The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942

The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942

by William K. Klingaman


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The Darkest Year is acclaimed author William K. Klingaman’s narrative history of the American home front from December 7, 1941 through the end of 1942, a psychological study of the nation under the pressure of total war.

For Americans on the home front, the twelve months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comprised the darkest year of World War Two. Despite government attempts to disguise the magnitude of American losses, it was clear that the nation had suffered a nearly unbroken string of military setbacks in the Pacific; by the autumn of 1942, government officials were openly acknowledging the possibility that the United States might lose the war.

Appeals for unity and declarations of support for the war effort in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor made it appear as though the class hostilities and partisan animosities that had beset the United States for decades — and grown sharper during the Depression — suddenly disappeared. They did not, and a deeply divided American society splintered further during 1942 as numerous interest groups sought to turn the wartime emergency to their own advantage.

Blunders and repeated displays of incompetence by the Roosevelt administration added to the sense of anxiety and uncertainty that hung over the nation.

The Darkest Year focuses on Americans’ state of mind not only through what they said, but in the day-to-day details of their behavior. Klingaman blends these psychological effects with the changes the war wrought in American society and culture, including shifts in family roles, race relations, economic pursuits, popular entertainment, education, and the arts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250133175
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 95,026
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

WILLIAM K. KLINGAMAN holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Virginia and has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland. He is the author of several books, including The Year Without Summer, The First Century, and histories of the years 1816, 1918, 1929, and 1941.

Read an Excerpt


Before Pearl


There has probably never been a time of such confused prophecy, no time when the nation has been led so frantically in so many directions at once.


When the war in Europe began in September 1939, it seemed unlikely that the conflict would provoke dramatic changes in American society. Americans were united in their desire to avoid involvement in the fighting; public opinion polls revealed that more than 80 percent of the nation's voters opposed entry into the war — a number that would remain remarkably stable over the following two years.

In fact, many Americans had spent the past two decades resolutely ignoring the rest of the world. "Throughout most of my childhood there had always been war," recalled Russell Baker, then a teenager growing up in Baltimore. "Dimly, I had been aware through all those years that worlds were burning, but they seemed far away. It wasn't my world that was on fire, nor was it ever likely to be, or so I thought. Sheltered by two great oceans, America seemed impregnable. I was like a person on a summer night seeing heat lightning far out on the horizon and murmuring, 'Must be a bad storm way over there someplace.' It was not my storm."

Americans' views of the European conflict also were colored by memories of the nation's participation in the First World War. Anyone over thirty years old could remember when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, an experience that most Americans came to regard as a mistake. Widely publicized congressional hearings in the mid-1930s strengthened the popular perception that the Wilson administration had entered the war at the behest of bankers and arms merchants eager to protect their loans and profits; accordingly, between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed a series of measures known collectively as the Neutrality Acts, which prohibited American citizens from selling "arms, ammunition, or implements of war" to belligerent nations, or making loans to their governments, or traveling on ships of nations at war.

In the autumn of 1939, the embargo on American arms sales clearly favored Nazi Germany, which possessed an impressive advantage in military hardware over France and Britain. Most Americans, however, favored the Allied cause, partly because they believed that a victorious Hitler would sooner or later launch a war against the United States, but also because they had no illusions about the brutal nature of the Nazi regime. "There are few save propagandists and crackpots," observed the Baltimore Sun, "who regard the ethics of Herr Hitler and his entourage with anything but a contempt which frequently becomes loathing."

