By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
The launching of war campaigns had massive effects inside the United States. The war energized the whole American economy, ended unemployment, and stimulated prodigious feats of technology and productivity.
Introducing Female Workforce
A large number of women went into the industrial workforce, and undertook jobs that previously had been confined to men. The government as well mounted a campaign to encourage women to do this.
Studs Terkel, when he was writing The Good War, interviewed Peggy Terry from Paducah, Kentucky:
The first work I had after the Depression was at a shell loading plant in Viola, Kentucky. These were large shells, anti-aircraft, incendiaries, and tracers. It didn’t occur to us that we were making these shells to kill people. It never entered my head. There were no women foremen where we worked. We were just a bunch of hillbilly women, laughing and talking. It was like a social. Now we’d have money to buy shoes and a dress and pay rent and get some food on the table. We were just happy to have the work.
She’s described the privations of the Great Depression, and the way in which suddenly all these employment opportunities opened up.
Here’s another woman, Dellie Hahn of Los Angeles:
There was one good thing came out of it. I had friends whose mothers went to work in factories. For the first time in their lives, they worked outside the home. They realized that they were capable of doing something more than cooking a meal. I remember going to a Sunday dinner one of the older women invited me to. She and her sister at the dinner table were talking about the best way to keep their drill bits sharp. I never heard anything like it in my life. It was just marvelous. I was tickled.
Certainly, here are women doing lots of unfamiliar jobs for the first time. The government, and most employers who were taking on these women, regarded them strictly as temporary employees, in other words, as part of the wartime emergency.
Adverse Effect on Kids
Because many of these women were married, “daycare facilities”, were nearly always gravely inadequate. A pamphlet from the Children’s Bureau of the United States government said this, in 1942:
“Now, as in peacetime, a mother’s primary duty is to her home and her children. Too much daycare would cause slower mental development, social ineptness, weakened initiative, and damage to the child’s capacity to form satisfactory relationships.”
In other words, there was a concern that there was going to be a high psychological cost on children if their mothers were away from them in the factories. A famous sociologist of the era wrote this:
American mothers forget what it may mean to take little children from their beds in the early morning and hurry them off. They forget that there are many children who have a dangerous feeling of insecurity when they are away from their mothers from dawn until dark. In this tug of war between children and jobs, the children are losing.
Fate of Relationships
Marriage rates rose very sharply, and so did the birth rate. This is really the very beginning of the baby boom, which we can trace to the later months of 1943. Very often, when a soldier was going off to fight, he married his sweetheart before he went.
Lots of these marriages ended in divorce, because they were undertaken far too quickly, and after the fact, it turned out to be very unsuitable. Of course, many of these marriages also ended in bereavement when the man was killed in the conflict.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Industrial Development and Henry Kaiser
One of the great industrial heroes of the war was Henry Kaiser. He was the man who developed and built the Liberty Ships. He was among the men who’d contributed to building the Hoover Dam, originally called the Boulder Dam in the 1930s. Businessmen were very unpopular in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1940s, when their role in the national survival was valued, that he suddenly became a prominent figure in national life.
Kaiser created one standardized design, just like the Ford Model T had been a standardized design, and then made lots of them. He cut production time on a ship from 355 days in 1941, in other words a year, to 14 days in 1943.
Production of aircraft, landing craft, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and all other munitions, grew astronomically during the war years, making the success of the invasions possible. By the end of the war, the American, British, and Soviet armies were all using huge quantities of American gear.
Access to Healthcare
The war also bore witness to a significant redistribution of income, and the fact that so many more people were earning high wages made it that much less likely that depression conditions would recur once the war ended. For the first time, too, large numbers of Americans got access to basic healthcare.
Henry Kaiser was important here as well. He created the idea of workers’ health insurance schemes. Kaiser Permanente is one of the healthcare schemes that has persisted, specializing in low-cost preventive healthcare, checkups, and so on.
He argued that it was good for morale, and it was good for productivity because it kept people at work. The American Medical Association opposed Kaiser in introducing this plan but was defeated, and Kaiser’s model became the model for HMOs once the war had ended.
Increased Life Expectancy
Even though about something approaching half a million Americans died in the Second World War, American life expectancy increased. Life expectancy increased, because suddenly people who previously had had no healthcare were now getting access to it.
The life expectancy of white people increased three years during the war, and the life expectancy of black people increased five years. Despite the war deaths, the infant mortality rate in America fell from 48 per 1,000 to 31 per 1,000, the lowest it has ever been.
Common Questions about How WWII Changed the American Society
The government regarded women as part of wartime emergency because of their concern that there was going to be a high psychological cost on children if their mothers were away from them in the factories.
Production of aircraft, landing craft, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and all other munitions, grew astronomically during the war years, making the success of the invasions possible.
Henry Kaiser created the idea of workers’ health insurance schemes. He argued that it was good for morale, and it was good for productivity because it kept people at work.