The Great Depression
World War II
Understanding the Stock Market Crash necessarily entails understanding the stock market.
Stock refers to shares, offered by a company when it "goes public". Companies sell shares in order to raise capital for improvements and investments. People buy shares hoping to purchase at a low price and sell at a high price when the company improves or expands. Stockbrokers make money off of commissions for buying and selling.
Shares are traded on the stock market, or stock exchange, and follow the laws of supply and demand. If a company offers, say, 100 shares of stock at $1 apiece, and no one buys them, then the price goes down (because the supply is high and demand is low). If the company offers 100 shares at $1 each and everybody wants to buy them, the price goes up since the demand is high. Often, a high volume of trading on the stock market means that many people are trying to sell stock but few are buying, and those who are buying are purchasing at reduced prices. When everyone wants stock that isn't available, the volume of trading remains low.
Panic can ensue if the supply of stock in general is very high, and the demand is very low. A company's stock can start a spiralling decline of value, ending (if the trend continues) as worth nothing at all. This can cause a company to go under.
During the "boom" (or "bull") market of the 1920s, there were signs of weakness in the system that were ignored. Although most business and banking indicators were fine, if you'd looked at farming and housing construction you might have gotten nervous. Farm product prices were far too low, the result of overproduction following the war with depressed markets in Europe. Farmers wanted the government to buy food and create an artificial shortage to raise prices. But since farming had been a problem child throughout history (remember the Populists?), with only 20 successful years (1899-1919), no one paid attention to farming woes.
Housing construction peaked in 1925, then started showing severe slowing. Construction is a good economic indicator, because all sorts of industries (lumber, stone quarrying, metal for pipes, electricity and other utilities, paint, flooring, home decor, etc.) are involved. By 1925, housing contractors had saturated the middle class market; there were more middle-class homes than there were people to buy them. Despite the fact that the poor still needed low-income housing, few companies were interested in providing it. As a result, construction declined.
But the prosperity of business was too good to ignore. Stock yields regularly got higher returns than savings accounts or government bonds, the traditional purchases made by conservative investors. This had the effect of luring conservative investors into the stock market. Why buy a government bond when you could double your money, at least, over eight years? These high returns continued throughout the 1920s, so by 1929 almost everyone owned some stock.
The market rose so much during the 20's that brokers were willing to lend to anyone, even those with little or no collateral. Where did brokers get the money to lend? From banks, mostly. At the beginning of the 20's, 70% of their money came from bank loans, backed by collateral like their business or home. But by 1929, only 22% of their money came from bank loans. The rest was coming from businesses, who did not want to be left out of the opportunity.
Instead of channeling their capital back into their own company, businesses were making money off the market by making loans to brokers. Do you get the feeling that a house of cards was being built? It was. And to make things even more unstable, both customers and businesses engaged in speculation, placing bets on whether share prices would go up or down in a particular way.
Then, in February 1929, the Federal Reserve announced that it would not back any loans used for stock speculation. Up until then, the Reserve had provided a sort of insurance for bank loans. Although this restriction was limited only to loans for speculation, it made people think that the government did not have as much confidence in the stock market.
The volume of stocks traded began to rise. When market volume is low, it means that few shares are being sold because either everyone wants to keep their stock or the price is too high. When volume is high, it means many people are trying to sell stock, and it's being bought at discount prices. That's a bad sign. It means that share values are declining. In March, the most shares ever traded in one day (8.2 million) changed hands.
On October 29 (Black Tuesday), 16 million shares were dumped on the market. It was possible to wipe out your earnings from the previous year in just one day. Some stocks declined to 50% of their value in the one day. And the slide just kept going. Fortunes were lost.
There were many suicides in late 1929 and the early 1930s, most of them stockbrokers. As the market disintegrated, businesses and banks called in the loans they'd made to brokers. Brokers tried to call in the loans they'd made on margin, but their customers couldn't pay because they'd never made the money back from the market. If you were a broker, you would lose all your collateral (business, home, car, everything). If you were lucky enough to have a life insurance policy that did not have a suicide exemption, killing yourself could provide money so your wife and kids could survive even after your property was repossessed. Some shot themselves; some jumped from skyscrapers on Wall Street.
1. Unequal distribution of income: The top 5% of Americans had 33% of the income. The economy was dependent on their high levels of investment and spending. When the market crashed and they stopped investing and buying fancy cars and furs, it had a disproportionate impact on the country.
2. Weak corporate structure: Corporations had their capital tied up in holding companies and brokers' loans, when they should have invested their surplus in their own companies.
