I know you’ve all been anxiously awaiting the conclusion of this narrative that literally no one else has ever told in history. How does World War II end? Does Hitler create a Reich to last a thousand years? Am I actually speaking Japanese right now?!
OK let’s get right to it. Today we’re finishing World War II. How did the war end? And what happened when the nuclear dust settled and soldiers returned home to a country (and an economy) that looked completely different than the one they had left? Today’s episode is called Post-WWII America or, “Boom, Baby!”
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time.
Act 1: The End is Near
As we talked about last episode, the overall strategy in both Europe and the Pacific was to just get close enough to the Axis home states where we could do direct damage. That was much easier, relatively speaking, in Europe because we had control of bases in places like England and eventually North Africa that were within bombing distance of Germany. However, in the Pacific it was a bit more complicated considering that… well, Japan is an island in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth. Our friend China would have been really helpful right about now but they were dealing with their own Japanese invasion. So we set up permanent shop in Australia and then “hopped” from island to island – fighting Japanese soldiers and sometimes civilians all along the way – inching our way close enough to an island that could launch bombers to hit Japan.
The main turning point in the Pacific was the Battle of Midway. Essentially, besides the initial attack at Pearl Harbor, Midway was the closest the Japanese ever got to North America during the actual war. Full disclosure: a lot of this next part is taken directly from my World War Two episode from Season 1 because as a teacher in the midst of pandemic teaching, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
So, the naval fleet that had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor was camped out near the island of Midway and the Japanese wanted to destroy it. For context, we had just fought the Battle of Coral Sea – the first naval battle in world history where the fighting ships never even saw each other. The entire battle was fought entirely by planes launched from opposing ships. There was no clear winner in the battle itself but the after-effects were a win for the U.S. For one, we destroyed or damaged two of their battleships so they were not able to participate in the next, even larger, naval battle. It also marked the first time we stopped the Japanese advance across the Pacific. And although one of our ships, the Yorktown, was seriously damaged it was repaired and back in action in just three days.
This brings me to an important point: How did the US win the war? We’ll talk more about it in a few minutes, but one of the main answers is that our factories won the war. Meaning, the industrial capacity that the US had built up since the Gilded Age – and that kicked into high gear by the government during the war, motivated by the decade of the Depression – this was a huge advantage over other countries. Now, Japan had been doing the exact same thing – if you remember from Season 1, they went through their Meiji Restoration at the same time we were emerging from the Civil War. In many ways our paths were parallel – but the difference was that Japan relied on trade or outright imperialism to gain access to industrial materials. They either had to negotiate a trading agreement (often with the US) or they had to take over land in Asia. Now, say what you will about “Manifest Destiny” and the American conquest from “sea to shining sea” (and I have. On this podcast.) But this proved to be a huge advantage for us during the war because we were in control of our own raw materials that could fuel our factories. Throughout the war, for every one warship built by the Japanese, the US built sixteen. And the fact that two of the Japanese aircraft carriers were out of commission for months while ours was back on the water in three days is evidence of just how efficient and effective our industry at home had grown to be.
Anyway, after the Battle of Coral Sea, the Japanese had made a plan to attack an island near Pearl Harbor and draw the American fleet into a trap. But cryptographers had been working for months to break Japanese code – analyzing radio messages from weather reports to battle plans (you get it, you’ve seen The Imitation Game.) They believed they had done it – the codebreakers figured out that the code “AF” referred to our base at the Midway Atoll. Not everyone was so sure – there was real fear that this was the trap and the Japanese were actually going to attack Hawaii or the West Coast. So the codebreakers set a trap – they instructed radio operators at Midway to send a message to Pearl Harbor that their salt-water evaporators had broken down. Soon after, the codebreakers intercepted a Japanese message saying that “AF” was running out of drinking water. Aha! The game is the foot!
With this information, Pacific Fleet commander Chester W. Nimitz put his ships in a position to surprise the Japanese ships that were setting up the trap. It was a trap within a trap! Military historians have called the ensuing Battle of Midway, “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” Japan lost all four of its fleet carriers – three of them were destroyed in less than an hour. In comparison, the US only lost one. And the Japanese lost 3,000 men, ten times more than the US’s 300 deaths.
