The American Civil War, Part II

History Dept.

How World War II Almost Broke American Politics

Today we celebrate the war as a feel-good moment of unity. The truth is, the country had harsh divisions we’d recognize today.


When Allied forces launched a dramatic air-and-sea assault on German-occupied France 75 years ago Thursday, the very scale and audacity of the operation were awe-inspiring. In the early-morning hours of June 6, 1944, hordes of planes dropped more than 10,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines; hundreds of warships and thousands of landing craft delivered 130,000 troops to the beaches of Normandy—most of them British or American—on the first day of the assault.

It was a remarkable achievement—and one of the reasons why, so many years later, Americans in a divided country now think of the World War II years as a beacon of feel-good unity and patriotism: Glenn Miller tunes on the radio, war bond posters in every window, Rosie the Riveter at her station “all the day long whether rain or shine, she’s a part of the assembly line.”

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That image—the war as a moment of American domestic comity—however, might come as a surprise to anyone who lived through those years. In fact, the nation that waged that war was racked by deep political divisions, some with echoes that are still reverberating today.

In the years leading up to its entry into World War II, the United States was bitterly divided over the New Deal and vehemently at odds over whether it should enter the conflict erupting in Europe. Even during the war, the country remained beset by racial and ethnic animosities that pitted Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Jews and white Americans against people of color. Partisan rancor posed a steep barrier to the extreme measures that mobilization required: mass taxation, rationing, wage and price fixing, conscription, and surveillance. The business community sharply resisted the shift from civilian to military production. Organized labor loudly demanded its share of wartime prosperity. Even as the country fell in line with this vast expansion of state authority, outwardly uniting behind the war effort, discord boiled just beneath the surface, revealing itself in violent homefront outbursts and acid displays of political demagoguery.

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The war almost tore America apart. And yet, it didn’t. The country ultimately rallied behind its popular but controversial wartime president to transform itself into the “arsenal of democracy.”

It’s easy to forget how unlikely an achievement it was. Just four years before D-Day, as Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his campaign for an unprecedented third term as president, America’s military lie in shambles. With just 175,000 serving on active duty, the U.S. Army was the 18th biggest in the world—smaller than those of even Switzerland and Bulgaria. When FDR arrived at Ogdensburg, New York, in the spring of 1940, several months before he signed into law a selective service act that instituted a draft of fighting-aged men, he encountered a woeful scene: 10,000 troops drilled without equipment, broomsticks substituting for rifles and trucks for tanks. The men “haven’t got the bodies soldiers must have,” worried a seasoned military hand. “They haven’t got the psychology of the soldier.” They were “short-winded and with legs that won’t stand up to a hard match.” The following year, when Japan attacked and largely obliterated the Navy’s Pacific fleet, little remained of America’s capacity to wage war.

The story of how Americans surmounted their fractured political culture to mobilize for D-Day remains a trenchant example, in our own age of discord and division, of how a country desperately wanting for consensus can rally together in a moment of common purpose.


“Our bond with Europe is a bond of race, and not of political ideology,” the famed aviator and outspoken isolationist Charles Lindbergh told a national radio audience in October 1939. “Racial strength is vital, politics is a luxury.” Urging listeners to close ranks with Germany in a common struggle against “Asiatic intruders”—Russians, Persians, Turks and Jews—who would defile America’s “most priceless possession: our inheritance of European blood,” Lindbergh tapped into a deep well of popular nativism. It was a theme he hammered relentlessly from his perch as a spokesman for the America First Committee, an anti-interventionist organization that marshaled considerable support from prominent names in business and industry to oppose aid to Britain and France. The “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration,” he intoned in a speech two years later.

It wasn’t just Lindbergh. The anti-interventionist movement enjoyed widespread support in 1939 and 1940, and Lindbergh’s brand of anti-interventionist politics—bordering on being pro-Nazi, and laced with a conspiratorial distrust of Jews—was common in circles opposed to Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies. The America First Committee ounted among its ranks outspoken anti-Semites such as Avery Brundage, the former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had visited ignominy upon the athletic community when he booted two Jewish runners from the track team at the Berlin games in 1936. In Kansas, the America First state chairman told followers that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the leading liberal light in FDR’s White House, was Jewish that and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a “half-Jew.”

Even the most respectable opponents of Roosevelt’s mobilization policy verged on extremism. In an editorial titled “A Plea for Realism,” the Wall Street Journal argued in 1940 that “our job today is not to stop Hitler,” who had “already determined the broad lines of our national life at least for another generation.” Instead, Americans would better direct their focus to “modernize our thinking and our national planning,” a none-too-subtle nod to Nazi state planning and central power.

Isolationist politics were consistent with the increasingly shrill nature of opposition to the New Deal in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. Though his overwhelming popularity largely inculcated FDR against political attacks in the first several years of his presidency, by the late 1930s, he had his back was up against the wall. A failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, followed by an unsuccessful purge of conservative Democrats in the 1938 primaries, had left the president bruised and battered.

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