3. Poor banking structure: When one bank failed, the others nearby would freeze their assets, closing their doors against their own customers until the panic subsided. This was necessary because there was absolutely no insurance on bank deposits. If you had money in a bank and the bank went out of business, you lost all your money, perhaps even your life savings. Ironically, those who had kept their money in the bank ended off just as badly off as those who had invested in the market, because many banks went out of business.
4. Bad international trade balance: After WWI, the U.S. had made many loans to European countries in order to keep them trading with us. These loans were backed by government gold deposits and private investors. American companies had also invested massively in cheap post-war European industries, especially in Germany. In order to create recovery for themselves, European countries had to export as much as possible to the U.S. But the U.S. had a high tariff, designed to protect American industry. This made the prices of European goods high and thus few were imported. As a result, European countries defaulted on their debts, and couldn't buy American goods (including food, which helped cause the agricultural depression of the 20's).
5. Poor state of economic intelligence: The view that prosperity was endless was encouraged by the government and by economists, which led people to greater levels of stock purchase. After the crash, economic advisors recommended balancing the federal budget, which meant no money to help improve the economy. This approach did not take into account the rampant unemployment of the Depression. Herbert Hoover, however, took this as his policy.
Naturally, Galbraith was a Keynesian, who believed that the government should help in Depression. So was President Roosevelt. I'll get to that.
Due to farming improvements, grassland areas in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas were turned into a new wheat heartland. This occurred during the agricultural boom of 1897-1919, a time of unusually high rainfall and booming agricultural trade with Europe. During the 20s, agriculture began to decline in the face of low prices (the result of overproduction because Europe wasn't buying). Then the unusually high precipitation stopped, and the region returned to its natural climate pattern: hot, dry summers and frozen winters.
So, with less being planted, and no water, the topsoil in this region of the country lay bare. When winds picked up, the Dust Bowl began. It is hard to describe a dust storm unless you've been in one, and I have. When I was a kid growing up in Bakersfield, we had a dust storm that lasted several days. We were sent home from school with hankerchiefs across our faces. People were told to stay indoors. You couldn't see anything but dirt when you looked outside. Dust got everywhere: it came in through the cracks of the windows and piled in little drifts on the sill, it got in books and dishes and the bathtub and the washing machine. It got in our teeth and at night we crunched it, lying between dirty sheets. We looked out the window and felt totally isolated (which was interesting, because with the Tule fogs in the winter we thought we were used to feeling isolated).
In Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, farmers literally saw their livelihood blow away. Even once the winds stopped, they knew there would be no more topsoil and thus no more farming. So they left, many of them coming to California. (You can explore more about the Dust Bowl at PBS's American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl.) Where I come from, the Okies aren't in a history book. They lived north of the river and south of the tracks. We called them "Okies" as a slam, and other names too, especially "redneck" and "hick". We weren't told of their origins, how they came to live there.
Document: Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother
Journalists like Carey McWilliams, however, recorded the conditions they faced upon their arrival during the Great Depression. As you read the document, think to yourself:
Document: Carey McWilliams: Okies in California (1939)
One of the best works written about the Okie experience was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939 and made into an award-winning film the following year. Although fiction, The Grapes of Wrath takes the actual experience of the people migrating to California in the wake of the Dust Bowl, and creates a universal story of courage.
Today, there are still major problems with soil erosion, for the same reasons as the Dust Bowl occurred. Even in irrigated areas, topsoil is eroding at the rate of about one inch per year because there is no natural vegetation and no cycle of decay and replenishment on farmland. We plant and fertilize using chemical fertilizers which are inefficiently used by crops while they poison the water table. The land itself has become pretty much barren of nutrients, which makes our food less nutritious. The plants themselves are weak because they have no access to essential nutrients, so they are attacked by insects and diseases, which are then treated using more chemicals. Only organic farming replenishes the nutrients by keeping the soil restocked with organic matter, assuring that the topsoil is maintained, with cover crops grown to prevent erosion. Although more and more farmers are realizing that changing over to organic methods makes sense (and ultimately saves money), it has been in the interest of chemical companies (such as Monsanto and Dow) to keep farmers dependent on their products.
During the deliberations in Congress, the President authorized police to distribute leftover food from restaurants and medical aid to the veterans. They were even allowed to occupy abandoned warehouses in the city. Then the Senate voted down the Bonus Bill, despite the House having passed it. Our country's representatives were so afraid of their reception by the veterans that they snuck out of the Capitol using underground tunnels. The police urged the veterans to leave the city, now that they had nothing to gain (Congress had adjourned for the year after the defeat of the Bonus Bill).