This was the turning point after which the U.S. forces were slowly pushing the Japanese back toward Japan. As one historian put it, “That the Americans at Midway changed the course of World War II is indisputable. At 10 o’clock on the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese were winning the Pacific War; an hour later, three Japanese aircraft carriers were on fire and sinking.”
The Battle of Midway happened in June of 1942- just six months after Pearl Harbor. However, the war in the Pacific wouldn’t end for another three years. Taking each island took an enormous amount of time, manpower, and sacrifice. For example, just a few months later the first US land offensive in the Pacific started to take over Guadalcanal. The “battle” (really a series of battles) took six months and is another example of the US turn from defense to offense.
As the navy “hops” from island chain to island chain, MacArthur’s army gets bogged down recapturing the Philippines. Remember – he told them he would return so damn it, he was going to return. In the end, the final battles came at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima, it was clear from the beginning that the US would win but the Japanese forced us to pay a high cost. It’s the only engagement of the Pacific theater where the US had more casualties (dead or injured) than the Japanese, although around 18,000 Japanese died compared with almost 7,000 for the US. From Iwo Jima, the US had complete control of the skies – we could launch bombers and stealth aircraft over the entire territory of Japan. And after the three month long Battle at Okinawa, in which 12,000 Americans and potentially 100,000 Okinawans and Japanese died, the US was capable of staging a land invasion of Japan.
Let’s pause here and rewind a bit to see what’s going on in Europe.
So, it’s 1942. Looking at the global conflict: the tide has turned in the Pacific with Midway and on the eastern front with Stalingrad (for more detail, check out my Season 1 episode on the war). Now the Allies have to figure out how to take control of western Europe. In 1943 they come up from the south through North Africa and eventually Italy. But the last major turning point is the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France, known as D-Day.
Officially, this is known as the Battle of Normandy and its code name was Operation Overlord. On June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, Canadian and British forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline. Over 5,000 ships brought 160,000 troops (60,000 of those men didn’t even make it to the shore.) The fiercest fighting for the US was at Omaha Beach. Of the first company of men who left the boats and stormed the beaches, ⅔ died without firing a single shot.
13,000 paratroopers had already parachuted into France and were behind enemy lines to gain control of important infrastructure, like roads and bridges, to allow the invading forces to march through France. There’s an HBO miniseries called Band of Brothers that follows a group of paratroopers who were involved in D-Day. It’s incredible. Stop listening to this and go watch it.
Welcome back! Wasn’t it so good?! OK. The D-Day invasion took an enormous amount of coordination and planning, all of which was overseen by American Dwight D. Eisenhower, our future president. Over 425,000 people were killed or went missing during the Battle of Normandy. 2,500 Americans died in a single day but the Allied victory turned the tide in the war in Europe. From this point on, the Allies are advancing toward the hearts of the Axis powers – the Americans, French, and British are closing in on Germany from the west; the Russians are coming from the east; and the Americans are working their way across the Pacific to get within direct striking distance of Japan.
So by 1945, the Allied Powers were closing in on all sides. The Battle of the Bulge that occurred the previous winter was the last huge defense by the Nazis before they were retreating into German territory. At that point, it was a race to Berlin between the English, French and Americans from the west and the Soviets from the east. The Soviets got there first but not before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945.
How did we win the war in Europe? Well, our industrial capacity was a huge help and D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge were significant American achievements. But in reality, Europe was saved from Hitler by the Russians. For most of the war, all the other Allies had been pushed off the continent completely and really the only thing keeping Germany from expanding even further and potentially conquering England directly was the fact that they had to hold off millions of Russians on the Eastern Front. Approximately 14 million Russians died during the war – 13% of their total population. By comparison, 400,000 Americans died – approximately 0.23% of the population. Now, I am in no way suggesting that 400,000 dead Americans is not terrible. But it’s important to understand the magnitude of loss that Russia experienced. And when you add in the deaths of all the members of the Soviet Union, the total comes to 26.6 million people dead. We’ll talk more about this when we get into the Cold War but just keep this in mind – there’s a lot of resentment within the Soviet Union by people who feel like they made the largest sacrifices during the war while the US and its allies sat back for a few years planning D-Day. To be clear, that’s not what actually happened (but, like, were we probably fine that most of the people dying on our side were Communists who were only allies out of convenience? Sure.) But it’s easy to see how the Soviets would feel resentment regardless of our intentions.
