- Historic Sites
September 11 Vs. December 7
DID AMERICANS BEHAVE BETTER BACK THEN?
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
The other great social transformation the war brought was the mass entrance of women into the workplace, especially into workplaces formerly reserved for men. The enduring image of this phenomenon, and rightly so, is Rosie the Riveter, determined and capable, the sleeves of her work shirt rolled up as she grasps a wrench.
Largely forgotten today, though, is the enormous problem that was posed by two working—or fighting—parents in a country virtually unequipped with day care. Although the federal government funded an unprecedented daycare system for the children of tens of thousands of war-production workers, many desperate mothers were forced to lock up their children in cars or homes, while other youths roamed the streets in new “zip-gun” gangs, and every train and bus depot had its own coterie of underage victory girls. Venereal disease and illegitimacy rates soared. It was during the war that the term juvenile delinquency came into common parlance.
The business of the war was sometimes just as sordid. Harry Truman’s Senate committee turned up one case after another of war profiteering, and at least 20 percent of Americans surveyed admitted that they viewed the black market as a legitimate means of procuring consumer goods. Even the unprecedented wealth now spurring the economy brought on a deep social uneasiness. Boomtowns sprang up all across the nation. They were full of transient men and women, unable to spend their newfound wealth anywhere else, piling into raucous new bars.
OVERALL, AMERICANS HAVE KEPT ON A REMARKABLY EVEN KEEL, COMPARED WITH WHAT HAPPENED IN PAST WARS.
“No country could have survived America’s convulsive transformations of 1941-45 without altering its essence and its view of itself,” William Manchester wrote in The Glory and the Dream . “The home front was in reality a battleground of ideas, customs, economic theory, foreign policy, and relationships between the sexes and social classes.”
We should not be too shocked. Democracy is a messy business, and freedom is built on struggle. Government interventions and private initiatives were able to mitigate the worst of the wartime excesses and produce the means for a renewal of liberty at home. Interracial boards and commissions were set up in many cities for the first time, and A. Philip Randolph’s threatened protest would eventually become Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. In Chicago, A. J. Muste and James Farmer began a series of peaceful sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other businesses. Despite a concerted propaganda effort to get women to return to the home, they never would—not anything like before the war.
A year after September 11 we can take credit for having largely spared ourselves such excesses. True, we have yet to endure, so far, anything like the sustained pressure that World War II brought to bear on our society. And the days after the attack on the World Trade Center saw some deplorable assaults on Arab- and Asian-Americans, and on civil liberties. Overall, though, we have kept a remarkably even keel, compared with past wars. There have been no race riots, no mass imprisonments, no vast social disruptions. Leaders at every level have made strong pleas for tolerance, most civil liberties have been respected, and demonstrations of all kinds have continued to be held without incident. The American reaction has been decidedly free of panic or paranoia.
With nations as with individuals, it is hard to believe that a traumatic event actually changes their character; more likely, it illuminates just what that character already is. Dr. Putnam’s fears not-withstanding, could it be that our ironic, mistrustful, solo bowling society has also reached a new level of democratic maturity, one that serves it very well indeed against the hazards of the twenty-first century?