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THE HOME FRONT, THEN AND NOW
THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
“THE HOMEFRONT, THEN AND NOW”
Show #949 Broadcast November 29, 2001
BW: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
When the World Trade Center was hit by terrorists on September 11, many shocked Americans said: “This is like Pearl Harbor.”
It was just sixty years ago, on December 7, 1941, that Japan launched its surprise attack on the United States. The bombing jolted an ambivalent America into a war fought not only on the battlefields of Europe and Asia but also on the home front. How critical was this effort to the American victory in World War II? And how does that compare to America’s home front today? Are there some lessons to learn?
To find out, we are joined by:
Walter Berns, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Making Patriots
Robert Dallek, professor of history at Boston University and author of
Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945
And Major Robert Bateman, military historian and author of Digital War: A View from the Front Lines.
In addition, Think Tank takes an exclusive tour of the world’s largest
private World War II Museum with its owner, Kenneth Rendell, a leading expert on historical documents.
The Topic Before the House: Homefront, Then and Now. This week on Think Tank.
BW: In late 1941, America was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ten percent of the workforce was unemployed. Another 20 percent brought home less than the legal minimum wage of 40 cents an hour.
Those were anxious years. Americans watched as Nazi totalitarianism overran Europe and the Japanese invaded China and Southeast Asia. Many debated whether America should stay on the sidelines or join in a global war.
That debate ended when the Japanese planes hit and sank most of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
President Franklin Roosevelt faced a daunting challenge. He had to mobilize the American people for the fight overseas and transform the economy at home. America was in a two-front war on opposite sides of the globe.
Sixteen million Americans, including more than 300,000 women would enter the armed forces.
On the home front, Americans bought war bonds and planted victory gardens. Many collected scrap metal for arms factories and grease to make explosives. Everyone endured rationing, blackouts and censorship. Americans were told to button their lips—Loose Lips Sink Ships!
Although most women stayed home minding home and family, the fabled “Rosie the Riveter” pitched in too. In four years, America produced more than 300,000 airplanes, 100,000 tanks and artillery, 44 billion rounds of ammunition, and 2,700 Liberty transport ships.
World War II was America’s bloodiest war, with more dead and wounded than even the Civil War. By the time the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, the war had claimed more than a million American casualties, including 405,000 dead. But more than any other American war, it was a struggled shared
AT THE MUSEUM OF WORLD WAR II:
BW: For the past 40 years, Kenneth Rendell has been building one of the world’s great, private collections of World War II artifacts. Think Tank visited Rendell’s Museum of World War II, just outside of Boston, to find the human experience behind the headlines and newsreels.
Kenneth Rendell: What the Museum is all about is trying to give as much a sense as possible of what it was like to be there. What life was like, the everyday objects of life. It’s not about guns; it’s not a museum about armor. It’s a museum about the totality of the World War II experience and living through it.
As much as possible, I’ve wanted the exhibits in the museum to show the real human side of everyone that was involved. And two of my favorite letters are by Dwight Eisenhower, handwritten letters to his wife. And they show a humanness that you really would not expect after someone’s been at war for three years. In one of the letters he talks about the casualty figures being put on his desk while he’s writing the letter, and how he has tears in his eyes realizing how many youngsters are gone forever And the other letter talks about the stress that he is under, that everyone can advise him but at the end of every meeting he’s the only one who makes the final decision, and if he’s wrong, people die.
Probably the driving factor in this whole museum is my own interest in how the average person could cope with the horrors of war time, how they could cope with going from a peaceful life to having to go out and fight and do things that were absolutely not in their instinct. It was not what they wanted to do. And what I feel that the objects in this museum do is they bring you into closer touch with the events and with the people and with the reality. Some of the objects are terrifying. The guns are here because they’re terrifying. But many of the objects are here because they’re the personal things that people had. And I think that gives people a way to relate to them.
We have on display the draft of the Munich Agreement. This is the draft that was pushed back and forth across the table, that Neville Chamberlain, the British ambassador was arguing with Adolf Hitler over. Hitler took the draft and made changes in it, changed the date for Czechoslovakia. In the margin, Neville Henderson, who was the British ambassador to Germany, made notes for Neville Chamberlain, who could not read German. So you have the translations into English down the left column. You have Hitler making the changes and literally throwing the papers back and forth across the table. The interesting thing is that what happened was this was sent out into the next room by Hitler to have it typed up for a final version. It came back, the document was signed, and the draft was just left on the table. And the British ambassador was the last person out of the room, and he realized that this was just going to be thrown out, and he realized its importance, so he decided just to take it as a souvenir. So the Munich Agreement is really the beginning of World War II.
One of the objects that we have that really does effect people is Hitler’s chair from the bunker. This was in Hitler’s office in the bunker where he committed suicide. And it’s interesting to see people’s reaction because more than probably any other object people just see this very nice looking chair, which we have on a platform, and are really quite shocked when they see the sign on it that it came from the bunker and that that had been used by Adolf Hitler.
