Liberty reinvented after WWII
In the text Give Me Liberty! An American History, Columbia historian Eric Foner presents the thesis that the struggle to expand liberty to all Americans is a recurring theme throughout American history. From the Reconstruction Period to the Progressive Era of the 1920s, African-Americans, women, immigrants, and working-class Americans are among the groups of Americans who fought to receive the promises of liberty that are guaranteed in the founding documents of America. While incremental gains have been made in increasing liberty for ordinary citizens, World War II represents a watershed moment in reversing the trends of oppression that characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Though the war period was not the panacea for groups traditionally struggling for the recognition of their rights, the period brought both immediate and gradual changes that led to improved economic and social conditions for workers, women, and minorities.
Conceptions of freedom
The struggle for freedom among many groups in America led to different conceptions of freedom that were based on the unique historical conditions of each group. As Foner notes, African-Americans derived their definition of freedom from their experience as slaves ( Foner 587). For African-Americans, freedom meant finally receiving the same Constitutional protections and economic opportunities as white people in America (586). For immigrants, freedom included receiving equal treatment before the law, freedom of religion, and economic opportunities that were unavailable to them in their homelands (731).
Additionally, during the 1920s, the concept of the “working woman” represented the idea that the ability to receive the same wages and occupational opportunities as men was critical to the concept of freedom for women (735). Further, women sought to be liberated from unfulfilling lives as homemakers whose only role in life was to serve their families (735). Yet as Progressives during the 1920s noted, low wages and demeaning work conditions in factories and offices threatened the concept of freedom in the United States. While the Progressive Era brought many gains to working class Americans, it wasn’t until World War II that the advancement of freedom was strongly enforced at the federal level.
Roosevelt makes effort to even the playing field
Preceding World War II, the Roosevelt Administration took several concrete steps to expand freedom for all Americans. As Foner notes, the New Deal elevated economic freedom as the most critical element of liberty (861). In order to address the threats to personal security that were posed by the Great Depression, President Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that were intended to secure the banking system and provide public works opportunities (864-866). Yet, many New Deal programs had mixed results in improving conditions for minorities. For example, while Social Security improved economic conditions for the elderly, African-Americans were initially excluded from receiving Social Security benefits because they were most likely to hold occupations that were exempt (886-87). Further, while the New Deal improved conditions for Native Americans by eliminating boarding school, ending policies of forced assimilation, and recognizing the rights of Native Americans to self-governance, poverty still remained rampant on reservations (887). Further, Mexican-Americans were adversely impacted by the decreased demand for labor, which forced families to return to Mexico, despite the fact that many children of the migrant laborers were American citizens by virtue of birth (888). Thus, while the Roosevelt Administration took significant efforts to alleviate conditions of the poor during the Great Depression, the impact of these efforts on many minorities and working class Americans was limited.
Significant gains in economic freedom
Entering World War II resulted in significant gains in economic freedom for all members of society. As Foner notes, World War II reversed the economic insecurity that plagued the United States entering the war. Because of the increased demand for laborers in the war industry, the number of federal workers in 1940 increased from 1 million to 4 million and the unemployment rate decreased from 14 percent to 2 percent (915). Further, organized labor reached an arrangement with the government and business to prevent unrest among laborers in return for relaxed restrictions on union activity (917). Thus, union membership increased significantly during the period and businesses agreed to achieve modest profits and recognize the rights of employees (917).
Most significantly, World War II brought about unprecedented economic freedoms for women. Because the war mobilized over 15 million men to serve in the armed forces, women, out of necessity, rose to account for one-third of the civilian labor force while 350,000 served in support roles in the military (921). Further, women obtained industrial jobs that were formerly restricted to men and received similar pay (922). Thus, the war provided immediate expansions of economic freedom to American citizens of all backgrounds by offering consistent work at high wages.
Efforts to sustain prosperity after World War II resulted in the expansion of freedom for citizens after the war. Returning war veterans received benefits that enabled them to achieve economic mobility, including unemployment benefits, education scholarships, mortgage loans, and vocational training (925). Housing benefits led to the development of suburbs and the rise of a well-developed middle class in America (925). However, because Congress failed to enact the Full Employment Bill, veterans were the only group to directly benefit from targeted measures following the war (925). Thus, while the war period brought economic benefits to the whole of society, the postwar period was limited in its ability to create sustained prosperity.
Efforts to minimize racial tension
Further, the war had mixed results in taming the negative impact of racism on the rights of minorities. The patriotic atmosphere created by World War II benefited children of immigrants by providing them the opportunity to assimilate into American culture (926). Further, shock over the extreme racism exhibited by the Nazis caused the government to decry racism in official statements (927). For example, an OWI pamphlet asserted that racism was a foreign evil that threatened American security (928). Further, while Native Americans played a crucial role as code talkers and moved to cities to take advantage of veteran benefits, such as the GI Bill, a higher percentage of Native Americans joined American society (929). Yet the society, as well as the military, still remained segregated and Jews were still excluded in businesses and the government (927).
Further, the 1943 “Zoot Suit Riot” incident, involving a clash between sailors and Mexican-American youth, resulted in a publicized trial that demonstrated the unfair consideration that Mexican-Americans and many other minorities received in the justice system (928-29). Additionally, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war completely deprived Japanese-Americans of the legal rights they were entitled to as American citizens (930). Additionally, African-Americans were restricted in their ability to take advantage of their college, housing, and job training benefits because of the discriminatory practices of local administrators (933). Thus, while the war set the precedent for publically condemning racism, it was ineffective in removing the restrictions that racism placed upon minorities.
Understanding how WWII improved freedom
Prior to World War II, deplorable economic and social conditions threatened the freedoms of workers, women, and minority groups. Yet, the sustained economic prosperity created by the boom of war industries during World War II created an unprecedented expansion of freedoms for Americans. Citizens from all class backgrounds were provided with stable employment opportunities at higher wages while women significantly expanded their participation in the civilian economy. Further, returning veterans received significant housing, education, and job training benefits following the war, which enabled them to maintain their economic security.
Yet, the war brought inconsistent results in guarding the freedoms of minorities. Discriminatory social customs and laws still hindered African-Americans and other minority groups in enjoying the benefits of citizenship following the war. Further, the legal rights of Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans were infringed upon in the cases of the Zoot Suit Riot incident and Japanese internment policies. Yet, World War II serves as a crucial turning point in expanding freedoms for the public because it marks the first time that federal policy played a significant role in defending the economic freedoms of citizens, which set the precedent for future movements to expand the benefits of liberty to all Americans.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History, Volume Two. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.
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