I’ve finished Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929 – 1945
The last half of the book concentrates on World War II
- Chapter 13: The Gathering Storm
- Chapter 14: The Agony of Neutrality
- Chapter 15: To the Brink
- Chapter 16: War in the Pacific
- Chapter 17: Unread Ally, Uneasy Alliance
- Chapter 18: The War of Machines
- Chapter 19: The Struggle for a Western Front
- Chapter 20: The Battle for Northwest Europe
- Chapter 21: The Cauldron of the Home Front
- Chapter 22: Endgame
America had the luxury of being isolationist even though it wasn’t in our best long term interest. Roosevelt’s big struggle in the later half of the 1930’s was to use the United States as a counter-balance to the aggressive designs of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan. One of the biggest problems was what FDR called “large misinformed public opinion” (p 393). Even after Pearl Harbor had been attacked there was an open question as to whether we would declare war on Germany; Hitler took us off the hook and declared war on us.
One of my “rose-colored” views of WWII was how everyone jumped in together and worked like one big happy family after Pearl Harbor. Not so much. Politics is always a consideration. After Japan had occupied the South Pacific and the export of rubber to the United States stopped, we invented a substitute. The Farm Bloc was instrumental in legislating that a certain amount of the ingredients would come from grain alcohol rather than the more efficient petroleum based compounds. In general the war purchases went to the biggest companies; the big got bigger (p 622). Another area where politics took precedence over what was right was the Japanese-American release from relocation camps in 1944. Their release was delayed for months until after the 1944 election.
The war strategy was also contentious and divided. England was strongly in favor of the North African and Italian campaigns; we took part of these over the vociferous objections of the US military. George Martshall went so far as to suggest that if the British insisted on the North African campaign, “the Americans should rewrite the fundamentals of their own highest strategy, abandon the Germany-first principle, and ‘turn to the Pacific for decisive action against Japan'” (p578) Roosevelt overrode those objections because he felt is was urgent that America take part of the fight against Germany and this was the only way to take part in 1942. As it turns out the British were never in favor of the French invasion and slowed things as much as they could.
America’s industrial strategy was to build a lot of everything. The focus was on quantity, not quality. Germany’s approach was the opposite; build fewer things but each one would be almost perfect. “The Wehrmacht counted for tits margin of victory on ‘qualitative superiority’, on precision-made flawlessly performing, high-standard weapons…. [The result was] “lots of special ordering, and custom design that frustrated long production runs” (p648). One of the reasons for this was the virtue of necessity. The industrial force of the United States was “composed of ill-educated immigrants with scant industrial skills” (p 633). Since the dawn of the industrial age “America’s working class had placed a premium on organizing production around simple repetitive tasks that did not demand technical adeptness or extensive training” (p 623). This method allowed us to overwhelm the enemies with numbers of weapons. “In the Pacific the disparities were especially dramatic. Every American combatant in the last year and a half of war…could draw on four tons of supplies; his Japanese opponent , just two pounds” (p 668 emphasis added)
For years Russia clamored for England and American to launch a second front. By the time we were able to mount the D-day invasion in June 1944 Russia was making huge inroads on the eastern front and wasn’t as demanding. One of the factors encouraging our invasion was the fact that had we not, Russia would have had a much stronger hand in Europe than they ended up with anyway. We had to protect or own interests against the Soviets.
As for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was clear to me that there was no real discussion about it; it was just assumed that it would take place as soon as possible. Given the American experiences battling in the Pacific, I can totally understand it.
After this tumultuous 16 year period from 1929 to 1945 American had changed mightily. The federal government had grown enormously and our place in the world had grown enormously. Throughout the early 1940’s conservatives had successfully rolled back many parts of the New Deal. Many of the agencies had been shut down. But come the end of the day, “conservatives raised no hand against the child labor and minimum wage legislation, and banking and securities regulation. Those reforms were already firmly in place as untouchable pillars of the new social and economic order that Roosevelt had wrought out of the Depression crisis” (p783)
This is a fantastic book; it gave me a much better appreciation of the life of my parents’ generation. It also has inspired me to go back and read about American history before 1920’s. I’ve picked up a book on the Gilded Age: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of America, 1877 – 1920 by Jackson Lears and will follow up with David Halberstam’s book “The Fifites”
But before that, I’m doing my annual read of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This little book is just marvelous. I highly recommend reading this. Years ago, when the kids were young, we would read it aloud. Heck; if no one is around I often read passages aloud to myself. One thing that always strikes me when I read this is how true to the original the 1980’s TV movie of the story starring George C. Scott is.