In the Pacific theater it’s quite clear how we won: we bombed Japan into oblivion. And I’m not just talking about the two atomic bombs – that’s what everyone jumps to. By the time we dropped the two atomic bombs, we had been conducting air raids and firebombing campaigns to some extent for almost three years. Going back to the point about the importance of US innovation, engineering and production during this time, a turning point came with the creation of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress in late 1942. It cost $3 billion to design and produce (for reference, the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bombs cost $1.9 billion.) Basically, the B-29 could fly (and drop bombs) at both high and low altitudes and it could fly much further – making it easier to hit Japan from safer distances. Now, for way more context on this, you should check out Season 5 of Revisionist History. There’s a four-part series of episodes all about the B-29 and the bombing of Japan and it’s fascinating.
But the thing I want to just make sure we understand is that it wasn’t that we were island hopping and then all of a sudden dropped two atomic bombs. We had been conducting traditional air raids on Japan for years and in the last year of the war we began firebombing campaigns of major cities, especially Tokyo. This is something I didn’t quite understand until I listened to Revisionist History but firebombing is just a more general term for using Napalm. Napalm was invented by Harvard scientists during the war specifically as part of a competition among various scientific institutions to create the most destruction substance that would burn down Tokyo’s wooden building. The trick with Napalm is that when it explodes it splatters a fiery gel that sticks to whatever it lands on and continues burning. It’s horrible.
In March of 1945, as the Allies are closing in on Berlin in the European theater, US warplanes dropped 2,000 incendiary bombs on Tokyo in just 48 hours. 16 square miles of the densely populated city burned to the ground and between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese people were killed in just a few hours.
I bring this up for a few reasons: one, it’s something that a lot of Americans don’t learn about and that’s my wheelhouse. But second, this was way just as destructive and deadly – at least immediately – than the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, it’s important as context for the ultimate decision to drop the atomic bombs.
Now, I’m going to leave it to each of you to decide how you feel about the decision to drop the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war. I honestly am not sure what I think of it. To be clear: I think it’s terrible. But, if I step back with my historian brain and think about it strategically, I’m not sure.
Essentially, the question was: how can we end the war without having to invade Japan? Fighting throughout the Pacific had shown us that the Japanese were willing to fight to the last men. Often, when it was clear the battle was over, instead of surrendering the Japanese would run at the US troops in a suicide attack. On other islands, they convinced civilians to jump off cliffs en masse rather than being taken by the US. It was clear at this point that we would ultimately win the war with Japan, but how long would it take?
Anecdotally, my grandfather-in-law – Pop Pop – joined the Navy as soon as he was old enough near the end of the war. When I asked him last Christmas, he told me that he had never been happier than when he found out that we had dropped the atomic bombs. Now, Pop Pop isn’t a psychopath – I don’t think – but he knew, as a teenager, that if the war kept going he was going to have to invade Japan itself and fight from city to city. It was estimated by the War Department that an invasion would lead to 1.7 – 4 million casualties (deaths and serious injuries) and, assuming the Japanese civilians took up the fight as well, 5 to 10 million Japanese fatalities.
But there was another reason that the US wanted the war with Japan to end quickly: the Soviets were coming. Now that Hitler had surrendered, the Soviet army could send some of its troops east to help the US fight in Korea, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. That seemed nice and all but, we weren’t thrilled with the idea of Stalin getting a say in how the Pacific would be divided up after the war – especially considering we did most of the fighting and dying in this theater. They already had to give up North Korea to the Soviets after the peninsula was freed from Japanese rule. Essentially, the Cold War was beginning as World War Two was ending and Truman understood the importance of having territory in Asia whenever the shaky alliance between the US and the Soviets collapsed.
