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.> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter
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.