World War II: The Home Front

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

When the war began in Europe in September 1939, the United States had still not fully recovered from the Great Depression that began in the fall of 1929. This was a severe economic crisis marked by falling industrial production and increasing unemployment. (The effects of the depression in Germany are described in Chapter 1.) Although the economy had greatly improved from its low point in 1932, eight million people were still unemployed in 1940, and American industry was still not producing as much as it had been ten years earlier. As many as 40 percent of American families still lived in poverty, on farms as well as in big cities.

In many ways, the 1930s were a decade of turmoil and division in the United States. Workers trying to organize unions clashed with armed company guards and police in many cities. In 1937, there was a wave of “sit-down strikes” involving more than 400,000 workers who took over their workplaces and refused to leave. That spring, Chicago police fired on a crowd of strikers outside a steel mill, killing ten and injuring eighty, in what became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.”

From Unemployment to Overtime

The coming of World War II changed America in two closely connected ways. It ended the Depression by creating millions of new jobs, and it created a sense of unity in the country. The economic changes came even before the United States entered the war. France and Britain ordered war planes and other weapons from the United States. Soon, American factories and farms were sending their products to Britain in unheard-of quantities. When it looked as if Britain might be unable to pay for further purchases, the United States government, through the Lend-Lease law, in effect loaned Britain money to buy more from American companies. (See Chapter 3.) Although the main reason for this law was to help Britain survive against the Nazis, many people understood that it would also help the American economy.

By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States declared war, America had become “the Arsenal of Democracy,” in the phrase made popular by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Production had grown tremendously, creating more jobs. In addition, the United States had established the first peacetime military draft in its history, so hundreds of thousands of young men who might have been unemployed were now in the army.

After Pearl Harbor, the American economy reached levels that no other country had ever approached. Before the attack, factories had been working at only part of their capacity because they could produce more than they could sell. Now, for many kinds of products, the army or navy ordered more than the factories could make, and new factories had to be built. In 1939, the average American factory was in use forty hours a week. In 1945, it was ninety hours.

Automobile plants assembled tanks, jeeps, and trucks for the military. In fact, as of New Year’s Day 1942, a newly created government agency, the Office of Production Management, banned the sale of new private cars or trucks. America turned out 2.4 million military trucks, for the Soviets and British as well as the Americans. The United States produced 86,000 tanks and 6,500 ships to carry goods. It made 15 million rifles and machine guns, 44 billion bullets, 400,000 cannons, and 47 million tons of shells for them to fire. Three hundred thousand planes came from the American aircraft industry. Before the war it had employed 46,000 people; by 1945, there were 50 times as many.

The war created whole new industries like synthetic (artificially produced) rubber, because natural rubber came mainly from areas conquered by the Japanese. By 1944, the industry had produced 800,000 tons of it. (A single B-17 bomber used half a ton of rubber.) In the four years of war, the total value of all industrial goods produced in the United States doubled. In 1945, the United States provided one-half of the world’s coal and two-thirds of its crude oil.


Individual companies produced at levels never seen before. During the war, the United States Steel Corporation made more steel by itself than Germany and Japan combined; the Ford Motor Company alone produced 8,600 bombers, 278,000 jeeps, and 57,000 aircraft engines. Producing greater amounts as fast as possible was more important to the army and navy than efficiency or cost. The government paid these companies on a “cost-plus” basis: it promised to pay them what it cost them to make the product, plus a certain percentage as profit. This meant that companies were guaranteed to make money no matter how much they spent.

And companies’ profits increased hugely, although a large share of defense contracts went to only a few dozen large companies. Average wages in America doubled, from about $25 to $50 a week. Overtime work was common and often mandatory in defense industries, so pay there was usually even higher. Total farm income went up two and a half times, even though there were 800,000 fewer agricultural workers. The income of the poorest one-fifth of the population rose 68 percent during the war, more than those who were better off. This meant that there was more economic equality at the end of the war than before.