But the veterans stayed, and Douglas MacArthur ran them out. First, he used mounted troops to remove the veterans from the city itself. His orders were to let the veterans retreat to their camps at Anacostia. What had been cardboard boxes were now houses made of tin or wood, some with fences and little vegetable gardens. Defying civilian authority, MacArthur crossed the bridge into Anacostia and burned the camps.
There are a couple of points to be made here. First and foremost, the nation's leaders were not able to handle a group of citizens who were peacefully demanding assistance. They met these demands with military violence (several veterans were injured being driven from the city).
Secondly, this is just the beginning of what will be a lifetime of MacArthur defying authority. He'll do it repeatedly in World War II, and it made him a hero for taking on the Japanese. He'll do it again in the Korean War, and bring us close to war with China. President Truman will fire him.
Document: Yip Harburg: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (audio)
As you know, the role of socialism and communism in this country had become a big deal after the formation of the Comintern in 1919. Communist party agitators, who demanded as part of their platform the violent destruction of the U.S. government, were feared throughout the country. By 1932, however, more and more people had begun to accept the socialist idea that it was the government's responsibility to take care of the people.
Right-wing conservatives, and others fearful of the affects of socialism, denounced the New Deal as a socialist program. They said it would lead the U.S. down the path of the government dominating private life, of hard-workings tax-payers being forced to help lazy people who couldn't get a job. Certainly President Hoover preferred private charities, balancing the budget, and occasional loans to direct aid to Americans. But in the environment of the Depression, where even hard-working taxpayers found themselves jobless and sometimes homeless, the conservative arguments made less and less sense.
Although the Supreme Court would later examine whether its provisions were unconstitutional, at the time many Americans agreed that the government should do something to help people. Roosevelt's programs put people to work, usually for the government, and used deficit spending to "prime the pump" of the economy. Many of its provisions, particularly deposit insurance, were designed to prevent another Depression caused by panic. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (and now similar organizations for credit unions and savings and loan) insured bank deposits up to $100,000 (now $250,000). Other provisions, such as Social Security, were clearly socialist in nature because they were based on the idea of taxing wage-earners to help retirees.
Document: Advertisement: Mobilization for Human Needs (Nat'l Citizens Committee, 1933)
Left-wing solutions are often accepted when times are tough for many people. In this case, when the middle class was in trouble, they became national policy. The programs had been based on the philosophy of John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who believed that assistance to those in need created growth and spending that ultimately solved depressions.
So did it work? Well, yes and no. Certainly the New Deal changed the mood of the country and the morale of the people. FDR's fireside chats were reassuring, and men especially needed to have a job, any job. But in terms of GNP and overall economic recovery, that really didn't occur until it became evident that the U.S. would enter World War II. As in other countries, like Germany and Japan, military preparations would end the Depression.
Document: Ad: They secretly pitied her husband (Continental Can, 1934
During the Depression, pop culture thrived as people sought an escape from their blues.
During the Depression, dancing was a popular pastime for chasing the blues away. There were some strange elements involved with dancing, however. Contests for money were plentiful during the Depression, and some consisted of dance marathons, where couples would dance until they dropped (literally; some died). There was a heart-wrenching film made about these contests called "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) which has etched on my mind the image of these humiliating spectacles of desperation. Dance halls, which persisted for decades, featured female employees who were paid by male customers for dancing with them ( and some of these women also ran a side-line in prostitution).
But most dance music was just for dancing in nightclubs (especially once Prohibition was ended). Orchestrated music like this would evolve into the Big Band sound.
Lionel Hampton was a Chicago jazzman discovered by Louis Armstrong. He moved to California in 1928 and by 1930 was playing the vibraphone (a sort of electric xylophone) which he helped popularize for orchestral dance music. Here is "On the Sunny Side of the Street", a popular song of the thirties. Lyrics
Billie Holiday was one of the greatest jazz singers ever, beginning her career at the age of 15 in Harlem nightclubs. The selection here, "Any Old Time", was sung with Artie Shaw's band, which became popular shortly after Benny Goodman introduced the swing style in 1935. Beginning as a professional reed player, Shaw formed several orchestras which played both popular music of the day and Shaw's own tunes. Hiring Billie Holliday, a black singer, was a break with tradition. She later went solo as a torch-song singer. A really bad movie about her life called "Lady Sings the Blues" was made in the 70s. Lyrics
CBS's Mercury Theatre on the Air did not have any sponsors; it was a small-budget program of readings of literary classics. On Halloween night 1938, a young producer and actor named Orson Welles read the 1898 science-fiction novel War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. But Orson Welles did not just read the book; he read an adapted version (written by Howard Koch) to make it more exciting for radio, using "news bulletins" and a journalistic reporting style.