So, those are the two rational arguments for ending the war quickly. And, at that time, the US military truly felt that it had tried everything else: I mean, if firebombing Tokyo didn’t do it we weren’t sure what else would. After telling Britain (but not our other main ally, the Soviets… uh oh…) and giving a vague warning of “prompt and utter destruction” to the Japanese government, the US dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, a military-industrial center and port city. Still with no surrender from the Japanese, Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki three days later – the same day the Soviets formally declared war on Japan. Now, both cities were crucial to the Japanese war effort – Nagasaki was a major military port and the site of most of their shipbuilding and repair operations. But, similar to what would happen if the Japanese bombed Detroit or New York City, there were also many civilians in those cities.
This takes us back to the idea introduced in Season 1 about “total war.” World War Two was the epitome of a “total war” because everyone was an asset – the soldiers, the kids buying war bonds at home, the Rosies riveting – but that meant that everyone was a target. In the end, between 129,000 and 226,000 people were killed when the two bombs were dropped. The Japanese surrendered and the postwar era began. Amazingly, Japan would turn around and quickly become one of our most important allies and trading partners in the region, but not after Douglas MacArthur paraded through Japan, rewriting their Constitution in our own image, and ensuring that they never were allowed to build up a military again.
So, the war is over! You know the drill: everyone’s dancing to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy while sailors kiss random nurses in the streets. Everyone is so happy to just go back to normal. Well, the “normal” before the Great Depression…
Act 2: WWII: The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movements
Except that not everyone wanted to get back to normal. The “Good Old Days” weren’t good for everyone. And World War II had opened up opportunities, and conversations about freedom and discrimination, that couldn’t just be put back in the box.
First of all, there’s the fact that the United States was expressly fighting against an undemocratic government that preached ethnic supremacy while oppressing, and killing, minorities. In contrast to both Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan, we were the “good guys.” So it became a little… awkward… when we took a look in the mirror and remembered that we weren’t treating African Americans and other people of color that much better. Like, to figure out how to remove citizenship rights from German Jews, Nazi lawyers literally studied the American Jim Crow South and the treatment of Native Americans on Indian Reservations.
Meanwhile, Americans of color had risked their lives to fight for the idea of freedom. They had “proven themselves” in the war and gained community and confidence that would embolden them when they came home. Here’s just a few facts and figures for you…
- Half a million Hispanic Americans and half a million Jewish Americans served in the war
- ⅓ of all able-bodied Native Americans served
- The most decorated unit in the history of the United States military was the 442 Regiment – an all Japanese-American regiment that fought in Europe. Of 14,000 second-generation Japanese Americans, the unit earned 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Star Medals and 21 Medals of Honor.
Arguably the most famous unit of color to serve in the war were the Tuskegee Airmen. Before the war, there was widespread belief amongst the military that African Americans were not smart enough to learn to fly sophisticated aircraft. But with a war in two theaters, the Air Force needed all the pilots they could get and they started training a small group of Black pilots. As always, Eleanor Roosevelt helped the cause. She visited the Tuskegee Air Field in 1941, taking photographs and riding on an aerial tour with some of the airmen. Because FDR always – eventually – listens to his wife, he ordered African Americans be allowed into combat for the first time broadly since the Civil War. The Tuskegee Airmen eventually flew 15,000 individual attacks across Europe and North Africa, earning 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Over 200 missions they didn’t lose a single pilot to enemy fire.
Soon after, in 1943, FDR ordered all military bases to be integrated and, by the end of the decade, the US Army would be fully desegregated.
Arguably, this was the easiest aspect of American society to change. In times of crisis, the color of peoples’ skin doesn’t matter as much, especially when you have a fairly enlightened Commander in Chief highly influenced by his ahead-of-her-time/Declaration-of-Human-Rights-writing badass wife. African-Americans recognized that earning their rights outside the military would be more difficult but many leaders used the rhetoric of the war to spark what would become the Civil Rights Movement.