The federal government spent about $360 billion on the war (about $4.5 trillion in 1999 money). Although taxes increased, they only accounted for half this amount, and the government borrowed money to pay for the rest. It did this by selling bonds, which would be repaid with interest later. Banks and other financial institutions bought most bonds, but $36 billion in war bonds were sold in small units to the general public. People were urged to show their patriotism by buying war bonds. Bond drives, often featuring Hollywood stars, were common. Children bought “Defense Stamps” in school every week, a nickel or a dime at a time. These campaigns were important economically, but they also made people, including children, feel that they were participating in the war and gave them a greater sense of unity.

Changes and Unity

Instead of widespread unemployment, there was soon a labor shortage. New sources of workers had to be found. People from poverty-stricken farm regions, especially in the South, moved to the great industrial cities like Detroit. Large numbers of African Americans were among the many who moved seeking a new life. The aircraft plants of Los Angeles and the naval facilities of San Diego attracted so many new residents that southern California soon became the fastest-growing area of the country. More than 15 million Americans moved during the war, either to find work in war industries or to follow a family member to a new army base within the United States. As millions of men entered the armed services, 6 million women worked outside the home for the first time.

These rapid changes created new problems and new tensions, some of which are described later in this chapter. But they also created a sense of excitement and purpose—and most of all, a sense of unity. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the leaders of America’s major unions promised not to strike for the duration of the war. Almost no one doubted that the war was necessary, that the United States was fighting for freedom, and that the sacrifices, disruptions, and inconveniences were worth it. It seemed obvious: the United States had been attacked, Japan and Germany were trying to conquer the world, and only by defending freedom everywhere could the American people preserve their own liberty. Many Americans who lived through World War II always thought of it, in the words of author Studs Terkel, as “the good war.”

Rationing and Government Controls

Because America’s industrial power was directed toward winning the war, it meant that, despite the incredible amounts produced, there would be domestic shortages of many products that people had taken for granted. There was also a danger that these shortages would cause prices to increase rapidly, canceling out the higher pay that people were earning. The federal government created new agencies with new responsibilities and powers to prevent economic disruptions from interfering with the war effort.

The Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (OPA), created in April 1941 a few months after Pearl Harbor, announced rationing of rubber, leading to an 80 percent decline in civilian use. (Rationing meant that people were only allowed to buy a certain amount of a product, even if they could afford more.) Within a month, the OPA was given the power to set prices on all nonagricultural products. In April 1942, it responded to one of the most serious shortages of the war—a lack of adequate housing, especially near new defense plants—with a program of rent stabilization to prevent dramatic rent increases.

In May 1942, sugar was rationed, as was gasoline on the East Coast. Gasoline rationing went nationwide in December. Every car had to display a sticker on its windshield. An “A” sticker meant the car was driven for pleasure only and was entitled to just three gallons of gas a week. The amounts went up from there, with a “B” meaning the car was driven to work and a “C” that it was used on the job. Emergency vehicles got an “E,” which entitled them to unlimited purchases of gasoline. Gasoline rationing was very unpopular with Americans, who loved cars, and there was much grumbling and suspicion about anyone who got classified higher than an “A.” As was true of other rationed products, people who were willing to pay very high prices could buy extra gasoline illegally. This system of illegal buying and selling is referred to as the black market.

In July 1942, the government introduced a coupon system for rationing. Every family received coupon books, with tiny stamps each worth a certain number of points. They had to turn in the stamps when buying rationed products, each of which cost a set number of points, depending on how scarce it was.

The list of rationed products grew ever longer. Coffee was rationed in November 1942, even though most of it came from Latin America, an area unaffected by the war. But the ships that brought coffee to the United States were more urgently needed elsewhere. Long-distance calls were limited to five minutes. Canned goods were rationed beginning March 1, 1943, and meat, butter, and cheese later that month. Meat was limited to 28 ounces per person a week, and butter to four ounces a week. The “victory gardens” that people were encouraged to grow in every backyard and vacant lot produced 40 percent of all vegetables eaten in the United States in 1942. Victory gardens also created a sense of involvement in the war effort and a feeling of national unity.

Despite all the restrictions, Americans actually ate more and probably better food during the war than at any previous time. This was in contrast with Britain, where people ate less during the war. (See Chapter 8.) It was even more different from the experience of most of Europe, where real hunger and even starvation were common during the war. (See Chapter 6.) The main reason was the increased income of the poorest Americans, a direct result of war jobs.