War of the Worlds is about Martians visiting the earth. The program set the story in Grover's Mill, New Jersey instead of in the original England. Although the program had been preceded with an announcement and introduction, and although newspaper ads had been run about the program, many listeners believed they were hearing about real, not fictitious, events. By the time the station break came at the half hour, reminding people that they were listening to fiction, many had already panicked.
Part of this was the fault of Orson Welles, who had deliberately orchestrated the program so it sounded "real" in order to increase suspense. But part of it was the fault of world events. In 1938, Hitler had just annexed Austria, and people were waiting to hear that war had broken out in Europe. Historian Edward Oxford notes that this conditioned people into an "edge of our seats" mentality, which made it easier to believe that the earth (and New Jersey) was being attacked.
After the program, Welles received an angry phone call from the mayor of Flint, Michigan, for causing chaos in his city. Reporters accused him of causing suicides. The newspapers carried the story the next day, and some people felt really stupid. CBS had to issue a public apology. The FCC considered whether to censor radio programs. Even H.G. Wells wired CBS, upset that his novel had been adapted in a way that made it no longer his novel. Grover's Mill still gets the occasional tourist, wanting to visit the place where everyone thought the Martians had landed.
The films of the 1930s were heavily influenced by the Hays Code. Imagine movies where crime is not glorified, where adultery cannot be "justified, or presented attractively", where there is no "excessive and lustful kissing", where vulgarity or obscenity of any kind is forbidden, and you have films of the 30's. Ministers could not be villians, and there were limitations ("careful limits of good taste") in portraying interrogation methods, cruelty to children or animals, a woman "selling her virtue", or surgeries. Certain things could not be shown in detail: the methods of killing, theft, safe-cracking, use of firearms, smuggling methods.
Much was not expressly forbidden, but understood in the code. Movie makers, accustomed to total freedom in the 20's, were upset by the restrictions. But they responded with some of the most creative films ever made. Some of the most popular of these were the "screwball" comedies, named after the baseball pitch which you expect to go one way, then it goes the other way.
In many of these films, sexual role reversal was used to create a comic element. During the 30's, when many men were unemployed, women took on an almost matriarchal role in society. Many households were run by women, who were supposed to be strong during this challenging time. In the movies, women were often as strong, or stronger, than the men. They're funny, witty, sexy and beautiful.
"It Happened One Night" won lots of Oscars in 1934. It's the story of a rich girl (Claudette Colbert) who's run away from her father for not letting her marry the man of her choice. Along the way, naive and without cash on hand, she's assisted by a newspaper reporter (Clark Gable), who realizes that her story could make him a lot of money. They fall in love (naturally). Two famous scenes can tell you a lot about movies at this time.
|In one scene, the two are walking on a road, trying to hitch a ride. Gable goes on and on about hitchhiking techniques, showing Colbert the best tricks. Despite their use, he's unable to get them a ride. She goes out to the road by herself, and hikes up her skirt to reveal most of a shapely leg, and stops a car. As they ride, he says something to the effect of, "why don't you take off all your clothes? you could have stopped forty cars." She says, coolly, "oh, I'll remember that the next time we need forty cars." See this clip by clicking on the left.|
The most famous scene takes place in a motel where they are forced to spend the night when their bus breaks down. Gable tries to lend Colbert his pajamas; she is obviously worried about them spending the night together. Gable ceremoniously drapes a blanket on a rope across the room, separating the two beds. When she doesn't go to her side or accept the pajamas, Gable begins to undress. (The Hays Code says this is OK only if essential to the plot!) He takes off his shirt, exposing his bare chest (which made audiences gasp -- most "gentlemen" wore undershirts). She grabs the pajamas and runs to her side of the blanket. You can see this one too.
In many screwball comedies, however, the woman has the upper hand. In the Thin Man series of mystery-comedies, the wife is the better investigator and her husband is a lovable drunk. In "Bringing Up Baby", a woman who owns a leopard as a pet gets a man tangled up in a farce that ruins his marriage plans and makes him fall in love with her. Throughout screwball comedies, verbal sparring takes the place of sex, creating an underlying sexual tension that is palpable. It has been said that taking all the explicit sex out of films led to a creativity that made dealing with sexual issues more fun. This is not to say that censorship is good, just that it can lead to great creativity in an effort to get around "the rules".
