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V Was for Victory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

World War II has long been a forgotten episode in America’s domestic history. Scholars have carefully chronicled the exploits of the millions who marched off to battle and have examined the war years in search of the diplomatic antecedents of the subsequent Cold War. But what of those who remained behind manning the home front? John Morton Blum attempts to tell their story in V Was for Victory.

More precisely, Blum seeks to tell parts of their story. As he himself makes clear at the outset, this book is not a history of the home front per se but rather a collection of essays on selected facets of American politics and culture during the war years. It is a strangely discursive work, unified by the theme of World War II as a profoundly conservative experience for the American people. The desire for military victory overwhelmed all other goals and destroyed any hope that the war would be waged as a glorious crusade for a better world of international tranquillity and domestic justice. As Blum observes, “wartime needs reinforced institutional patterns of prewar society, and in so doing stamped postwar conditions.” The message resonates through chapters treating such widely diverse topics as government propaganda, popular perceptions of the enemy and of the American G. I., the wartime experiences of various minority groups, presidential and congressional politics, and business-government relations.

This volume is both rewarding and disappointing. Fortunately, its virtues are many. Blum writes well, and the general reader especially will be pleased to find a work of genuine scholarship which does not bore. The prose is always straightforward and clear; the tone of the book is almost conversational and quite engaging. Scholars will marvel at the range Blum exhibits as he moves deftly from a discussion of wartime magazine advertisements to an analysis of the cultural significance of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, from a study of the maneuverings of the big-city bosses at the 1944 Democratic convention to a brilliant examination of the impact of Keynesian economics on businessmen and politicians alike. Equally admirable, Blum knows when to pull up short. Franklin D. Roosevelt clearly mystifies him: “He was now bold, now cautious, now exuberant, now moody, now generous, now cruel. He never let his right hand know, he once told a friend, what his left hand was doing.” Those who had hoped to have the chameleon-like F.D.R. exposed at last will be disappointed, but one cannot help but appreciate Blum’s candor as he throws up both hands and admits his inability to penetrate the magic and mystery of that man in the White House.

The author handles complicated issues with subtlety and an appreciation of paradox. In examining the treatment accorded Japanese-Americans, he demonstrates how white racism and the political vulnerability of the minuscule Japanese-American community resulted in policies laced with hatred and distrust. These policies, in turn, bred the very alienation on the part of those victimized that officials had suspected at the outset; it was a classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy at work. As Blum makes clear, the situation was far different for Italian-Americans, who were white and who did have considerable political clout, especially in the Northeast, and who were therefore able to protect themselves from the worst ravages of official prejudice.

Blum also has a keen eye for the fascinating figure and the interesting anecdote. The successful struggle of Philip K. Wrigley to have his product, chewing gum, considered an essential war material so as to guarantee continued access to rationed sugar, is little short of hilarious. Wrigley’s public relations machine strove mightily to portray thirst, nicotine, and Adolf Hitler as an evil Nazi triumvirate best fought in American war plants with heavy barrages of Wrigley’s Spearmint.

More significantly, the author focuses on the rapid rise of businessmen like...

(The entire section is 1,578 words.)