Resentment and Conflict

While there was a growing sense of unity, many Americans also resented what they perceived as an inequality in what they had to sacrifice. Anger at the rich and a low opinion of big business had become common during the Great Depression. Although many people now made more money than they ever had before, they worked long hours, lived in sub-standard and overcrowded housing, and were severely limited in the consumer products they could buy. In the meantime, they saw companies making record profits and the wealthy apparently able to obtain anything they wanted by paying high prices on the black market.

Workers in many industries felt that companies were taking advantage of the war to make money, while ignoring such issues as job safety and fair promotions. In many cases, workers could not even quit; in April 1943, the government declared 27 million workers “essential,” forbidding them to leave their jobs. The push for production led to accidents that caused 17,000 workplace deaths a year and the permanent disabling of 250,000 workers during the war. (Another 4.5 million were less seriously injured.)

Despite the unions’ no-strike pledge, there were protest strikes over safety and other issues in many industries. Most were walkouts that occurred against the wishes of union leaders and lasted only a few hours or a couple of days. Some were more substantial, however. In December 1943, the government took over the railroads to prevent a major strike. The president of the coal miners’ union, John L. Lewis, called a series of strikes in 1943. (Coal was the most important source of energy and vital to steel production.) Even other union leaders accused Lewis of being a traitor, despite his earlier national popularity.

African Americans and the War

One group that felt both a greater sense of unity and strong resentment was African Americans. Although the war in Europe began to create an economic boom in the United States, African Americans received few of the new jobs. In January 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the organizer and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union of African American railroad workers, organized the March on Washington Movement. The new organization planned to bring thousands of African Americans to a giant demonstration in Washington, D.C. They would demand that the government stop giving defense contracts to companies that discriminated, that the government itself stop discriminating in hiring federal employees, and that the armed forces be integrated.

Afraid of being embarrassed, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 a week before the scheduled march. It stated that the policy of the United States was that there should be nodiscrimination “in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Roosevelt also created the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), which was charged with receiving complaints about discrimination and then taking “appropriate steps.”

This was the first time since Abraham Lincoln that apresident had taken executive action against racial discrimination. Randolph canceled the march but kept the organization together to apply further pressure on the government. Although the FEPC’s enforcement powers turned out to bequite limited, the defense industries hired significant numbers of African Americans. In general, however, they were limited to the dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs. The armed forces remained completely segregated.

Before Pearl Harbor, some sections of the African American community were less pro-British than many American whites. This was mainly because the United States’s ally was a great colonial power, with hundreds of millions of non-white people in Asia and Africa living in countries that Britain controlled for its own benefit. Some African Americans considered the struggle for the independence of these countries, such as India, similar to their own struggle for equal rights in America. (Britain’s colonial history also made other groups, such as Irish Americans, less pro-British before Pearl Harbor.)

But once the United States entered the war, the African American community strongly supported the war effort. Many African Americans thought that the fight against Nazi racism in Europe should be joined to the fight again stracism and discrimination in America. This was symbolized by the “Double-V” campaign, begun by the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, in 1942. The “V for Victory” sign was doubled to signify that African Americans were fighting for democracy both overseas and at home.

African Americans and the Armed Services

Although the law that set up the military draft, the Selective Service Act, banned discrimination, both the Navy Department and the army’s War Department ignored this. (After World War II, the Departments of War and the navy merged to form the Department of Defense.) The War Department claimed that allowing African Americans to serve equally would lower the morale (spirit or willingness to fight) of white soldiers. Both Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall believed that white soldiers might refuse to fight alongside blacks. Many top officials also believed, without any supporting evidence, that African Americans were not brave and disciplined enough to serve in combat units, even if they were segregated from whites.

The predraft army was overwhelmingly white. There were about 5,000 black soldiers and a few dozen black officers in an army of about 100,000 men. The Marine Corps and the air force did not accept any African Americans at all. The peacetime army did not encourage African Americans to join until after Pearl Harbor, when the need for men grew.

Even then, African Americans were almost never placed in combat units, infantry, armored, or artillery. Instead, they were concentrated in service units, troops who unloaded supplies, maintained vehicles, built barracks on army bases, and did all the other work an army needs. By the end of 1944, there were 700,000 African Americans in the army (about 9 percent of the total) and about 5,000 African American officers. Although a majority were serving overseas, they were still almost all in service units.