I once saw a poster ridiculing the Hays Code. It showed a glamorous, half-dressed woman in lacy underwear, smoking a cigarette and drinking whisky, with a smoking gun pointed at the head of a cop who was lying on the ground under her stiletto heel. The defeat of the law, drinking, sex, drugs, it was all there. A copy of the Hays Code was on the back wall.
Though not exactly popular culture, one of the worst air disasters of all time occurred on May 6th, 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when the dirigible Hindenburg exploded. The cause is still being determined. Dirigibles, or airships, had been a reliable form of transportation and, despite efforts to prove it was a freak accident, the Hindenburg disaster ended dirigible aviation as a form of regular transport.
A radio reporter, Herb Morrison of Chicago, was covering the landing of the Hindenburg when the disaster happened, and these
seven minutes (short excerpt instead) are disaster reporting at its finest.
Document: Langston Hughes: Beaumont to Detroit (1943)
Fascism was based on the idea, originated in the Roman Empire, of a bundle of stickes (fascisti). Individually, a stick could be broken, but together the bundle was invincible. In fascism a strong leader is necessary, and he makes all the decisions for the good of the country. Fascism is ultra-nationalist; the nation is far more important than individuals. In Mussolini's case, it also relied on support from the middle classes (whom he permitted to control business without much government interference), terror in dealing with political enemies (mostly communists), and solving economic strife with a military build-up designed to create an Italian empire.
By the time the Depression hit, Mussolini was able to simply gear up the military more strongly, and prepare to take over parts of Africa to start the Empire. Although business interests suffered from a lack of international trade, the fascist emphasis on self-sufficient nationalism and military buildup meant there was little change in Italy.
It meant that you could spend your entire life savings on a loaf of bread. People carried shopping carts full of cash through the streets to buy the week's groceries. No one was kicked out of their homes or unable to travel, because housing and transportation costs were controlled by the government; rents and fares had been set. People could live in beautiful homes, take the trolley to work, get paid millions of marks per day (wages also inflated, but not as fast) and be unable to eat.
In this environment, only goods and foreign money had any value. Tourists flooded into Berlin after 1923, where you could buy an apartment building for $50 and have sex with a minor (even 12-year-olds became prostitutes) for a pair of shoes or a pound of butter. In elite clubs, you could trade your coat to the hat check girl in return for a bindle of cocaine. The German government had to scrap the monetary system and start over, but by 1929 the German people had been experiencing only false prosperity, bouyed up by American investment in their industries. This investment was pulled out with the Stock Market Crash.
The political system at the time was the Weimar Republic, established under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles without consideration for German wishes or history. Germany had never had a republic or representative government; before World War I Germany had been ruled by a royal family and the aristocrats (junkers). The Republic itself was dependent on American investment, and after 1929 political parties proliferated in Germany, numbering 30 or more by 1933.
Hitler, who had founded the National Socialist (Nazi) party in the 20's under the principles of fascism, appealed to crowds by calling for one party, a national party. He also tore up the Treaty of Versailles, to the cheers of many. Throughout the 20's the Nazi party had been developing its principles of racial and ethnic purity, and a Third Reich (after the First with Charlemagne in 800, and the Second under Bismarck's unification in 1871). He blamed the Jews and communists for the loss of World War I, claiming that both groups valued their international connections to other Jews and other communists more than they valued the nation. The Nazi party had been raising its own "Hitler Youth" for years, providing young people in a troubled time with a sense of pride and destiny. In 1933 Hitler became chancellor under President Hindenburg, who was elderly and would die soon, leaving Hitler and the Nazis in power.
The Nazi response to the Depression was firm under Hitler. Disenfranchise the Jews (who ran most banks and controlled most professions) under the Nuremberg Laws. Expand Germany, first to reunite the whole German people from the divisions caused by the Versailles Treaty, then to expand. Complete party control of the state and the elimination of political enemies. Compared to Hitler, Mussolini looks like a softie (he incarcerated only 40 political prisoners in his career). When Germany pulled out of the League of Nations in 1933, everyone knew she had military designs.
But under the Treaty of Versailles, as you have read, Germany should not have been militarily ready in 1933. She should have had no army, air force, or offensive weapons. But she did because back in 1922, Hans von Seekt of the WWI German General Staff had created a secret arrangement with Stalin, new premier of the Soviet Union. In return for German military training for its officers (Germany was still considered the best military in the world, even after its loss), Stalin would provide land in the USSR secretly for the development of German military weapons. The League of Nations, investigating inside Germany during the 20's for evidence they were breaking the Treaty, never knew about it. But by 1933 Germany was ready to mobilize.