To redress the balance, Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the ban on arms sales. The president had promised the American people that there would be "no blackout of peace" in the United States, and strengthening Britain and France seemed to provide the best chance of keeping the United States out of the war. In mid-September 1939, more than 60 percent of Americans supported arms sales to the Allies — on a cash-and-carry basis, to avoid endangering American lives, ships, and investments — largely because they hoped the increased production of war material would give a boost to the American economy, still plagued by high unemployment and sluggish economic growth despite six years of New Deal initiatives.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt's proposal to repeal the arms ban ran into the determined opposition of a vocal minority of congressmen (primarily from the Midwest), who warned that selling weapons to the Allies would drag the nation into the war by provoking retaliation by Germany. "I frankly question," said Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, "whether we can become an arsenal for one belligerent without being the target for the other." They were backed by a well-organized lobbying campaign that flooded legislative offices with letters, petitions, and telegrams, including a single-day record of 487,000 pieces of mail (mostly from women and clergymen) on September 19. Protests on Capitol Hill grew so impassioned that the Department of Justice dispatched a half dozen FBI agents to protect pro-repeal congressmen against demonstrators.

While Congress debated cash-and-carry, news of the war brought the world suddenly very close at hand to Americans. Newspapers carried page after page of the latest dispatches from Europe. Radio, which had been in its infancy in 1917, became a constant companion — "the box we live in," wrote one observer — and reports of the Wehrmacht's crushing victories in Poland gave rise to a new and disturbing form of entertainment known as a radio sandwich: "two bars of music with an ominous voice in between." Even programs of Muzak in elevators interrupted the usual soothing selections from Victor Herbert with bulletins on the war.

As Americans grew increasingly aware that events abroad could become the determining factor in their immediate destinies, a brief moment of panic ensued. Housewives began to hoard food, especially sugar. Towns up and down the East Coast reported sightings of submarines, and one group of fishermen two hundred miles off the coast of Massachusetts swore that "a big, gray plane with swastikas on its wings had circled their fleet twice before putting back for Europe." In department stores, mothers snatched toy pistols and soldiers out of their children's hands, and substituted footballs or a Wizard of Oz doll instead.

"We try to reconcile the cheerful and familiar details of our life with news that may well mean the end of all of them, but it is too soon," noted the New Yorker. "The ten million men who will die are still an arbitrary figure, an estimate from another war; the children who will be starved or bombed belong to people we can never know, the bombs themselves will fall only on strange names on a map." In fact, a Rand McNally spokesman reported that in the first twenty-four hours of the war, the company sold more maps in the United States than it had since 1918; Macy's book department in downtown Manhattan sold more maps than in any week in the store's history.

On Wall Street, investment firms encouraged their customers to buy shares of steel companies. "The machines of war are being continually destroyed," one financier observed, "and replacements use up tremendous additional quantities of steel." Others predicted similar opportunities amid the wartime dislocations of trade. "Unquestionably, war is going to require a lot of imports into England and France," noted one New York businessman, "and that's going to mean business here and all over the United States. Factories are going to boom and smoke's going to come out of stacks. That is, if we're allowed to ship."

And they were. In early October, three weeks of congressional debate ended with both houses approving repeal of the arms embargo by margins of nearly two to one. By that time, any sense of urgency had vanished as the fighting in Europe slowed to a standstill. For the next six months, military operations paused while the German high command completed its preparations for the invasion of western Europe. Americans relaxed. "The fatalistic feeling that if a great war came we would inevitably be drawn into it has subsided," reported columnist Ernest Lindley.

Then the Wehrmacht's blitzkrieg tore through Europe. Norway and Denmark fell in April. In May, German troops slashed through the Netherlands and Belgium. ("The terrible geography lesson goes on," murmured one American journal.) Day after day in that nightmare month, radio networks in the United States delivered "the brisk, cultivated voices of studio announcers giving us a few hints of the end of the world between dance tunes," until weary listeners came to believe that "the only good radio is a dead radio."