African Americans began calling for the “Double V” – a victory over racism abroad and another victory over racism at home. Leading this charge was labor leader A. Philip Randolph. In 1937 he had organized the first official African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and he used his influence to push for job equality during the war. When the war began, Randolph told President Roosevelt that he was organizing a March on Washington to advocate for African Americans in the workforce. Wanting to avoid divisions at home while mobilizing for war abroad, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, decreeing that “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Basically, if you were a business that had a government contract – which was a lot of companies at this point – you could not discriminate on the basis of race. As part of this, FDR also created the Fair Employment Practices Commission to make sure the defense industry was following this order. The commission marks the first federal civil rights agency created since Reconstruction. What?!
After the war, A. Philip Randolph continued the momentum. He organized the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. Long name, but it worked! In 1948 Truamn banned racial segregation in the Armed Forces. And Randolph would later become a mentor to future Civil Rights leader, helping organize the 1963 March on Washington where a guy named King had a Dream. More on him later…
So desperate times called for desperate measures. Factory owners – God forbid – had to start hiring minorities since so many of the white male workforce was off fighting Nazis and storming beaches. And many business owners went even further and just hired women. Whoa.
But before we get to Rosie the Riveter, it’s important to note that World War II was the first time that women were actually allowed to enlist in the military. Although they were barred from combat (that ban wouldn’t be removed until 2013, by the way), over 68,000 women served overseas as nurses and 300 women flew as service pilots. Another 4 million women were hired by the government to take over clerical and administrative jobs in the military that freed up men to go fight.
Even more women found work in the private sector. The number of working women increased from 12 to 18.8 million by the end of the war. And most of this growth came from nontraditional working women – many of them married with children. While the most famous image we have of women in the war is Rosie the Riveter, the majority of women worked behind a desk. But 2.5 million women took up more manual labor in shipyards, aircraft factories, and manufacturing plants.
It’s at this point that I would just like to mention that the federal government funded a nationwide daycare program to support working mothers. Spending the equivalent of $1 Billion today, the government oversaw the creation of 3,000 childcare centers and eventually served half a million children. When women’s rights advocates petitioned for the program to continue after the war they were mostly ignored – daycare was a wartime necessity, but the best care for a young child was from their mother. (As an enthusiastic patron of daycare, I would just like to say that I’m 100% confident that my three-year-old is getting more from his highly trained, bilingual teacher before he comes home to a nice house we can afford because of our two paychecks and happy parents who both lead fulfilling careers but, hey, who am I to say what’s best for my kid?)
OK rant over. So obviously the patriarchal power structures expected everything to “go back to normal” after the war was over. And it’s true that many minorities lost their jobs once white workers returned and many women left the workforce entirely – some willingly and others unwillingly. But after four years of the most productive economy we’ve ever seen – fueled by minority and female labor – it just became harder for people to argue that those groups were somehow less capable than white men.
World War II would prove to be the spark that started the modern Civil Rights movements. African Americans unified behind a common rhetoric that held up American hypocrisy, women had proved they could “do it all,” and other marginalized groups found community for the first time as they moved in even larger numbers to big cities and found slivers of opportunity.
These groups, from people of color to women to the LGBTQ community, had seen glimpses of a world not dominated by white men and they were not going to allow things to return to the so-called “Good Old Days.”
Act 3: Return to the Good Old Days
So while the United States after World War I experienced racial tension, Communist fears, and disillusionment; the United States after World War II experienced racial tension, Communist fears, and patriotism. That’s growth, I guess.
No one can deny that the United States after World War II was the most dominant superpower in the world. Well, I guess the Soviet Union is going to try to deny that but we’ll get to you later, Commies! As Winston Churchill put it in 1945, “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world.” This, of course, is the moment of The Boom.
Now, The Boom – and the ensuing “Boomers” – carries very different emotions depending on which generation you’re a part of. Boomers have become a focal point of this epic intergenerational warfare we are waging online. For some, Boomers are the epitome of hardworking traditional American values. For others, they’re the reason I won’t be able to retire until I’m 85.
If you are listening to this and you’re 55 or older, then I’m talking about you. And you’re great! You got to live through the American Golden Age where we were at the height of our power and influence and the U.S. saw an almost constantly growing economy. Good for you!