African American Combat Units

However, there were three segregated black combat divisions (a large army unit, usually about 15,000 men), the Ninety-Second and Ninety-Third Infantry Divisions and the Second Cavalry Division. (Cavalry divisions were now “mounted” on jeeps and other vehicles, not on horses.) Although all the soldiers, corporals, and sergeants were African American, all the top officers were white. The Second Cavalry was disbanded, and the Ninety-Third Division served in the Pacific but saw little combat. The Ninety-Second Division fought in Italy and saw much more action, with 600 men killed and another 2,000 wounded. However, its commander was a white general who openly distrusted the ability of African American troops. In return, the soldiers had no confidence in their officers. The unit developed a poor reputation as a result.

Very different was the reputation of the 761st Tank Battalion, a segregated armored unit that fought mainly in France and Germany, as part of General George Patton’s Third Army. From the time it entered combat in November 1944 until Germany’s surrender the following May, the unit fought for 183 consecutive days. It played an important role in defeating the last German counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge. (See Chapter 12.) Despite this record, it did not receive a Presidential Unit Citation until 1978.

The Navy and the Air Force

Discrimination was even worse in the navy. Traditionally, African Americans had only been allowed to work in ships’ kitchens and to serve food to the officers in their dining areas. During World War II, 95 percent of African American sailors on board ships were still limited to these jobs. Onshore, large numbers of African American sailors were used as laborers, to load ships and transport material. The WAVES, the women’s naval corps, did not accept any African American women until 1944. In that year, the navy finally allowed African American seamen to serve on 25 “white” ships. At that time, there were 165,000 African Americans in the navy and about 17,000 in the Marine Corps.

The air force created some all-black squadrons under orders, but most of them were used to maintain airfields. The first African American airmen to see action were members of the Ninety-Ninth Fighter Squadron, which flew in Italy beginning in April 1943. Commanded by Benjamin O. Davis, who later became the air force’s first African American general, this unit became famous as the Tuskegee Airmen (after the Alabama town where they were trained). But it was an exception, which white air force officers tried to end. Only three other African American squadrons were allowed in combat.

Heroes and Riots

The military’s discriminatory policies made it more difficult to convince African Americans that the war was being fought for freedom. In one well-known incident, African American troops watched in amazement as a restaurant in a small Kansas town served lunch to German prisoners of war but refused to serve black American soldiers. African American soldiers returning from overseas on leave were sent to different—and inferior—hotels. With the cooperation of the American Red Cross, the army even segregated blood supplies of whites and African Americans.

There were often tensions between African American and white units, especially on bases in the segregated South. There were even several small-scale riots on bases. The army tried to keep its own facilities, such as officers clubs, racially segregated even on bases in northern states, where segregation was against the law. In fact, white soldiers tried to introduce segregated facilities near American bases in England, causing fights to break out.

At the same time, the government was urging African Americans to participate in the war effort. Posters even featured heavyweight boxing champion Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis, now a private in the army, who was tremendously popular among African Americans.

Another African American used to encourage recruitment was Dorie Miller, a sailor who had been a mess steward (kitchen worker) aboard the battleship USS Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor. Miller shot down two attacking Japanese planes with a machine gun, and received the Navy Cross, the navy’s second-highest medal after the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Miller was killed two years later when the Japanese sank the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay.)

During the war, 700,000 African Americans, many from the South, moved to industrial cities. Sixty thousand moved to Detroit alone, and 1.2 million nationwide now worked in industrial jobs. Some white workers, many of them also recent arrivals from the South, resented working with African Americans. Sometimes white workers walked off the job to protest promotion of African Americans. Tensions over crowded housing in the industrial cities added to the strain.

Detroit Riot In June 1943, a series of fights between blacks and whites at a city park in Detroit grew into a major riot when nearby white sailors joined in. That night, groups of African Americans attacked stores and streetcars. Two whites, including a milkman and a doctor making a house call, were beaten to death. The next day, mobs of whites began attacking any African American they could find. Troops were called in to end the chaos, but a total of 34 people, 25 of them African Americans, were killed and 700 injured.

