Pearl Harbor had catapulted the nation into total war when just two years earlier its army was smaller than Portugal’s, and its population was so ravaged by malnutrition and negligible health care during the Depression that half of the Army’s first recruits were deemed unfit. The armed forces — and blood supplies — would remain racially segregated, although in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had told civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph that African Americans could be musicians on Navy ships “because they’re darned good at it.”
The saccharine myth that “everything changed” in a nation united by the sense of “all being in this together” was belied by lynchings and violent killings, such as that in Sikeston, Mo., of an African American accused of assaulting a white woman. After he was tied by his feet to a truck and dragged to his death, the local newspaper said this would “protect the wives of soldier boys.” When some black soldiers in Oklahoma City were forced to ride on segregated trains for 24 hours without food while white soldiers were fed, an indignant FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover investigated the African American who reported this. In the epicenter of the Arsenal of Democracy, a.k.a. Detroit, rioting, gun-toting whites persuaded the city to rethink integration of public housing.
In California, Gen. John “A Jap is a Jap” DeWitt said of the 112,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast, “There are indications these are organized and ready for concerted operation.” The indications were the absence of indications. This, DeWitt said, indicated secret plotting, so these Americans were sent to concentration camps. Including Fred Korematsu, who had tried to enlist. His challenge to internment reached the Supreme Court, where he lost. In 2018, the court repudiated this decision.
In 1942, in New Haven, Conn., Anne Miller, having developed a blood infection after a miscarriage, became the first person successfully treated with penicillin. By 1945, U.S. pharmaceutical companies were producing 650 billion units of it a month. In 2020, vilification of such companies has paused, presumably to be resumed after they find a covid-19 vaccine.
In 1942, the War Production Board banned cuffs and pleats on men’s trousers to save cloth. Daylight saving time became a national law in order to save 736 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Rationing of gasoline, automobile tires, sugar, coffee and much else impended, but Congress, which never misses an opportunity to miss the point, voted itself pensions. After two months of hearing the vox of an unamused populi, it repealed them.
Tracy Campbell, a University of Kentucky historian, says that in 1942 the War Rumor Project “began systematically monitoring Americans,” relying on “barbers, bartenders, doctors, hairdressers, police officers, and drugstore owners to eavesdrop on their neighbors.” Many rumors arose from preexisting prejudices: A poll found that 42 percent of Americans thought “Jews have too much power and influence.”
When a foolhardy regent suggested canceling the University of Georgia’s football season, Gov. Eugene Talmadge (D) said that before doing that, they would try “putting our debutantes to hoeing potatoes.” The Bulldogs won the national championship. Seventy-eight years later, some football factories, a.k.a. universities, might be more apt to have football Saturdays than weekday classes.
Few debutantes but many other women powered war production in places such as Ford’s plant in Willow Run, Mich., which eventually assembled a B-24 bomber every hour. An economic “stabilization” law partially exempted health benefits from restrictions on “wages,” thereby decisively shaping today’s health-care system, which is centered on employer-provided insurance.
In 1942’s off-year elections, the president’s party took a drubbing. James Farley, former chairman of the Democratic Party, said: “The American people just got a little tired of being pushed around.”
Disrupting crises can be history’s accelerants. In January 1942, in the Philippines, the U.S. Army conducted the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. history. In December, beneath the University of Chicago’s football stands, there occurred the first sustained nuclear chain reaction, a harbinger of nuclear weapons.
On New Year’s Eve, FDR watched a not-yet-released movie, “Casablanca.” Eleven days later, he became the first president to leave the country during wartime, going to meet Winston Churchill in Casablanca.