“In a 2018 poll, over 60 percent of respondents in a citizenship survey could not identify the nations that the US fought in World War II.”
In The Year of Peril: America in 1942 (2020), social historian Tracy Campbell lays bare the fragility of the United States in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After decimating much of America’s Pacific Fleet on December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan reached the apex of its control over the western Pacific, eastern China, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and more. At the very same moment, Nazi Germany had conquered much of Europe and North Africa and was threatening the United Kingdom to the west and the Soviet Union to the east.
Americans of the World War II era have been characterized as “The Greatest Generation.” The celebrations are not undeserved; America stood fast against the nastiest pathologies of human society. In 1942, however, victory was not guaranteed.
The first offensive Allied military success didn’t occur until much of North Africa was reclaimed in 1943. The D-Day Invasion of France in June of 1944 gave the Allies a foothold on the European continent and it would be another year before concentration camps were liberated and Germany was defeated. With victory in Europe secured, efforts were stepped up in the Pacific. Epic struggles for islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa took place only months before atomic bombs were exploded over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.
Our recollections of World War II are grounded in these later accomplishments. The path to victory, however, was riddled with many of the same divisions and shortcomings that plague our society today.
Most important to Tracy Campbell’s point is that our proud reflections of a unified American spirit belies the realities of American life in 1942. Rumors and misinformation fed an easily panicked population. The centralized planning necessary to successfully fight the war was met with defiance and accusations of communist infiltration.
And, as has often been the case, America in 1942 was critically divided over race. Fears of another Japanese attack – this time on the West coast – were fueled by paranoia and anti-Asian angst. Following Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Japanese Americans – most of them US citizens – were rounded up and relocated to internment camps. This officially sanctioned and clearly unconstitutional measure had broad popular support. Oddly, this racist display served a larger purpose. “In the days after Pearl Harbor,” Campbell writes, “the desire for revenge seemed to unify the nation.” It is a twisted aspect of human nature that working together is often facilitated by the presence of a common enemy; or, in this case, those who resemble the enemy.
Throughout the entire country, race relations in 1942 were predicated upon white supremacy enforced through violence. Following the lynching of a black man in Texas, a local resident said, “America needs to make democracy and justice work at home before presuming to extend and enforce them abroad.” After the mutilation and murder of two teenage black boys in Mississippi accused of the rape of a white girl, Campbell adds, black citizens “could not reconcile a nation fighting for freedom overseas with one that brutally tortured and murdered two teenagers.”
In some cases, the racism was a slap in the face for blacks trying to do their part for the war effort. During a January 1942 blood drive, “African Americans were told they could not donate blood because white soldiers preferred to have blood transfusions from their own race.” The Red Cross eventually accepted blood from African Americans but the supplies – like American society – were segregated. One Southern official thanked the Red Cross, as Campbell cites, “for opposing the effort to ‘pump Negro blood into the veins of our wounded white boys, regardless of the direful effect it might have on them or their children.’”
1942 was also witness to a massive increase in government-directed military spending. To win the war, Campbell writes, “the U.S. resorted to a mostly centralized planned economy that may have proved unpopular and heavy-handed at times, but saved the nation from ruinous inflation and financial catastrophe.” Of course, this became evident only in hindsight. At the time, President Roosevelt was accused of exercising dictatorial powers over industry, the mandatory rationing of consumer goods, and fixing wages and prices.
Despite the massive intrusion of big government, beginning with the New Deal programs during the Great Depression and then the massive government response to war preparation, FDR largely maintained the trust of the people.
In only a handful of moments has the US been so thoroughly dependent upon the character and good will of the president; another reminder that our constitutional system requires people of integrity, especially in times of crisis. “If an inept politician or demagogue had been in the White House [in 1942],” Campbell hints at the political realities of 2020, “constitutional government would have been in jeopardy.”
Perhaps at no other time in American history, the people of 1942 saw the government—embodied by Roosevelt—as a force for good. In the summer, a Fortune magazine survey showed that 74% of Americans “thought the government should collect enough taxes after the war to provide medical care for everyone who needed it.” Over two-thirds believed that the government should guarantee a job for “everyone able and willing to work.”
In pondering what might-have-been, and clearly with the chaos of 2020 in mind, Campbell writes that “Roosevelt did not use his popularity…to suspend the Constitution or impose martial law. He did not imprison his political opponents, and the election of 1942 went on as usual…”
With the heroic images of World War II not yet taken, the final measure of 1942 is that “many worst-case scenarios had been avoided. There were no additional Pearl Harbors, economic chaos was averted, and democratic forms of constitutional government managed to endure.” The glory would come years later. Let us not forget our recollections of the “Greatest Generation.” Let us also never succumb to the natural tendency to celebrate without scrutiny. Sitting down with Tracy Campbell’s pleasantly readable The Year of Peril is a great way to do just that.
Here are a few web sites filled with cool maps that might be of interest to those who enjoy this piece.
European Theater Maps
World Map 1942
These two maps show the greatest extent of Axis control (early 1942) in the European and Pacific Theaters of War.