Harlem Riot A smaller riot occurred in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in August 1943, when a false rumor spread that a white police officer had shot and killed an African American soldier. Five people were killed and nearly four hundred injured.

Women in Industry

Some of the most dramatic changes in wartime concerned the role of women in society. As production expanded and men were drafted into the army, more women than ever before entered the workforce.

Some of these women were secretaries and clerical workers, as they had always been. But for the first time, large numbers were given jobs welding and operating lathes and other industrial machinery. The symbol of the woman war worker in industry was Rosie the Riveter, who used a rivet gun to join together the metal plates of airplane bodies or ships’ sides.

Although the work was often dirty and dangerous, many women found—to their surprise—that it did not require an exceptionally large or strong person. For example, relatively small women could use a welding torch. Of course, their arms would get tired—but that was true of men as well. Women, who had always been told that they lacked natural mechanical aptitude, were quickly trained to be drafters and designers and to operate complicated machinery. Despite the fact that they often did the same jobs as men, they were rarely paid the same. In general, women only earned about two-thirds as much as men.

United States

The number of women working outside the home in the United States rose by more than 6 million, a 50 percent increase. By 1944, about 60 percent of American women— around 19 million—worked outside the home, including 25 percent of married women. By the end of the war, women constituted more than one-third of the American civilian work-force. According to a government survey, 80 percent of those women, including almost 70 percent of those who were married, wanted to continue working after the war.

Almost 6 million of the women were working in factory jobs. The number of women working in aircraft factories rose from 143 in 1941 to around 65,000 at the end of 1942. Eventually, more than half the workers in the giant Boeing aircraft plant near Seattle were women.

The government was anxious to encourage women to enter the workplace. Rosie the Riveter was featured on posters and in a song. Everywhere, women were told that it was patriotic to work in a factory and that calling in sick was a betrayal of the soldiers fighting in the Pacific. Women in shipyards were “soldiers without guns,” the heroines of the “Ships for Victory” program. The film star Veronica Lake cut off her much-imitated long, peekaboo-style hair because it was considered a safety hazard for women working with machines. Instead of skirts, women wore trousers or—for the first time—jeans.

Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union, the most important change in women’s roles was the huge increase in the number of women working in war industries and other heavy industry. In the Soviet Union, one million women joined the paid workforce in the first six months after the German invasion. By the end of the war, women made up 55 percent of the Soviet work-force, compared with 30 percent before the war. On the large factory like farms that dominated Soviet agriculture, they made up 80 percent of the workers.

Great Britain

In Great Britain, the number of women working outside the home grew from around 5 million in 1939 to 7.75 million in 1943. This was the largest percentage increase of any country in the war. Even this number disguises how big the change really was because many women who already had jobs in traditional women’s industries, such as cloth and clothing manufacturing or as domestic servants, switched to jobs in heavy industry. Two million women worked in war industries, including shipbuilding, chemicals, and vehicle and aircraft production, four times as many as at the beginning of the war.

Although patriotic feelings and good pay certainly encouraged many women to do this, the British government also used the law to increase their numbers. Starting in March 1941, British women could legally be “directed” into war work. This law eventually covered most women under the age of 50, including married women, but not those with young children. (Day-care provisions were never adequate for the children whose mothers chose to work in industry.)


Although large numbers of German women worked outside the home before the war, making up 37 percent of the workforce, Hitler did not want to encourage any further increase. Many people think this was mainly because the Nazis were generally very conservative about what roles women should play in society. Many Nazis thought they should be limited to three areas: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (“children, kitchen, church”). Another major factor in not urging German women to take jobs was Hitler’s concern about interfering with German civilian life too much and losing political support. The Nazis were considerably more afraid than the British and American governments of changing the German economy to one of total war—in which industry, most resources, and the labor force is devoted to teh war effort—and disrupting civilian life.

