History is merely a study of the past, not the past itself. Dates, times, and eras can hardly be rearranged or altered; however, encompassing knowledge about why such data exists can be vastly unique depending on the historian. This analytical study, known as historiography, is utilized to study not only historical evidence and writing, but rather the way historians and their work offer conclusions. In essence, historiography is the history of history, and examines historians’ depictions of events.
American Society in World War II: Which One?
This paper will examine two different historical perspectives, both of which deal with American involvement in World War II. The first, Liberalism and Its Discontents, a book written by Alan Brinkley, depicts the United States in the Second World War as a country which had limited racial tensions and flourishing national unity to preserve national goals. However, Wartime America: The World War II Home Front, a historical book written by John W. Jeffries, suggests otherwise. To him, the United States was as discriminatory as ever, and the War fleshed out longstanding sociocultural barriers. Although both historians offer different accounts of the past, neither is necessarily wrong; rather, their unique perspectives on this historical time period demonstrate the discipline’s complexities and ideological importance.
The Contradictions of Japanese Internment
The United States was a vastly different nation during the Second World War than it was in the first. Many social and macroeconomic changes took place since the 1920s, especially after the Great Depression and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For one, the Depression had hardened many Americans’ views of money, stocks, and investments, giving them a new appreciation for the limited means they began to hold so dearly (Macalvaine, 67). Yet President Roosevelt’s numerous policies to put Americans back to work after 1929 did more than simply strengthen the country’s employment rate; he also worked to dwindle the pervasive racism and longstanding ethnic tensions that had ravaged the country for so many years.
Often working to fight for the needs of both African-American and Asian-American citizens, Roosevelt mandated new policies to strengthen minority socioeconomic prowess and rights, a leader in the country’s growing movement for equality and liberty for all (Macalvaine 189). However, like the historical debate about the United States sociopolitical ferment in the 1940s, it is clear that Roosevelt did not also change American lifestyles completely. Nearing the end of his tenure, he had placed thousands of Japanese citizens in internment camps across the western seaboard, and stayed out of many social issues to help build the country’s economic infrastructure instead. This short anecdote tells us quite a bit about history in its nature. One can suggest that FDR perpetuated racial tensions over his tenure, while another can easily use evidence to articulate his role in helping minority groups and individuals. This longstanding historical issue is one that I will now contemplate using the documents I have previously articulated.
United Against a Nazi Regime
Like President Roosevelt’s tenure, World War II has been depicted in different ways by different historians. As Brinkley would have it, the war helped bring together multiple people of different religions, backgrounds, and races, as the cause against Hitler and Nazi Germany was enticing enough to solidify a stronger American unity not based on petty personal differences (Brinkley, 4). Moreover, the scholar also suggests that, “prosperity transformed the material circumstances of many black men and women [in the 1940s],” two groups who had previously remained disenfranchised for decades (Brinkley 19). Thus, to Brinkley, the advantages of the wartime climate inflicted a wide range of previously discriminated groups, especially in terms of such individuals’ economic goals. To continue this argument, he later notes that “most women came to the end of the war determined not to return to a purely domestic life” by giving examples of ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ which was a popular terminology given to working women during the era (Brinkley 22). Brinkely thus emphasizes “the new reality of women moving in unprecedented numbers into the paid workforce,” and dissects such a transition in unique ways (Brinkley 24). In short, the scholar interprets wartime America as a place in which concessions were made to minority groups to more prudently garner national support for a broader cause, thus impacting the rights and connotations of these people in better ways.
Brinkley also supports his argument, that the War assisted and bettered the lives of many minority groups, by illustrating the American hatred for Nazism, which was founded upon white supremacy, hierarchical rule, and dictatorship. He emphasizes that, “America was in a life-and-death struggle for liberty and equality (much like the Civil War), and African Americans were watching for signs of what war and victory would mean in terms of opportunity and rights” (Brinkley, 21). The scholar essentially argues that because the United States was so opposed to the white supremacist Nazi regime, the nation began to reflect on their own shortcomings, and looked at ways to more adequately address the citizens’ needs, regardless of their race and religious background. While this dissection of Brinkley’s thesis only highlights a small portion of the historian’s work, he continues to argue along a broad thesis that suggests that the American home front during World War II changed substantially, and became far more progressive as the time period moved forward.