In 1936, Germany took back the Rhineland, an industrial area occupied by France consisting of a huge amount of territory on both sides of the Rhine. In 1936, both Hitler and Mussolini were able to test new weapons in the Spanish Civil War. They assisted Fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco into power, and were able to test techniques of blitzkrieg, or lightening war, on innocent civilians, wiping out entire villages. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, assisted by Austrian collaborators (Hitler himself was Austrian). The German troops occupied the Sudetenland ("southern land"), the area of Czechoslovakia with a German-speaking population. When Neville Chamberlain questioned Hitler's actions at the Munich Conference in September 1938, Hitler assured him he was just trying to reunite Germany, a cause with which many were sympathetic.
Then the following year, Germany took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, so obviously Hitler had greater designs than a united Germany. Britain decided that if he set foot in any further sovereign country, there would be war. (In other words, France was too weak to do anything about any of this, and Britain had no intention of going to war to save Czechoslovakia). In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, having already assured the USSR's cooperation in the Non-Aggression (or Nazi-Soviet) Pact the month before.
Everyone had known the public provisions of the Pact: Germany and the USSR had promised not to go to war with each other. Innocent enough. But the secret part of the pact said that when Germany invaded Poland, she would cede eastern Poland and the republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to the USSR. All the USSR would have to do is not interfere, and she would get all that land. Good deal. When Hitler moved into Poland, however, Stalin (who did not trust Hitler -- who would?) went ahead and occupied these areas just in case.
The official date of the start of this "European Theater" of the war is September 1, 1939, because that's when Poland (a country recreated to make a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Germany) was invaded. Britain and France had declared war on Germany. But unlike in World War I, Germany was only fighting on the western front. And, unlike in World War I when Germany had to go through Belgium to get to France, blitzkrieg was a technique that could steamroll over any French defenses. Blitzkrieg began with air attacks to bomb out communications and transportation, followed by tanks to blast through defenses, then lighter armored vehicles, then infantry mopping up at the rear.
Poland was taken in four weeks. Then Denmark, Norway and Holland were taken. Then by spring 1940, Germans broke through Franco-British troops, forcing the British to retreat off the continent. All of France was occupied except the south, which was controlled by the native pro-Nazi Vichy government. Spain was already fascist under Franco, and neutral. Hitler attacked Britain, starting air bombardment in summer.
Japan had not been treated well by the European powers for many years. In 1904-05, Japan had literally exploded on the world scene due to her extraordinary victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan, thought to be a backward Asian nation, had modernized using European ideas and technology during the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. By 1904 she was sophisticated enough to wipe out the Russian Pacific Fleet in a matter of hours. The event was so surprising that it was a long-term cause of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, because the Russians realized their government was behind the times.
During the teens and 20s, Europeans tried to limit Japanese militarism, and Japan permitted the limitations for the sake of being considered a serious international player and joining in global trade. She accepted limitations on the size of her navy and army, as proposed by the League of Nations. She was dependent on foreign trade for food, since the island nation of Japan could not produce enough for its population. When the Depression came and international trade ground to a halt, Japan was perilously short of food. Her new government, dominated by military types, felt that it was Japan's turn for an empire. All the important nations had an empire to supply them with raw materials and markets for goods.
So Japan mobilized and expanded, first into Manchuria in 1931, then into China in 1937. The plan was to expand southward to Indonesia, where oil deposits ensured self-sufficiency, before the U.S. could stop them. Japan knew the U.S. would become involved, for two reasons. First, the U.S. was friends with republican China (it wasn't communist till 1949). Second, Japan had designs on European and American island holdings in the Pacific, including the Philippines. But Japan also knew that eventually the U.S. would have to become involved in what Hitler and Mussolini were up to in Europe.
In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis (ruining, to my mind, the whole idea). Japan had little in common with the western fascists, but both sides realized that the U.S. was moving closer to entering the war against them. Whichever "Theatre" the U.S. entered first, European or Pacific, it would be good for the other side to have her fight on two world-wide fronts, dividing American power. If the U.S. entered the European Theatre first, Japan agreed to declare war so she'd have to fight in the Pacific. If the U.S. went against Japan first, Italy and Germany would declare war to open the European front. Afterward, when Japan had taken all of Asia, and Italy had taken all of Africa, and Germany had taken all of Europe, they could fight each other.
