The Legacy of World War II

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The World War II Memorial, DC

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Not long ago during a conversation between this author and a friend about some historical event, the friend said, “How come we name every period of history as ‘before this war’ or ‘after that war’?  We judge our whole history by the wars we have fought.”

He was right—we do that. When we try to place an event in time we often say, “That was right after World War I,” or “In the post-World War Two Era” or “during the Vietnam War.”  That is because wars change so much.  Following any great war—the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, our Civil War, World Wars One and Two, Vietnam—the world is a very different place from what it was before, at least for the people who were involved in it, and often for much of the rest of the world.

Consider the United States in 1939 when World War II broke out.  The country was still struggling with the Depression, and the New Deal—now something of an Old Deal—was struggling to stay alive.  Millions of Americans were still trying to get back on their feet, and the country, while no longer in the depths of the psychological depression that had accompanied the economic disaster of the early 1930s, was hardly in an upbeat mood.  Most Americans were not greatly affected by government except occasionally. American industrial production was still sluggish, and the agricultural economy uncertain.  Millions of Americans were still poorly educated and not very well off.

By 1945 over 400,000 Americans had died in combat out of the 13 to 14 million who had served during the war years, and thousands more had been wounded. Eight hundred thousand women had been in uniform, doing jobs which would have been unheard of for women in the 1800s, such as flying bomber aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean.  Millions of women at home went to work building trucks, ships and airplanes and other weapons, showing that they could wield a wrench or welding torch as well as most men.  Women helped American industry produce almost one third of all the materiél used by the Allies during the war. (Nikita Khrushchev later said that the Soviet army marched to Berlin on American boots.  Much of its equipment also traveled in American trucks and American trains riding on American steel rails.)

As typified by the mythical figure of Rosie the Riveter, the roles of American women had changed dramatically during the world war. Approximately 800,000 women served in the Armed Forces in a variety of capacities. For the 13 million men who served, the military experience was also eye opening: farm boys, city dwellers, college students, businessmen, teachers, musicians, artists, laborers and skilled technicians serving together—not to mention an unparalleled mixing of racial and ethnic groups, and men from different geographic areas—brought new perspectives to the men who served in the armed forces during the World War II era.

The difficulty was that when those men returned, they had changed, often drastically, and so had the women they had left behind. The younger soldiers and sailors had gone off as boys of 18 and returned as old men of 21. The girls had gone to work in factories, businesses, USOs and Red Cross or other patriotic agencies and were now independent-minded women, not necessarily ready to resume the status quo. The end of the war was indeed a time for celebration, and the returning GIs were treated as heroes. But getting back to a “normal” life was difficult. Many men and women who had married during whirlwind courtships of weeks or even days before the men left discovered that their spouses were strangers; the person they remembered had changed. The result of all these changes was that marriage, birth and divorce rates all rose dramatically in the postwar years.

From living on the edge of poverty much of the American working class had become  reasonably prosperous. Thousands of soldiers had many dollars in back pay stored up, and the women who had remained at home working at productive jobs had had little on which to spend their money.  American automobile and appliance manufacturers had produced practically no cars nor washing machines nor other appliances between 1942 and 1945, as virtually every facet of American industry was turned to war production. Buick and Cadillac made tanks; the Ford Motor Company made trucks and aircraft; the Singer Sewing Machine Company made machine guns; and so it went.

Realizing that the millions of soldiers who served during the war were going to need assistance to reclaim their civilian lives, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, or the “GI Bill.” The act provided direct aid for college tuition, books and living expenses, as well as other training for veterans, low-cost housing loans, hospitalization, pensions, and government-guaranteed loans for the purchase of farms and businesses.

The government had planned a gradual reduction in the size of the American Armed Forces, but with the surrender of Japan and the total collapse of the Axis powers, servicemen demanded to be let out right away, and they were discharged by the tens of thousands in short order.  Hungry for female companionship, they wasted no time marrying their sweethearts, starting families—kicking off the “baby boom”—, buying homes, going to college, and doing all sorts of things they had missed during the war. Mature well beyond their years because of what they had seen, the ex-G.I.s were serious and hard-working.  That “greatest generation,” about which much has been written, not only won the war, they helped to drive the American economy in the late 1940s and 50s to new heights. Sales of automobiles, homes, televisions and other appliances—which had been in short supply during the war—soared as the country quickly got back down to business.

America was the world's only atomic power.  The end of the British Empire was in sight as India was close to independence and other parts of the Empire were growing increasingly distant.  France spent at least a decade recovering from the divisions resulting from the occupation of France by the Nazi regime and the collaboration of the official French government with the Germans.  Much of Europe was physically devastated, and rebuilding infrastructure, industry and decent living spaces consumed much of their energy. Shortages of food and other consumables persisted throughout the 1940s.

The Soviet Union which had suffered 20 million casualties during the war licked its wounds and built a defensive perimeter around what became known as its satellite nations—Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Poland.  In the Far east, Japan was virtually governed by General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the creation of a genuine democracy in Japan. China, meanwhile, was moving toward the culmination of the Communist revolution under Mao Tse-tung.

Only the United States seemed to be in a position to challenge what was seen as the rapidly growing threat of international Communism.  There was a free world, and America was its leader by acclamation.  Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was probably the most powerful nation relative to the rest of the world of any nation in history.  That's what World War II did for America.

Postwar Domestic Home | Updated May 5, 2017