Social history of the American homefront in the early months of World War II, a time of profound uncertainty and anxiety.
As Klingaman (The First Century: Emperors, Gods and Everyman, 2008, etc.) observes at the beginning of his vigorous narrative, the Christmas season of 1941 opened with considerable promise. The Great Depression had lifted, expanded defense spending had created a thriving job market, and “fur coats seemed to be everywhere.” There were warning signs, including a silk shortage caused by uneasiness over events in Asia, and war had been raging in Europe for more than two years, but Americans tended to ignore those events and to advocate staying out of the war. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that, provoking a military response and domestic measures that would themselves become infamous, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans. The author is good at teasing out small but telling details—e.g., the fact that college enrollments, not high to begin with ("the number of adults without even one year of formal education nearly equaled the number of college graduates”) dropped dramatically because of the draft and the ever expanding armaments industry, which demanded workers. He also delivers entertaining anecdotes along the way, such as a unit of Confederate veterans, all over 90 years old, declaring war on Japan even as inmates of San Quentin requested knitting lessons so that they could make sweaters and hats for soldiers. Yet Klingaman’s narrative is marked by dark moments and the birth of trends, some of which persist today, such as the militarization of society and a rightward turn in politics, evidenced by such things as popular support for drafting any defense worker who went on strike for better pay or working conditions—to say nothing of racist incidents against African-Americans who had moved north and west to seek such jobs.
A welcome study of an aspect of wartime history that is little known among those too young to have experienced it.