In July 1941, Japan occupied French Indochina, and the U.S. retaliated by cutting off sales of rubber, scrap iron, oil and aviation fuel. Japan knew a lot about America, and not just that she had cut off all supplies. The leader of the navy, Admiral Yamamoto, had spent time in Houston touring the oil fields. He knew the U.S. had extraordinary industrial capacity for waging war. In 1940, Britain had been screaming for American assistance as her cities got bombarded every night by the German Luftwaffe. Then Hitler had gotten frustrated because he couldn't invade Britain, and because the British had succeeded in bombing Berlin (which Hitler said they would never be able to do). To distract Germany from the Berlin bombing, and to utilize the troops waiting in northern France for the British invasion, he had attacked the Soviet Union. The attack on the USSR was supposed to be the next step in Hitler's plan, after Britain was occupied. But the British, even with their cities being destroyed, slept in the subways at night and came up to their jobs in the morning. The Royal Air Force went up every night to meet the Luftwaffe, and had bombed cities in Germany, affecting production. Hitler had lost patience and attacked Russia in June 1941, forcing Stalin to join with Britain in alliance.
So Japan knew that the U.S. would soon be joining the war, Japan was not yet near Indonesia, where the oil was. So in December 1941, Yamamoto planned the destruction of the entire American Pacific Fleet, all of which was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i.
Yamamoto knew that it was essential to do two things: give the Americans as little warning as possible under international law, and wipe out the entire fleet in one blow. The Japanese declared war one hour before the attack, but the message went to Washington and got tangled up in translation and analysis of its veracity. The message didn't get to Pearl until an hour after the attack, leading everyone (including many textbooks) to call it a "sneak attack".
With all the airplanes lined up, it was difficult for planes to take off and counter the attack. The Japanese sunk most ships in Pearl and disabled the rest, with few losses. Yamamoto, at sea on his ship, kept a tally as the planes reported back. By the end of the attack, he realized that several ships had not been at Pearl, including two aircraft carriers.
If all the ships had been destroyed, the Japanese had estimated that it would take the U.S. two years to rebuild the fleet and counter-attack in the Pacific. Yamamoto knew that the presence of two aircraft carriers would make this process faster, perhaps as fast as a year (as it turned out, six months would be sufficient). He is reported to have said, "we have awakened a sleeping giant", knowing that the U.S. would be on the scene very quickly instead of knocked out of the war for two years.
Because of the Axis alliances, we were immediately at war with Germany and Italy as well as Japan. President Roosevelt had been waiting, assisting the British in every way possible (such as Lend-Lease). With the Pacific Fleet crippled, the decision was easy to help in Europe first. Ultimately, it would be up to Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union to plan the Allied strategy. This will have far-reaching consequences, as we shall see.
Document: Ad: I'd rather be with them... (The WAC, 1944)
Many women entered war work during the war, joining the factory work force to make airplanes and ships. Clearly, the government needed them, and created Rosie the Riveter as an image of a true contributor to the war effort. Women were at least expected to volunteer for the Red Cross. Women who worked in factories often had access to special federally funded day-care centers for their children, and received a high wage when compared with fields dominated by females (domestic service, teaching, social work). The money they received they spent, on war bonds and products, stimulating the economy.
The military also needed women for desk jobs, to free up men for active service, and as nurses. They took military jobs in clerical pools and communications, and were sometimes subject to hostility. Fellow soldiers who believe that women belong in the home didn't like seeing them in an office. Being nurses was OK, because that was considered an extension of their maternal nurturing role (and, frankly, because they'd been nurses since the Civil War). One particularly hostile group was mothers of sons who had worked safe desk jobs, but then were sent to the front and replaced by women. And there were problems with wearing the uniform, a male symbol. As the war went on, fashion adopted the boxy shoulders and slim skirt of the military uniform.
Bosses in industry were divided in their view of women in their workforce. Most wanted production increased, and didn't care how it happened; they supported government propaganda encouraging women to enter factory jobs. Most segregated male and female workers, which was wise in the face of male resentment. There were basically three ways that male workers could show their distaste for a female in the workplace. They could neglect her, refusing to train her or giving her a tool and not showing her how to use it. They could abuse her, deliberately giving her heavy work to try to make her leave (most women rose to the challenge). Or they could treat her with derision, pinching and patting her bottom as she went by, assuming she was "easy" because she wasn't at home while her man was away.
Although many women had to put up with the harassment, segregating workers was easier than dealing with trouble. In one company, all trucks were driven by men; in another, all trucks were driven by women.
Other biases against women were more subtle. They received less pay than men, which was justifiable if they were less experienced. No one complained, since most were receiving more than they ever had before. The pay was high for them, and it gave them a feeling of independence that outlasted the war. But they were often given the jobs considered "most suitable" for women, since it was thought that females were better at repetitive tasks, those requiring manual dexterity or patience, and any kind of detail work or working to specifications. It was thought that men became frustrated with such jobs, and their big hands were no good at them. So the top job for a woman in a factory was inspector.
