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.
CHANGES ON THE HOMEFRONT
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
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.
UNCERTAINTY AND DISILLUSIONMENT
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
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
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
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
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
GENDER AND FAMILY UNCERTAINTIES
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
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.
FILM NOIR and an UNSETTLED
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
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