How did the American home front affect World War II, and how did the war affect the American home front?
The Japanese attack on U.S. military installations in Hawaii and in the Philippine Islands on December 7, 1941, fundamentally and irreversibly transformed the United States. A country that previously invested relatively little in its armed forces and that took the concept of “military readiness” too cavalierly was instantaneously transformed into the most formidable military power in the world. That transformation did not occur overnight, as President Franklin Roosevelt had tried to move the nation in the direction of eventual participation in the ongoing war in Europe, but it did occur remarkably quickly. Overnight, the economy of the United States was placed on a wartime footing, with every American family expected to sacrifice material comforts for the war effort. Rationing of some types of food and most heavy metals like steel was imposed so that those resources could be devoted to the war effort. Massive armaments factories were built that churned out fighter planes, bombers, tanks, and ships and submarines at a rate that left the rest of the world in a state of awe—including the mastermind of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had accurately predicted that the attack, even if successful, would result in the emergence of the United States as among the most powerful nations on Earth (Admiral Yamamoto was famously quoted as observing in the successful aftermath of the Japanese surprise attack, “I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”). When contemplating, then, the effects of the war on the American homefront, the transformation of the United States from a physically- and mentally-isolated bastion, protected by massive oceans on each coast, into a global power was the direct result of the development of that wartime economy dedicated to supporting American soldiers, sailors and airmen in Europe and Asia.
The homefront was psychologically affected by the war, as that once-mentally-isolated population was instantly transformed into one more suspicious of and less willing to countenance European and Asian machinations that invariably, historically, resulted in war. The sense of security provided by those oceans would never return, as modern weaponry—first, aircraft, then, rockets and missiles—was shown to threaten every region of the planet, and as the intentions of foreign autocrats could no longer be ignored. Complacency at home was replaced by a global presence abroad.
In the same way that the homefront was directly affected by the war, so was the war directly affected by the American homefront. The developments discussed above all affected the war’s outcome. American industrial strength overwhelmed that of a German Army fighting on two fronts (on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in one of history’s most ill-considered decisions, thereby placing the Third Reich between enemies on both sides). The American capacity for producing tanks, ships and aircraft on a scale previously unheard-of represented this country’s economic and military potential. Even many of the ships sunk at Pearl Harbor were returned to the war effort courtesy of that industrial strength. The transformation of the American homefront, as Admiral Yamamoto predicted, affected the war’s outcome, and post-war world’s development.
One additional area in which the war affected the American homefront was in the role of women in society. Previously, men dominated the American workforce, especially in the “blue-collar” jobs required to build those ships, tanks and airplanes. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, resulted in the voluntary enlistment and involuntary conscription of millions of American men, leaving a serious shortage of laborers in factories back home. That role, consequently, was filled by women. The image of “Rosie the Riveter,” the average housewife newly-outfitted in the overalls and hard-hats characteristic of factory workers, became pervasive both as a symbol of American commitment and sacrifice and of the capacity of women to perform types of work historically associated with men. Unfortunately for most of these women, however, returning soldiers, the war finally over, needed jobs, and those jobs came at the expense of female laborers. Traditional family structures represented by dominant males and subservient women were allowed to return, although the sacrifice of those women remains a part of American history.