The Decade
The Decade
Film Noir
Unexpected Noir



The decade of the 1940s was a decade of conflict and changes – dominated by World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War – that dramatically effected life in America and around the world.

By 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal reforms had begun to ease some of the suffering from the economic depression that had plagued much of the world during the 1930s, but a new war was raging in Europe.

Americans were unsure about what their nation's role should be in the war, but their questions ended after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. America was immediately plunged into a war on two fronts.

The war soon became a "total war" as the country entered a massive and complete mobilization effort to win the battle against fascism and totalitarian aggression. No aspect of society was untouched. Complex interrelationships grew between government, military, and economic institutions. And virtually every citizen was affected by and participated in the war effort.


Rapid and far-reaching changes in the fabric of society began to take place as a result of the war mobilization as Americans found themselves facing new and sometimes unsettling disruptions to their way of life.

Almost everyone felt a great sense of patriotism and pride by doing their part for the war effort. Fathers joined the armed services, mothers went to work to earn money and produce war goods, and children participated in scrap metal drives and grew Victory Gardens.

Without a doubt, women's roles changed greatly during the war years. As Elaine Tyler May noted in "Rosie the Riviter Gets Married," many historians consider the most substantial change of 1940s to be the entry of unprecedented numbers of women into the paid workforce.1

As more women became the family wage-earner, they often experienced new economic, social, and sexual freedoms for first time. Many women, especially younger, single women would be loath to give up their freedoms after the war, and the prospect was unsettling to much of society.

As May notes, even as media and promotional materials encouraged women to join the nation's workforce for the patriotic good of their country, society made it apparent that after the war women were expected to return to their traditional roles of wives and mothers - giving up jobs to returning vets to keep the economy going and making a good home for their husbands and children.2

As more and more married women with families joined the war effort, the entire family was affected. The war escalated concerns over childcare and latchkey kids, children's health and mental well-being, and worries over increasing juvenile delinquency because of lack of parental supervision. Although America didn't send its homefront children away from their homes as they had in England, children were always aware of the threat of attack, through warnings and drills as well as radio and newsreel broadcasts.

Outside the family, scientific research geared toward winning the war led to vast advancements in computers, aviation and rocketry, and of course, atomic power. The rapid technological changes were dazzling in their ability to make life better – and to change life forever.

The political, military, scientific, and economic ramifications are well-known. Even though America was not left with the devastation found in Europe and Asia, the war's effect on American social and cultural structures was deep and widespread.


When the war was over, American life would never be the same. Although America emerged as a dominant world power, the new role did not come without great uncertainties about the future at home and abroad.

America's "Age of Innocence" ended abruptly when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, destroying two cities in a matter of minutes and killing over one hundred thousand people.

As Paul Boyer notes in By the Bomb's Early Light, immediate post-Hiroshima vindictiveness proved surprisingly short-lived and Americans immediately found themselves facing seemingly contradictory and complex responses to the bomb – terror of an atomic war and a vision of an atomic Utopia.3

As Americans dealt with their new global and domestic possibilities and fears, the following years were marked by two central, significant themes: insecurity coupled with power.

On the one hand, Americans wanted to believe in the "American Century" Luce had written about in 1941. Certainly they felt a vibrant optimism: they had defeated fascism; their economy was the strongest in the world, producing one half of the world's industrial output; and they had the most powerful weapon in world, the atomic bomb.

Yet these high hopes for an "American Century" were tempered by the challenges and changes of a modern society: escalating and unsettling changes in gender and family relations; faster, bigger waves of consumerism; new scientific technologies; the awesome and not-completely-understood responsibility of atomic power; and a new enemy, Soviet Union.

This uncertainty about the future clouded Americans' joy over the war's end as they acknowledged the inescapable reality that divine wrath was now in humans' hands. A new Age of Doubt had begun, characterized by an unfamiliar feeling of uncertainty and ambivalence in the American people.


This edge of contradiction – a sense that there no easy black and white answers – was found in throughout society.