If you’re part of Gen X then we’re talking about your older siblings or aunts and uncles or really young parents. You rebelled against their Golden Age patina and probably will have a slightly more complicated, punk rock view of The Boom. Honestly I don’t know what y’all think of Boomers because you’re smarter than us and stay away from social media and just work on your collection of vinyl and/or flannel.
But if you’re a Millennial like me or a Zoomer like my students, well… you’re going to hate this part. Get ready to feel some combination of jealousy and resentment because the Boomers got to live through the American Golden Age where we were at the height of our power and influence and the U.S. saw an almost constantly growing economy. Good for them. But don’t blame your parents or grandparents, they’re good people. Well, mine are at least. But The Boom as undoubtedly defined modern America – and whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you were a part of it, or you just missed the boat. Or whether you’re on Facebook or TikTok.
So what was “The Boom?” It’s a lot of things. Demographically, we’re talking about the baby boom. In 1946, just after the war ended, a record 3.4 million babies were born. Throughout the 1950s, 4 million babies were born each year. By the end of the Baby Boom in 1964, there were 77 million new “Baby Boomers.” I love comparing this to the post-WWI era when men returning from war were like moving to Paris to write existential novels (I’m looking at you Hemingway.) But after WWII, soldiers come home and are like, “Where’s my wife?! Let’s have 5 kids and buy a big house!”
The other part of “The Boom” is the economy. Between 1945 and 196 the US GNP doubled from $200 billion to $500 billion. It’s called the “Golden Age of American Capitalism” except… that’s misleading. A lot of people remember the post-WWII era this way – everyone just got back to work, rolled up their sleeves and made a lot of money! Capitalism wins! But we forget that a lot of this economic boom was fueled by massive government spending. The government built interstate highways, schools, distributed veterans’ benefits, and massively increased its spending on military materials and technology. Unemployment and inflation were low and wages were high. And a college education was affordable and accessible to many – having a college education became more of the norm over the second half of the 20th century as our economy shifted from one focused on more labor-intensive industries like manufacturing, to intellectual labor like research and development.
Probably the most iconic imagery of the Boom is the new suburban developments or “suburbs.” Mass production was applied to housing as the GI subsidized mortgages for returning soldiers to buy a home in the ‘burbs for often less than it would cost to rent an apartment in the city. And since auto factories were back to making cars instead of tanks, suburban families could have a car to get anywhere interesting. (No offense suburbs but, you get it.)
The GI Bill is really interesting because it’s been referred to as the “last gasp of the New Deal.” It was one of the last major pieces of legislation signed by FDR, just weeks after D-Day began. First, I like this flex. We’re still fighting two wars but Roosevelt’s like, yeah I know they’ll be coming home soon….
The problem with the GI Bill, and the Boom in general, was that it was mostly isolated to… well, you guessed it… white people. Officially the GI Bill was supposed to apply to every veteran, including the 1.2 million Black people who served their country. But in order to get it passed, FDR had to make a deal with the Southern Democrats (foreboding music). They insisted that the program should be administered by the individual states, instead of the federal government, which meant the GI Bill just got lumped into all the other Jim Crow era loopholes that excluded Black citizens from getting their promised rights.
Quick note about Southern Democrats: you’re going to be hearing a lot about them in the next few episodes. Essentially, the New Deal coalition of Democrats was so huge that it included people of many races all across the country. They all unified behind FDR’s vision of a government that more actively supported the working class and farmers. However, remember that for most of American history, politics was way more about your wallet than your personal beliefs. So white Democrats in the South were overwhelmingly also segregationists. Which is weird, because they technically were in the same political party as Black southerners who finally left the Republican “Party of Lincoln” during the New Deal. That’s why we need to make a distinction with Southern Democrats – sometimes called “Dixiecrats.” These are white southerners who are fine with big government to build the economy but only if that same big government stays out of their local business (i.e. white supremacist oppression of people of color.) And the only way the New Deal coalition is going to hold, especially once FDR is gone, is with president’s who appeal to that Southern Democrat group, which will be frustrating for anyone who would like to see the President of the United States make quicker headway on Civil Rights issues (I’m looking at you, Kennedy.)
Anyway, we’ll come back to them later. So even if a Black veteran could get GI Bill tuition money, they still had to get accepted into a university, which was difficult considering that many had a cap on how many Black students they would admit each year.
