking the C.I.O. Dies's methods were sloppy in the extreme, and he overreached badly when his chief investigator, J. B. Matthews, released a list of Hollywood stars who allegedly supported Communist organizations. The inclusion of twelve-year-old Shirley Temple on the list caused no little hilarity and led Dies to be more circumspect thereafter.
By 1941 the public was beginning to lose interest in the Dies Committee, and Dies himself was diverted by a new opportunity to advance his political career. In April Texas senator Morris Sheppard died, and a special election was scheduled to fill his seat. Dies was one of sixteen candidates on the ballot, and he campaigned vigorously. But Governor Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was extremely popular in the rural areas of East Texas that were Dies's home base. The more progressive urban votes were captured by Congressman Lyndon Johnson, who ran on a platform of support for the New Deal. O'Daniel won the election, and Dies finished a distant fourth.
As the nation entered 1941, national politics centered on one overarching issue, defense preparedness and intervention in the European war (Chapter 6). In its January 13 issue, Newsweek noted that the new Congress would have to deal with few important issues unrelated to defense. Martin Dies would ask for his committee extension and a $1,000,000 budget, the administration would ask for an increase in Social Security benefits, and a new antilynching bill was expected to be introduced. But overshadowing all these would be the debate on the Lend-Lease bill early in the year, followed by appropriations for a tremendous growth in defense expenditures. The latter would in turn lead to the largest increase in personal income taxes that Americans had seen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1941 The America that Went to War"
Copyright © 2016 William M. Christie.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 January: Politics 1
Chapter 2 February: Popular Entertainment 31
Chapter 3 March: Art, Education, and Literature 56
Chapter 4 April: Social Change 76
Chapter 5 May: The War Over There 91
Chapter 6 June: The Great Debate 116
Chapter 7 July: Sports 150
Chapter 8 August: Leisure Time and Travel 177
Chapter 9 September: Preparedness 207
Chapter 10 October: Labor and Business 235
Chapter 11 November: Home Life 260
Chapter 12 December: The End of Peace 289