Racial Tension on the Domestic Homefront
Before fleshing out the ways in which this material compares to other scholars, it is first important to note where Brinkley derived this information from. For the most part, his analysis is extremely astute, and his reflections on American society during World War II illustrate his understanding of the time period as a whole. The historian grounds his argument first and foremost, in factual evidence. Almost every claim he makes is reiterated in the primary sources he uses; there are many documents and historical works that suggest African-Americans gained far greater political and socioeconomic weight during the time period (Boyer, 23). Yet for the interest of this study, it is also imperative to recognize the other arguments made, also grounded in evidence, that differ from the opinion and perspective of that of Brinkley.
Related Post: Read an essay about racial tensions in the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Many studies have analyzed the American home front in World War II in different ways than Brinkley’s research; and such interpretation also carries a great deal of historical merit. In Jeffries’ book, there are many arguments given to support the idea that the War did not necessarily assist the rights of minority groups. To support these claims, the historian utilizes documents and policies of the American government. He emphasizes that while arguments can be made by historians like Brinkley to deem the Second World War the “Good War,” he disagrees with such terminology. In fact, Jeffries states that, “longstanding prejudice limited the gains of African Americans, of women, and of other minorities; the great wartime gains went to the already rich and powerful and accentuated inequalities; deep-rooted social divisions persisted” (Jeffries, 14-5). This idea completely differs from that of Brinkely, who, as I previously stated, suggested that wartime prosperity reached broadly across class, gender, and racial barriers (Brinkley 19). Thus, although Jeffries acknowledges the arguments of other historians, he differs greatly with their overarching outlook on the American home front during World War II, suggesting that popular conceptions of the time period utilized to motivate and drive unity during war were, for the most part, ideological at best, and thus a representation of the American domestic front as a fallacy.
To continue and ground his argument in historical evidence, Jeffries also notes the pervasive racism that carried the foundation for Japanese interment camps. The historian states that, “Japanese American were in fact treated differently,” and that “Japanese aliens were more likely to be on government watch lists and to be interned” (Jeffries, 127). This picture of American social justice during the Second World War clashes directly with Brinkley’s thesis; instead of illustrating a progressive society, one built on foundations of unity, the historian articulates a very different connotation of American life during the time. Jeffries continues this argument by also highlighting the travesties of Japanese internment, something of which was entirely missing from Brinkley’s depiction of 1940s American domestic life. The historian backs this argument up with statistical evidence as well. In fact, Jeffries suggests that “more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, most of them native-born American citizens, were removed from the West Coast and placed in relocation camps” (Jeffries, 127).
By no means do I mean to suggest that Brinkley was necessarily wrong in his interpretation; many times, historians cannot focus on an entire act or event. In fact, such analysis would be futile and legitimately impossible. Since the development of postmodern theory, many groups and people have now been recognized in historical documentation, and an individual’s depiction of a specific event has now become more properly rendered as “incomplete” by contemporary scholarship. This is not to say that such documentation is not accurate, important, and insightful, but rather, simply that no history should never be rendered “complete.” Yet the difference between these authors central thesis and ideas pose another key historiographical idea. Either way, it’s clear that individual liberty was expanded as a result of WWII.
The fact that these authors don’t just articulate different facets of the American home front during the 1940s, but conceptualize and hypothesize uniquely alternative versions of the historical event shows the value of historical thought. As I have previously shown throughout this paper, none of the historians were inaccurate or wrong in their interpretation, just different. While we can agree that one author may have posed a stronger argument, for example, I feel Jeffries work on Japanese internment camps illustrates the many instances of minority discrimination, something of which was absent from Brinkley’s work, it is quite obvious that another could agree with the latter, as their arguments are grounded in factual evidence and data.
An all-encompassing version of the American home front during World War II cannot be gathered, and, as historians, we must recognize that there are many different ways to accurately look at the same event. Different documentation can lead to different results, but even the same evidence can also yield alternative beliefs. Moving forward, it thus becomes crucial to note the pervasiveness of historiography as a means from which to study the past.
Brinkley, Alan. Liberalism and Its Discontents. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Boyer, Paul S. Promises to Keep. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Jeffries, John W. Wartime America: The World War II Home Front. Chicago: The American
Ways Series, 1996.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America 1929-1941. New York: Three Rivers.
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