Compared to home life, most women considered factory work a breeze. Studies showed that in married households where the man was at war, the woman did 100% of the work, but that when the man was not in the military the woman still did 79% of all housework. This was regardless of whether she worked outside the home or not. If her husband was gone, she became head of the household quite suddenly, and was expected to handle complex war-time taxes, buy war bonds, budget, and provide for herself and her children.
Much of her time was spent in line, a responsibility that during the Depression was shared with men. There were severe shortages, and rationing of food and consumer goods during the war. Clothing and textiles were particularly problematic: linens, towels and diapers (no paper diapers yet) all cost twice as much, and children's clothing was of particularly low quality. All cloth was needed for uniforms, tents, bandages, sheets overseas. Most women spent time each evening after work mending clothes. Children's shoes were on 10-week back-order throughout the war (imagine guessing your one-year-old's shoe size weeks in advance). Rubber pants, for preventing diaper leaks, arrived with no elastic on the legs and were thus useless.
Appliances were either not made or not repairable, as all metal went toward the war effort. Sewing machine companies were forbidden to make parts during the war, and there were no replacement bedsprings or refridgerator parts available. Any man with mechanical ability was overseas, so there were no repairs for the toilet, sink, washing machine, or furnace. After September 1942, can openers, water heaters, mixers and toasters were not even made.
Health care was poor, again because so many doctors and nurses and supplies went to the war effort. The war saw the end of the obstetric house call: it was much more efficient to deliver babies in the hospital than in the comfort of home when you were short on doctors. You either had your baby in a hospital or you had it alone. There were children's epidemics of mumps, measles, scarlet fever, and polio during the war. Most women found welding and typing easier than keeping their children healthy and their house clean. In 1945, when they returned to their home-based roles, 80% said they would stay in their jobs if they could. High school students in Rhode Island have put together an excellent website on women in wartime: What did you do in the war, Grandma?
Popular culture reflected the strength of females during the war years. Actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, and Bette Davis were all strong, competent women who played intelligent, determined and witty characters.
One of the most popular films, "His Girl Friday", came out in 1940. Originally it was a play called "The Front Page", written for two men in the leading roles, reporters on a newspaper. But "His Girl Friday" starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, with Russell as one of the reporters, Hildy. Hildy, divorced from Grant's character (the editor of the paper), is determined to marry someone else, settle down, and have kids. Sexual tension between her and her ex runs throughout the film, in the form of the intense bantering so popular to screwball comedy. In the end, the excitement of newspaper work lures her away from her marriage plans and back to Grant. They are planning their second honeymoon as the film ends, and discover they will be covering a story on their way. Her decision, job instead of family, is rare in the movies and only possible because she is getting married at the end to the guy she loves.
The military tried to negate the Bill of Rights through an Executive Order, signed by FDR. Many people protested this treatment, but few did on the west coast. Bainbridge Island, Washington, provides one exception. The Woodwards ran a newspaper in Bainbridge, an area with a very large population of Japanese ancestry. They lived integrated with their white neighbors; all their children went to school together. When the JapaneseAmericans were interned, it ripped their community apart. The Woodwards had their JapaneseAmerican correspondents report from the camp, so that those left behind would be up-to-date on births, marriages, deaths and events.
When the war was over, many American communites did not want their JapaneseAmerican people to return. Bainbridge also had a minority who didn't want them to come back; indeed, much of their property had been taken while they were away. But the Woodwards persisted in their welcoming attitude, and today the community thrives.
At the time, the Supreme Court supported internment in the case Korematsu v United States. The Supreme Court, if divided on an issue, releases two opinions: the majority opinion, or ruling, is written by the Chief Justice. The dissenting opinion is written by one of the dissenting justices, who does not agree with the courts decisions. Dissenting opinions may be useful if a similar case arises again. In this, Justice Black provides the justification for the ruling, and Justice Murphy provides the dissenting opinion.
Document: Korematsu v the United States (1944)
"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was one of the most popular songs of World War II, and the Andrews Sisters made it famous with their particular style of harmony. Lyrics
Glenn Miller's band was the most popular band for dancing in the U.S., and "In the Mood" was one of the songs they made famous.
Though not technically a war song, "I'll Be Seeing You" is an example of one of the sad ballads connected with the war years. It's really in the tradition of sentimental ballad, but everyone associates it with the agony of having a loved one overseas in World War II. Lyrics
Document: Carey McWilliams: The Zoot Suit Riots (1943)
Document: The Franck Report (June 1945)
Using primary source footage, I have created a brief movie about Hiroshima.
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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