Slave labor Instead, Germany tried to solve its wartime labor shortage by using millions of foreign workers, most of them forced or slave workers. The first large group of these workers were Poles, both prisoners of war and civilians who were drafted. At first, most replaced German farmworkers, who could then work in factories or enter the army. By the end of 1941, the Poles made up about one-half of the almost 4 million foreign workers in Germany, many of whom were now working in factories. These included some who came voluntarily: Italians, Frenchmen, Belgians, and other western Europeans who could not find work in their home countries, which were conquered or dominated by Germany. But they were not really free. These foreign workers could not change jobs or go home unless they had permission. Eventually, the differences between them and the forced laborers almost disappeared.

There were more than 6 million foreign workers by the spring of 1943. Almost none of the 2 million new workers were volunteers. Although the Germans introduced mandatory labor service in France and other western European countries, the largest number were from the conquered areas of the Soviet Union, with a total of about 1.5 million. The number of foreign workers in Germany reached an incredible 7 million— about one-fifth of the total German labor force—in the middle of 1944. (Seven million more people worked for Germany in their home countries, either in German-controlled factories or building military fortifications.)

Almost every sizable factory in Germany included forced labor in its workforce. Camps or barracks to house the workers were in almost every German city. (Because their housing was often located near factories, the forced laborers were frequently the victims of Allied bombings.) The conditions workers faced were horrible. They worked long hours at difficult jobs without enough food. The Germans could severely punish them for disobeying orders, and thousands were shot. The large number of women, most of them from the Soviet Union, were forcibly sterilized.


Of all the major countries involved in World War II, Japan alone did not allow women to join any branch of its armed services. The number of Japanese women working in factories increased only slightly during the war. This was partly because Japan’s leaders did not want to change the traditional roles of men and women. But it was also because many Japanese women already worked on family farms. Their labor became even more important while the men were away in the war.

The Japanese also made extensive use of forced labor. They forced Allied prisoners of war to perform backbreaking work in unbearable heat with inadequate food or medical attention. Projects such as building a railroad from Thailand to Burma have become well-known in Western countries because of books and movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai. Out of the 61,000 Allied prisoners who worked building this road, almost one-fifth died. Despite this number, Allied prisoners were not the major source of Japanese forced labor. Two hundred seventy thousand Asians, mostly Thais and Burmese, were forced to work on the railroad, and 90,000 of them—one out of three—died. The Japanese forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work in Japan and forced Korean women to be prostitutes for the Japanese army.

Children’s Roles

Children also contributed to the homefront war effort. In Britain, for example, they helped their parents plant victory gardens in every backyard and on the edge of every village. The potatoes and vegetables they grew helped reduce Britain’s need to import food past the German submarines that patrolled the Atlantic.

Children also took part in scrap drives—campaigns to collect old metal articles. They went door to door collecting pots and pans, old washbasins, and every other kind of metal object. Iron and steel items were melted down and used to make steel for ships and weapons; copper was used for electric wire. (Children in the United States also participated in scrap drives.)

Japanese Americans

Japanese Americans were treated very poorly during World War II. At the beginning of the war, 127,000 Americans of Japanese background (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population) lived in the United States. Eighty thousand of them, known as Nisei, had been born in the country and so were American citizens. The rest, called Issei, were born in Japan. They were the parents of the Nisei and had lived in America for many years, since before a 1924 law had stopped almost all Japanese immigration into the United States. The same law also prevented the Issei from becoming American citizens.

All but 15,000 Japanese Americans lived on the West Coast, especially in California. They had long been the victims of discrimination, including laws that made it illegal for them to marry whites and barred them from some public places like swimming pools. Some state laws kept Japanese Americans from owning land and prevented Nisei from voting.

Partly because of this discrimination, the Issei were less integrated into mainstream American society than some other immigrant groups, especially those from Europe. They still spoke mainly Japanese, ate Japanese food, and observed Japanese holidays. This was also true, although to a lesser extent, of the Nisei.

Most Japanese Americans worked in a few industries. They were small farmers, usually renting their land, and raising such crops as lettuce and green beans that were sold locally. These farmers were an important part of the California economy. Other Japanese Americans were fishermen or owned small stores. Very few were in other businesses or professions like law or medicine, or worked in factories. In many ways, therefore, Japanese Americans were isolated from other Americans. The discrimination against them helped ensure that they would have few allies, that they were seen as different and outsiders.