"It was like a newsreel of history which should have marched at a sober pace so that men everywhere would know what was happening," recalled journalist Marquis Childs, "and instead it whirred crazily through the cosmic projector. ... It was like standing in a familiar house that has had one side blasted away. Everything is normal, or almost normal. Life goes on. ... But nothing is the same nor ever can be again. The light falls in the familiar rooms in a new harsh way so that what has been safe and comfortable now looks naked and unprotected." The almost contemptuous ease with which German forces rolled over, around, and through the British and French armies surprised everyone — in both Europe and the United States — and forced Americans to confront the possibility that they might have to face the Nazi war machine alone if the Allies collapsed. "Only a miracle," wrote columnist Walter Lippmann, "can nowprevent the European war from becoming a world war. ... Our security is gravely jeopardized."

Suddenly the condition of American defenses became the most vital topic in the nation. "Congress and the country," reported Time magazine, "had no eyes nor ears for anything but Defense." Bipartisan majorities in both houses hastily passed or even increased every emergency defense spending bill Roosevelt lay before them. In the space of a few weeks, Congress approved over $3 billion in additional military appropriations, far surpassing defense expenditures in any fiscal year in the nation's history. At one point, the House gave the Roosevelt administration a virtual blank check, voting 391–1 in favor of "an unlimited expansion of Army warplane strength and unlimited funds for speeding production of munitions and supplies."

Public opinion overwhelmingly supported the accelerated defense program. A survey by Fortune magazine revealed that 93.6 percent of Americans favored spending "whatever is necessary to build up as quickly as possible our Army, Navy, and Air Force." But the consensus broke down over whether the United States should continue to sell arms to Britain and France — in hopes of keeping the anti-German coalition afloat and the war three thousand miles away — or hoard all its weapons at home to construct a (hopefully) invulnerable Fortress America. The debate was no less bitter for the fact that most of the armaments in question were entirely imaginary, since the actual output of American defense plants was still "largely in the blueprint stage."

Leading Republicans almost unanimously opposed shipping any more arms abroad. New York City district attorney Thomas E. Dewey, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, demanded that the United States concentrate on building up its military forces "to levels which will make this country impregnable to attack." Former president Herbert Hoover, who was making his own belated bid for the Republican nomination, agreed that "what America must have is such defenses that no European nation will even think about crossing this 3,000 miles of ocean at all. ... We want a sign of 'keep off the grass' with a fierce dog plainly in sight." For his part, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh — the second most famous man in America, behind only Roosevelt — told a nationwide radio audience that "we need not fear a foreign invasion unless American peoples bring it on through their own quarreling and meddling with affairs abroad. ... No one wishes to attack us, and no one is in a position to do so." (Listening to Lindbergh's speech, Roosevelt decided it might as easily have come from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. "I am absolutely convinced," the president told Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, "that Lindbergh is a Nazi.")

Roosevelt had no intention of abandoning the Allies, although the surrender of the French armies on June 17 left him to rely entirely upon what one veteran diplomat called "the slow-grinding will power of the British people." To marshal public support for the president's policy, publisher Henry Luce used his magazines to illustrate in a graphic way the horrors of Hitler's bloody march across Europe, and veteran Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White — a lifelong Republican — helped organize the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Among the ten thousand Americans who joined the committee in the first few months were columnist Joseph Alsop, former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, diplomat Dean Acheson, novelist Rex Stout, Wall Street attorney Allen Dulles, and playwright Robert Sherwood, who predicted that unless the rest of the world united against the fascist aggressors, "we are all headed back to the Dark Ages in a hand basket."

By late June, the ongoing debate and the continual stream of bad news from Europe was taking its toll on the well-being of the American public. Contemporary observers reported a mood of "bleak despair," of "gloom and terror" among "a nation not sure of its way." The fall of France struck a particularly heavy blow. "We looked at the faces in the street today," wrote a reporter in the New Yorker, "and war is at last real." At a time when most Americans went to the movies at least twice a week, the latest newsreels in theaters displayed in graphic detail "all the horrors of this 'total war,'" including Nazi bombings of civilian targets such as maternity hospitals. ("SEE the 'Panzer' Armored Divisions striking swiftly," boasted one advertisement. "SEE the helpless refugees fleeing for their lives.")