More importantly, it was essentially impossible for Black people to get home loans. Many banks refused to lend to Black men, regardless of the guarantees of the GI Bill. A decade before the bill was even passed, at the height of the Great Depression, the federal government attempted to solve the problem of homelessness. There were not enough homes in cities and so they tried to prioritize giving support to families and areas that were deemed a safer financial investment. Other parts of town were “redlined” which meant the federal government identified them as a risky investment for banks. Uncoincidentally, these districts were overwhelmingly filled with people of color who were living in debt cycles of renting apartments and homes that they could never afford to buy. This practice basically meant that the federal government identified people of color as a financial risk to banks, and encouraged them to save their precious resources for more “stable” (read: “white”) investment opportunities.
Back to the 1940s, even if a Black family could get a home loan, most suburban developments had “restrictive covenants” that banned Black families from buying homes in their area. Redlining HOAs (or Homeowners Associations for Millennials and Gen Z listeners who are like, “People can buy homes?”) were often created with the purpose of creating rules and guidelines that made it impossible for Black families to move in. Real estate agents would refuse to show homes to Black families. All of this meant that at a critical moment when an entire generation of working and middle class families were able to buy their first home and create wealth that would grow and be passed down, Black families were excluded.
The suburbs will become the primary destination for white families looking to “escape” the growing Civil Rights movement. In the 1950s society is changing as televisions enter most homes, broadcasting Elvis shaking his hips, beatnik poets talking about sex and Black people fighting oppression. (For context, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – of Rosa Parks and Dr. King fame – began in 1954, just 9 years after the end of World War II.) In that same year, Brown v. the Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional. And although most southern states would refuse to integrate for decades, the all-white suburbs provided a really easy way to avoid the issue entirely by leaving the more diverse urban centers where change was occurring more quickly. Next time you are driving into a suburb, look for the “Welcome” signs. More often than not you’ll learn that those suburbs are technically separate towns that were “incorporated” in the 1950s or 1960s. By separating from the city entirely, they could create their own local administration and municipalities which segregated society even further. And, honestly, it’s this type of informal, “loophole” segregation that is going to be way harder to undo because it’s generational.
Of course, the other group that lost out on some of the promises of the postwar world were women. Rosie the Riveter was cute when we were at war, but afterwards most husbands (and the government) didn’t want their wives still leaving their domestic responsibilities for a job. Most of the 18 million women who were in the workforce at the end of the war were laid off or chose to leave their jobs. But, the images of women working in traditionally all-male jobs stuck with many people in society who were like, “Huh. Maybe a woman can do the same things as a man.”
But white women who had joined the armed services did get many of the benefits of the GI Bill as well. While women couldn’t get their own loans in most parts of the country so that point was moot, but over 65,000 female veterans attended college through the government program. Unfortunately, overall there were fewer women in college at this time because universities decided to make space for male veterans by limiting how many women they admitted. Two steps forward, one step back…
For many middle- and upper-class women, the Boom further confined their opportunities. Now, these women were out in the suburbs away from the bustle of city life, often without a car to get around (since the husband needed it to get to work.) And advice books and magazines exploded full of advice about marrying young, cooking pot roasts, and welcoming your husband home with a full face of makeup and a martini.
This message was not new. But there was something different now. Many women had experienced the full extent that American society had to offer her. She had had a job that gave her a sense of purpose beyond family life, and some spending money of her own. And the television opened up other opportunities and experiences. Many women throughout the 1950s began to experience what Betty Friedan would call in the 1960s, “the feminine mystique” of the housewife, who had everything she had been told she should want but still felt like there was something more. As Friedan put it, the suburbs were “burying women alive.”
But none of that was very important to the government because as soon as we defeated Hitler, we came face to face with our next enemy. And he was everywhere… In the anti-war poems of the beatniks and the pleas for equality of early Civil Rights leaders. In women who chose not to marry and Hollywood actors who refused to make exclusively patriotic content. That’s right. The Boom and the plight of people of color and housewives was put on the backburner because we needed to fight… the Communists.
To be continued.