A retired Red Cross worker reminisced about World War II. "The war was fun for America," he remembered. "I'm not talking about the poor souls who lost sons and daughters. But for the rest of us, the war was a hell of a good time."1
That sentiment has led to the phrase, "the good war," in reference to World War II. One historian even called it "the perfect war."2 "World War Two was just an innocent time in America," recalled Nancy Arnot Harjan who was thirteen years old at the time of Pearl Harbor. "I was innocent. My parents were innocent. The country was innocent."3
That perception of World War II as the "good" or "perfect" war, however incongruous the pairing of those adjectives with the noun, arose from several apparently well-founded bases. The war was a just war, a war launched not with imperial designs, but in self-defense against fascism's aggression and for the cause of liberty and democracy. There were clear-cut villains and equally self-evident heroes.
The war brought prosperity to the nation, lifting most from the doldrums of the Great Depression to full employment and weekly earnings that rose by as much as seventy percent. Manufacturing output doubled, and membership in trade unions increased by nearly fifty percent. The war enabled women to enjoy unprecedented economic opportunities and, in turn, greater freedoms from the bonds of marriage and domesticity. Similarly, the war allowed African Americans greater employment mobility, and their contributions to the war effort gave them a powerful argument against the remnants of Jim Crow and for expanded civil rights.
A Step Backward for Women’s and Minority Rights?
Women Airforce Service Pilots learn to fly, Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, 1943.
The Woman’s Collection, Texas Women’s University (MSS 250.8.5)
Historians, however, have begun a reassessment of the war and its impact upon U.S. society. The "good war" wasn't wholly "good," much less "perfect," for women and those denied power and privilege in the U.S.
In fact, the war, wrote historian Richard Polenberg, "acted as a conservative force in the area of gender relations. Even though millions of women entered the work force, many in jobs that had traditionally been reserved for men, and even though the public came to accept the idea of women, especially wives and mothers, working outside the home, the consensus among historians is that the war thwarted any potential for a significant alteration in gender roles."4
And the historian Leila J. Rupp noted that although an unprecedented number of women entered "non-traditional" areas of employment such as heavy industries and the armed forces, "the temporary lowering of barriers made no permanent impact on women's opportunities or status in society." When the war ended and men turned from the military to wage labor, women were displaced from their jobs and relegated to unpaid labor within the home.5
A similar argument has been made for the government's push for minority labor in military and civilian work. Rather than providing equal opportunity or even the beginnings of social equality, the recruitment of formerly excluded groups into war work was prompted by the need for their labor especially in secondary and subservient sectors of the expanding economy.
"During and after the Second World War," recounts social scientist Dale Johnson, "blacks and browns from the rural backwaters of the South and Mexico came by the millions to northern and western industrial cities.
But the era of increasing absorption of unskilled and semiskilled labor into the industrial system, and thereby into the mainstream of class society, was rapidly drawing to a close. Blacks and browns were relegated to employment in the most technologically backward of labor-intensive sectors (menial services, construction labor, corporate agriculture) and to unemployment, the squalor of ghetto life, and welfare handouts."6 And after the war, underscoring the temporary nature of their employment, African Americans suffered disproportionately high unemployment rates.
Quoted in Studs Terkel, "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 10.
Geoffrey Perret, Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973), 441.
Terkel, "The Good War", 561.
Richard Polenberg, "The Good War? A Reappraisal of How World War II Affected American Society," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100:3 (July 1992): 314.
Leila J. Rupp, "Woman's Place Is in the War: Propaganda and Public Opinion in the United States and Germany, 1939-1945," in Women of America: A History, eds. Carol Ruth Berkin and Mary Beth Norton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 342-59. See also, Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981); Susan Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1982); and Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).
Dale Johnson, "On Oppressed Classes," in Dependence and Underdevelopment, ed. Frank Cockcroft and Dale Johnson (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 286.