Patients whose nerves had been "blitzkrieged by the war" crowded doctors' offices. Psychiatrists in New York City treated a significant number of new patients who complained of "a general state of 'jittery' nerves," as if awaiting some type of apocalyptic reckoning. At the annual convention of the American Medical Association in June, physicians from all parts of the country reported a surge in cases of "headaches of unexplained origin, digestive disturbances, insomnia, loss of appetite, respiratory ills and aggravation of chronic ailments." The most likely cause, the doctors agreed, was a "repeated shock to the nervous system from a succession of bad news over the radio and in the newspapers."

A majority of Americans expected Britain to collapse or surrender; many braced for a German attack on the United States. Pennsylvania officials established a special legislative committee to bolster protection of the state's factories, mines, and naval yards against enemy air raids. In Chicago, members of the American Police Revolver League joined with several hundred skeet shooters to form the Sportsmen's Defense Reserve, a model for a prospective nationwide "civilian army of modern minute men." Middle-aged patriots on the Pacific coast launched a special defense unit composed entirely of men over the age of forty-five, whose official slogan was "Death Before Surrender." Not to be outdone, the Manhattan chapter of the National Legion of Mothers of America founded the Molly Pitcher Rifle Legion (target practice held once a week) and called for the establishment of women's rifle corps in every state to pick off German paratroopers. "Enemy parachutists in America," declared a National Legion official, "will rue the day they first drew breath."

Reports that "fifth columnists"— Nazi supporters or sympathizers amid the populations of the defeated western European nations — had helped prepare the way for the German blitzkrieg convinced many Americans that they needed to keep a closer watch on the nearly 4 million aliens living in the United States. To help uncover potential saboteurs, Congress voted to require all resident aliens to be registered and fingerprinted. When Attorney General Robert Jackson asked the public to report "acts, threats, or evidences of sabotage [or] espionage" to the FBI's newly created "national defense investigation" unit, the Bureau's switchboards were flooded with several thousand tips a day. Throngs of enthusiastic patriots volunteered to spy on their neighbors on a regular basis. Local governments assigned special guards to protect bridges, tunnels, and highways near defense plants, and dropped aliens from their unemployment relief rolls. The Federal Communications Commission forbade amateur radio operators in the United States from maintaining communication with any foreign stations. George Britt's recently published book, The Fifth ColumnIs Here — which claimed there were more than a million fifth columnists in the United States, including native-born fascists and members of the German American Bund — soared to the top of the bestseller list, and the meeting places of several German fraternal organizations were bombed (Chicago) or burned down (St. Louis). "America isn't going to be any too comfortable a place to live in during the immediate future," wrote Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in his diary. "Some of our super-patriots are simply going crazy."


Excerpted from "The Darkest Year"
by .
Copyright © 2019 William K. Klingaman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
1. Before Pearl,
2. Lights Out,
3. An Anxious Trip,
4. Holiday Wishes,
5. Cloudy, Turning Colder,
6. An Unquiet Feeling,
7. The Golden West,
8. Dark Tidings, Straight, No Sugar,
9. Games of Chance,
10. Borrowed Time,
11. Last Call,
12. End of the Beginning,
Epilogue: December 7, 1942,
Also by William K. Klingaman,
About the Author,

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The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
brf1948 8 months ago
When I think of America's involvement in World War II, my mind goes automatically to our initial involvement in Europe though my mind knows that our stake in the outcome of the battle's in the orient were engaged, first. And as a baby boomer, I had not realized the class and racial problems were as bad as it must have been before the War. I tend to picture them as they were in the 50's and 60's - still bad but not quite so awful as Klingaman pictures them for us as we geared up for battles across the seas. I trust William K. Klingaman explicitly, however as a man with a firm eye on the ways of the world, so am grateful for this look into America's darkest year. I hope we can all learn something from it. I received a free electronic copy of this history of hometown, U.S.A. from December 6, 1941 through the following year from Netgalley, William K. Klingaman, and St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.