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After the bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor, America's mission was clear. The country would show that freedom would prevail over fascism and, as President Roosevelt said in asking Congress for a declaration of war, "with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph."
Yet one of the most profound -- and unintended -- outcomes of World War II was that it also strengthened democracy in the United States, according to historians looking at the war's legacy from the vantage point of the 21st century.
The country emerged more prosperous than it had been in years. The last vestiges of the Great Depression had been eradicated. Women and minorities, after joining the war effort in droves, became emboldened to fight for equal rights. Thanks to the GI Bill, signed into law in 1944, thousands of Americans suddenly could afford to go to college and buy a house. Within the span of a few years, there was an expanding middle class and a growing sense that people could go as far as their talents and energy could take them.
As Germany's forces spread through Europe in 1940, America still had not fully recovered from the Depression. Unemployment hovered at 15 percent. More than 11 million homes did not have running water, the 1940 U.S. Census reported. And fewer than 50,000 taxpayers earned more than $2,500 a year, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "No Ordinary Time."
But after the United States entered the war, thousands flooded the workforce, suddenly invigorating the economy. By 1944, unemployment had dropped to 1.2 percent. Many of those who didn't fight worked in the factories that sprouted across the country.
"The expansion of opportunity in America ironically comes out of World War II, because the necessity of fighting a war means you have to mobilize the whole population, and groups that had been kept out -- women and blacks -- were able to use this as leverage to assert themselves," said Lawrence Goodheart, a history professor at the University of Connecticut.
For the most part, women ended up leaving the workforce once the men came home from war. But their experience as independent breadwinners helped lay the foundation for the women's movement in the 1960s, Goodheart said.
"By 1943, 50 percent of women were working outside the home," he said. "They were making income on their own, and they were independent. It was an extraordinarily transforming event."
Similarly, some of the roots of the civil rights movement can be found in World War II. Even though Jim Crow was still in force, and black soldiers served in segregated units, African Americans had been slowly gaining more freedom in the years before the war.
Then, on July 2, 1946, a young man named Medgar Evers led a group of black war veterans to the county courthouse in Decatur, Miss., where they intended to vote in the Democratic primary in an attempt to defeat Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a staunch segregationist. The veterans who took part in the protest were empowered by their military service, said Kenneth Janken, an associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"I think there's a very good case to be made that the seeds of what we normally think of as the modern civil rights movement were in the World War II era," Janken said. "Black veterans returned to the U.S. determined not to go back to Jim Crow."
It wasn't only women and minorities whose lives were transformed by the war. Three weeks after D-Day, Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, which was intended to help veterans reintegrate into society. But it did much more than that. The law, which provided guaranteed loans to veterans and help with college tuition, became a vehicle for upward mobility -- the "Magic Carpet to the Middle Class," as it was dubbed.
No longer were university campuses the exclusive domain of the well-to-do. After the war, colleges were so overrun with ex-soldiers that many had to build temporary housing to hold them. By 1947, the number of men enrolled in college had more than doubled from what it was before the war, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Suddenly, the members of a generation that hadn't considered getting a higher education because it was out of reach financially were becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Today, the bill continues to be one of the main drawing points recruiters use to entice people into joining the military.
"The GI Bill was one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation in American history," said Robert Maddox, professor emeritus at Penn State University. "It gave millions of young men and women a chance to obtain an education that would have been unthinkable without it." It also provided veterans with home loans guaranteed by the federal government. Burgeoning home ownership ensued, as did the baby boom and the spread of Levittown-type developments. Suburbia had begun its sprawl.
The war also crept into the corners of society in many more nuanced and less-heralded ways that still reverberate through American life and culture.
Wonder Woman and Captain America started their comic book careers by defeating the Nazis in issue after issue. When the Army decided it needed a durable all-terrain vehicle, jeeps were created. And M&Ms, introduced in 1941, became popular with soldiers who found that the hard-shell candies didn't melt easily and could be taken almost anywhere.
Scientists and entrepreneurs developed inventions as sophisticated as radar and as simple as duct tape, which was used to keep water out of ammunition cases. Dispirited that so many military recruits had nutritional deficiencies, President Harry S. Truman in 1946 signed the National School Lunch Act, which has allowed millions of schoolchildren to get free meals. Like the GI Bill, it endures today.
American workers also have the war to thank for having their federal taxes withheld from each paycheck. Previously, taxpayers simply sent the Internal Revenue Service a lump-sum check at the end of the year. But with a costly war brewing, the federal government needed revenue quickly, and so it started the process of withholding taxes all through the year.
By the early 1950s, a new prosperity had set in. Many Americans had become accustomed to televisions and automobiles and came to expect a certain standard of living that would have been unfathomable a decade before, when war was on the horizon.
"With the rising expectations," Goodheart said, "there was no turning back."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.