Review: The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941 -1942 by William K. Klingaman

Darkest YearThe cover of Life magazine on December 8, 1941 featured a portrait of a grim faced General Douglas MacArthur.

Fast work, under the circumstances.  In 1940, the magazine had featured an almost even split of attractive women and general interest, with a few foreign military figures.  By 1942 the figures are reversed.  Virtually all military all the time and the government and a cooperative media worked to get people accustomed and even eager to the new reality that would in time see over 400,000 Americans dead on foreign fields.

The covers of Life magazine in 1940 show a more or less even split between attractive women and general interest, a few foreign military subjects.   In 1941, we begin to see stories on the American military – ski troopers, navy bombers,  cavalry men , West Point – George Patton makes the cover in July, fittingly, in color).   By 1942, it’s close to all war all the time.

Not that they had much grist for the mill.  In his book Wartime, Paul Fussell writes:

“Watching a newsreel or flipping through an illustrated magazine at the beginning of the American war, you were likely to encounrer a memoralb image: the newly inveted jeep, an elegant, slim-barreled 37 mm gun in tow, leaping over a hillock. Going very fast and looking as cute as Bambi, it flied into the air, and behind the little gun bounces hihg of f the ground on its springiy ties. . . .   ‘Meet the Jeep,’  said the Scientific American in January 1942. ‘The United States Army’s Answer,’ it went on without irony, ‘to Schickelgruber’s Panswer Divisions.”

Did the readers of Scientific American buy such nonsense?  Fussell suggests they did,  or at least allowed themselves to do so.  The reality, a long string of early defeats in the far Pacific (another irony) and North Africa was far too distressing, and people took comfort where they could.    (In due course, of course, our answer to the Panzer would be the Sherman tank, which was less than the Soviet T-34 – fast, hard to kill, cheap to make, works even under brutal conditions – but that’s another story).

However pleasing it may be to think of that war as a time of American unity, the truth is, as usual,  more complex.  American Reluctance to re-visit the European catastrophe of World War One was strong, strong enough to force FDR in the 1940 campaign to lie about American boys going off to fight once more.

Did they want to go?  The greatest generation had decidedly mixed feeling about the war and America’s place in, or out, of it.  Faced with this kind of ambivalence, the government wasn’t taking any chances.  In September of 1940 a predominantly Democratic congress and senate reinsituted the draft, with exemptions for married men.

There was a jump in marriages of 1.5 million. up 150% from 1939, and record numbers again the day that issue of Life with MacArthur on the cover came out. How many of these unioins were born of passion, how many of prudence, Klingamen leaves the reader to wonder.  In any event,  Selective Service came down on the exemption in following rounds.  Once the war began, the War Department wanted men.

The Darkest Year is full of this kind of detail, the loneliness of interstate roads gone empty because of fuel and rubber shortages, the difficulty defense plants had in getting and keeping workers simply because they could not get to work, or find affordable housing near the plants if they tried to move. Outside Baltimore, internal migrants lived in makeshift camps consisting of boxcars,  trailers, or even just cars.   .

Then there was child labor.  Did it make sense to put a teenager in school when they could be working in a defense plant, or in the fields growing food?  Enough officials thought so that what once had been truancy in 1942 became daily life.  (Juvenile delinquency among those too young to fight, too old be left alone, spiked at the same time in New York City in all sub-groups, excepting African-Americans.)

And so it goes, startling, even alarming facts and vignettes artfully woven together from contemporary material, putting together a take on the period that is less Disneyfied than the standard histories.

The author makes a specialty of this kind of biography of a year, having previously examined 1816, 1919, 1941, 1929.  It’s an engaging approach to history, and beguiling for anyone who likes primary source material.  In general he lets the documents speak for themselves leavign the audience to draw their own conclusion.

It would be interesting to see a follow up on this, the US from August 1945 to 1946, compare and contrast.  Indeed, the years inbetween could make for an itneresting project as well.

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