Racism and Pearl Harbor

Japanese American isolation and the anti-Asian racism that was common in the United States contributed to what happened to them during the war. The spark was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. American hatred against Japan and its “sneak attack” was commonly combined with racist ideas that portrayed the Japanese as shifty and treacherous people of low intelligence. They were depicted as cruel savages, their facial features exaggerated in cartoons to make them look like monkeys.

It did not take long to extend these racist ideas to Japanese Americans. Newspapers and local politicians whipped up hysteria against them. The governor of Idaho said that “Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats.” The main argument was that their loyalty to the United States could not be trusted, that some of them would help Japan by spying on American defenses or sabotaging (intentionally destroying) military facilities.

Local politicians demanded the removal of all 112,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast, even though there was not a single known case of spying or sabotage. Some military leaders realized this was nonsense. If there had really been a danger of Japanese American disloyalty, the place where it would have caused a serious problem was Hawaii, where one-third of the population was of Japanese descent. The threat of further Japanese attacks in Hawaii was far more realistic than an invasion of California. In fact, Hawaii was placed under martial law (military law, with many normal legal rights suspended). But there were no extra restrictions on people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii.

Other military authorities, however, agreed with the newspapers that there was no difference between the Japanese in Japan and American citizens of Japanese background. “A Jap’s a Jap,” said General John L. DeWitt, military commander for the West Coast.


On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the War Department to classify anyplace in the country as a military area, and then to bar any persons they chose from those areas. This authority was used only for the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the only people excluded were Japanese Americans—all Japanese Americans.

On March 31, Japanese Americans in the three states had to register at control stations. They were then told when to report for relocation to an internment camp. It is fairly common to intern citizens of an enemy country in wartime, which means to place them in some sort of guarded facility. This is especially true for people who actually live in the enemy country and are planning to return to their home. The Issei, however, were immigrants to the United States who planned to remain for the rest of their lives. Even more important, the Nisei were American citizens, with the same legal and constitutional rights as all other Americans.

The Japanese Americans were told they would be moved anywhere from four days to two weeks later. They could bring only what they could carry. In that short time, they had to sell the rest of their property for whatever they could get. Many people took advantage of their Japanese American neighbors to buy their homes, stores, or cars at very low prices.

The Camps

Armed soldiers moved the Japanese American families from their homes to receiving stations, such as fairgrounds or racetracks where families might be housed in horse stalls. From there they were sent to a relocation camp. There were eventually ten of these camps, all but one in the far west (the exception was in Arkansas). All were located in remote areas unsuitable for farming, surrounded by fences, and guarded by the army. The best known was Manzanar in the southern California desert. A total of 120,000 people lived in the ten camps during the course of the war.

People lived in long wooden barracks divided into one-room apartments, in which an entire family lived. There was almost no furniture and only a bare bulb for light. Toilets, bathing facilities, and dining areas were shared by many families. Although half the Nisei were under eighteen years old when they were relocated, the government had not planned for adequate schools. Recreation facilities hardly existed. There was no work and few ways to pass the time. The relocation camps were like medium-security prisons—except that the prisoners’ only crime was their Japanese ancestry.

Release from the camps was possible if someone could show that he or she was loyal to the United States and had a job waiting in a community that was willing to accept the applicant. This turned out to be almost impossible, and most of the Japanese Americans who were temporarily released from the camps in 1943, between 15,000 and 20,000 people, were students.

The Japanese Americans’ anger at their treatment was mixed with a desire to prove themselves. When Nisei were made eligible to join the armed services in 1943, about three-quarters of the young men did join and fought bravely, even while their parents were still being held in camps. The 442nd Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit made up entirely of Nisei that fought in Italy, won more medals than any other unit in the U.S. Army. About one-quarter, however, refused to swear allegiance to the United States. Some even renounced (gave up) their American citizenship.

During the war, the United States Supreme Court rejected legal challenges to the exclusion and internment policy. Almost all legal experts now believe that these cases were among the lowest moments in the court’s history. The exclusion order was repealed in January 1945. In 1959, American citizenship was restored to those Nisei who had renounced it. In 1989, a federal law provided $20,000 to each surviving victim. And in 1993, a court ruled that interning the Japanese Americans had violated their constitutional rights.