British scientist J.D. Bernal, in an essay reprinted in The Nation and entitled "Everybody's Atom," wrote only a month after the bombs were dropped that "The responsibility is heavy. It must be widely born. The people of those countries and of the rest of the world must see to it that they do not again pass under a domination of fear created by the very weapons that gave them mastery."4

A year later, as Newsweek covered the first anniversary of the atomic bomb, reporters went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the home of Uranium-235, and spoke to workers and scientists. They concluded that, "Oak Ridge is filled with many men like Robert Jones (a plant worker) who are wondering where they are going to live, and a few like the scientists on the hill who are wondering if they are going to live as a result of what is going on in the plants."5

Some theologians like the Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr, were increasingly disillusioned. Writing of the failure of progress to be redemptive in his 1947 essay, "The Dilemma of Modern Man," he stated, "The mood of this century compared with the optimism of the nineteenth century looks very much like the despair which all false optimism generates."6

This dark way of thinking marked a significant change from previously-accepted beliefs that said history was progressive and Americans were confident of growth. It gave voice to a growing feeling that progress was not necessarily good, along with a disillusionment with overly an optimistic view of the world.


Internationally, complex and competing factors led to a global Cold War between the United Stated and the Soviet Union – the two world powers that emerged out of World War II. While the Cold War never resulted in direct armed confrontation, it was a period of international hostilities and tensions that lasted nearly half a century and was marked on both sides by an arms race, covert operations, and intervention around globe.

There were similarities in the United States and Soviet actions and responses. During the postwar years, both sought expansion of their own ideological systems, for ideological and self-serving interests. Both saw or depicted their own military moves (the U.S. "Defense in Depth" forward bases and Soviet buffer states) as defensive moves, yet each "defensive" move was designed to contain the expansion of the other's ideology and military might. As both countries increased their arsenals of nuclear weapons and their reach around the globe, Americans learned to live with the constant tensions of the Cold War.


These unsettling impulses made their way into American family life in the years following the war as well.

In 1945 the U.S. entered what would become one of its longest, steadiest periods of growth and prosperity as demand for consumer products and economic prosperity boomed, along with population. There was a desire to revert to a belief in a nostalgic past that had never really existed, as a national myth began to form of the ideal American family with Dad the breadwinner and Mom the homemaker taking care of their children.

Yet, Americans found themselves in a complex world where the myth of American innocence was harder to maintain.

As May argued," the effects of unprecedented numbers of women in the labor force during the war years were not as far reaching as they appeared on the surface, and ironically, when the war ended, the nation had turned to a reaffirmation of family values and female subordination."7 William Tuttle also remarks in Daddy's Gone to War that the lack of equal opportunities for women after the war was concealed by an emphasis on "femininity, piety, and family togetherness."8

The shadow of war didn't end with victory in 1945 for America's homefront children, either, as they struggled throughout next five decades to balance the truths they learned during war against the realities of a changing world. Tuttle found that years later many children carried with them both memories of patriotism at being a part of the war effort coupled with fears of attacks on themselves or their families.9

However, he also notes that many of the fears of youth in crisis – latchkey kids, juvenile delinquency – that developed during wartime were exaggerated in reality. They took on a new sense of urgency, however, as they were fueled on both by the nature of wartime and the new availability of media, such as the "March of Times" films, to promote such concerns.10

These changing, unsettling conditions didn't make for an easy transition to peacetime on the homefront as the family structure was upset by yet another disruption to the family dynamic.

For many homefront children, the promise of families being made whole again was often overshadowed by negative effects. Post traumatic stress disorder was rarely if ever mentioned or acknowledged, yet many families suffered from its aftermath, along with alcoholism and an unexpected resentment at fathers usurping Mom's attention and trying to impose discipline.11

Society urged women to leave the workforce – and a world of choices – after the war to return home to domestic life and nuclear family. Despite this encouragement of the myth of "the feminine mystique," the role of women continued to evolve slowly after war in conflicting ways.

Many women did stay home and focus on their growing families and ideal homes in suburbs, and children gained more importance within the family structure. Yet not all women returned home, and many found ways to resist prevailing cultural gender constructions and eventually expand the economic and social freedoms they had experienced during war.

Despite popular views of postwar America as an idyllic time for the American family, there were undercurrents of uncertainty and change that would help lead to the unrest and upheavals of the 1960s.


These feelings of tension, insecurity, and contradiction found their way into American popular culture. Although mass media was promoting both a new consumerism and a nostalgic American identity, a darker side of the American psyche also began to appear.

These uncertainties manifested themselves in different ways. One of the most easily-recognizable is the body of 1940s Hollywood films that French critics came to call film noir, although few would argue that filmmakers at the time were consciously setting out to deliberately mirror the nation's darkness.

In this celluloid world, it was hard to distinguish between good and evil and there was always an undercurrent of moral uncertainty and ambivalence. Heroes were less straightforward, and motives weren't always pure. Even the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), spends most of film in a dark and disturbing fantasy sequence - again reflective of tensions found beneath bright surface of American life.

Yet, there were certain films that came to be known as classic film noir.

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