The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942


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After the attacks on Pearl Harbor and other places in the Pacific area, Winston Churchill said that he went to sleep peacefully and joyfully because the United States was now in the war.  I am glad that he did not have The Darkest Year:  The American Home Front 1941-1942 by William K. Klingman to read at that time.  It would have given him nightmares.

Understand up front, this is a very enjoyable and informative book.  But as I was reading it, I kept wondering how America ever managed to get its act together and win World War II.  In my mind, the United States gets into the war and within a year is taking great strides toward winning it.  That, too, is true. But this book is a look behind the scenes, mostly away from the centers of power, and beyond the bullet points of the war’s progress in 1942.  America, being a big nation, had lots to do, lots of thinking to change, lots of fears–some legitimate, some ungrounded–with lots of unknown factors that we can now know.  How likely it was that Germans and Japanese would be bombing or invading the U. S. was a real concern at that time.

Mobilizing an entire nation to war is an incredible task.  No doubt many conservatives and libertarians are right on track in their concerns and even opposition to our wars from the past.  World War II necessitated bigger and bigger government action.  It also necessitated uniting people in their attitudes and commitment.  Metal and rubber drives were part of the efforts to get everyone involved.  Gas and food rationing put everyone into the war effort.

Some steps were regrettable.  Primarily, the internment of Japanese Americans was perhaps understandable at that time, but it was far from just or right.  Not surprising, German and Italian Americans were not treated the same.  But part of understanding history is trying to put yourself into the time and place where decisions are made and attitudes are formed. That does not free us from the judgment of history, but it humbles us because we are looking back after more than fifty years and not undergoing the same problems.

Along with the bigger issues of the book is its sheer volume of stories, news clips, and anecdotes.  After years of studying and teaching history, I am still astounded at how Klingman assembled and organized thousands of details of happenings across the country as people reacted to the war.  Sometimes, the paragraphs jump from topic to topic as the author grouped details under the happenings during the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the recurring topics in the book was the transition of the American factories from producing mainly peace-time items to creating a war machine.  From cars to tanks, from passenger planes to bombers, the retooling and redirecting of the industrial might is powerful.  But it is surprising to see how much opposition there was to women taking on jobs in the factories.  What were people thinking?  If the men were in the military, who would “man” the machinery.  Even greater was the opposition to African-Americans to working in factories.  There are lots of features of everyday life from the earlier parts of the last century that I admire, but the prevailing racial attitudes were appalling.

One thing that surprised me was the control the government exercised over news from the war front.  I always assumed that the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo was headline news after it occurred, but it was suppressed.  So were other events, both good and bad.  There is the old question of protecting the military’s actions and the public’s right to know.  In some cases, information about even mundane things was silenced to keep it out of our enemy’s hands.  Such is wartime.

For those, like me, who have read a lot about the military campaigns of World War II will like and should read this book.  I like to think of myself as well informed on the 1940s in America, but I was continually realizing how little I knew of life in the States during those years when we were on a crash course to building the most powerful Arsenal of Democracy the world has ever seen.

I recently told my students that I still have a hard time realizing that World War II happened in color.  I have countless documentaries about the war, and most are in black and white.  Images capture our minds and brand certain periods of history.  Getting more and more of those images, terms, and bullet points are essential tools of learning.  But there is the need to read the more in-depth studies to see how much more there is to what was happening.

There are always the details and the big picture.  That’s why Churchill went to sleep peacefully on the night of December 7, 1941.  He could have speculated that there would be many growing pains, false starts, blunders, and insanities in the process from the under-armed, ill equipped, and naïve United States entering into World War II, but 1942, while a dark year for the United States, was the dawning of the Allied victories that would turn the course of the war and the world.

The Darkest Year: The American Home Front  1941-1942 by William K. Klingman was published in February 2019 by St. Martin’s Press.  Dr. Klingman has published numerous histories, including The First Century, The Year Without Summer, and specific histories of 1919, 1929, and 1941.

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