We have actually all of the different enigma machines. We have the three-rotor machine, which was used by the army. Then the four-rotor machine, which was used by the navy. And that was much, much more difficult. The codebreakers were never able to break the naval code until they managed to get the code books from a German U-Boat that was sinking. Then we have the 10-rotor machine, which is the rarest machine. This was used in Hitler’s headquarters, and this was the unbreakable one when you had a factor of ten rotors operating.
There was a terrific sense of fear throughout the country in early 1942. People expected the Japanese might invade the West Coast. The army wanted to paint the White House black. There were anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the White House. The most popular book in 1942 was the American Red Cross first aid book, and basically that was aimed towards air raids. There were posters telling you what to do in an air raid. There were posters showing you how to identify enemy aircraft. So the fear that swept the country in 1942, there’s a lot of similarity with the fear that swept the country in the fall of 2001.
BW: Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Bob Dallek, Bob Bateman, Walter Berns. Walter Berns, you get the first question. You’re our resident expert on patriotism…
Walter Berns : You betcha.
BW: You betcha. And a veteran of World War II, I must say. Why are Americans so patriotic?
Walter Berns: Well, we are not as patriotic, I suppose, as the legendary Spartans, but one of the things that struck me about September 11th was the extent to which that brought out a kind of latent patriotism in this country. It’s really astonishing. People running around with the flags and shouting USA, USA, USA, as if this were an Olympic event. It was there all the time, and it was...I guess we didn’t know it.
BW: What is your take on the whole…?
Robert Bateman: I think a lot of it comes partially from the same thing that has made us secure, historically--our isolation. You drive an hour or two in the right part of France, you can cut through two other countries. You drive an hour or two in Texas, and you’re still in Texas. You drive five or six hours from the right part of Texas, and you’re still in Texas.
Robert Dallek: I think there’s a compelling need, because we’re such a diverse society; so many different elements of people of different backgrounds. And from the beginning of our history, the question was asked, “What does it mean to be an American?” And so in times of danger, of strife, of uncertainty. I think this impulse to identify with the country becomes ….
BW: Yes, and there are very, very few nations that stand for something. Where as parts of the Arab world now would argue about whether you’re standing for something good or something bad, but you can, you know, coherently say that America’s based on some ideas and people …
Walter Berns: Yeah, you know we’re unique that way and it’s evidenced by the fact that we talk about Americanization or un-American. There’s no such talk in any other land or any other country. And it has to do with the fact that we do have a creed, as the Englishman G.K. Chesterton pointed out; he found this amusing, but it is true. And to be an American is, let’s put it this way, we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. But the republic stands for something!.
BW: I’ve been sort of trying to think through the comparisons of between 9/11 and 12/7, and I looked at one of Ken Rendell’s speeches, the guy who has this museum up in Boston, and he quotes a guy who was then only thirteen years old, on December 7th, 1941, and he says, “I was devastated and outraged that a foreign country attacked us and killed our people.” And then this thirteen-year-old kid lied about his age and went into the military and--at aged fourteen by lying that he was aged sixteen--and he became the youngest Congressional Medal of Honor winner ever. But that is exactly the response that I know I had, and I think tens of millions of Americans had, this word outrage on this Twin Towers thing and the Pentagon. I mean, how dare they? One thing that jumps out at me is that both the Japanese and the al-Qu’eda and Osama bin Laden made a terrible mistake of underestimating that latent patriotism. I mean they have called up some…I mean, I can’t imagine that Osama bin Laden’s sitting in some cave right now saying, “Boy that was really a good idea to hit those World Trade Towers….
Robert Dallek: Well, there was Hitler and the Japanese—Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor, “we may have awakened the sleeping tiger,” and that was exactly the case.
Robert Bateman: One of the things, with Pearl Harbor especially, was it was a cultural misread on the part of the Japanese. They were, you know, there was a lot of racism in the Second World War, and it was headed in both directions. The Japanese believed in the cultural superiority of the Yamato race. And they’re looking at, you know, 1940 America, a divisive country, no single race; you know, we’re a polyglot nation. We don’t even have a single political ….
BW: A mongrel nation. A mongrel nation.
Robert Dallek: Right. And that’s the way Hitler…
(speaking over each other)
Robert Bateman: A single smack in the nose and we would back off and, the irony being, they gave us the only thing that could have unified us. Prior to seven December we had a Bund Party, an American Nazi party that, you know, ran in the Presidential election. We had a Socialist party, and Democratic and Republican and we had a whole range…
Robert Dallek: We contend with each other. We love to fight among ourselves. I don’t mean a civil strife or blood in the streets, but politically we love to fight. Roosevelt was a brilliant politician. He understood this perfectly, and this was one of his highest priorities during the Second World War to keep the country together, to assure that it was going to sustain the war effort. And it was no easy task.
BW: Bob Dallek mentioned Roosevelt. Did the guys in combat at sea have a particular feeling for Roosevelt?
Walter Berns: I remember when the news of the commander-in-chief came and it was… it was a shock…
BW: When he died.
Walter Berns: When he died. Not every one in the Navy was a democrat, but it was a shock. Here’s the commander in chief
Robert Dallek: He was, you know, a symbol of the war effort. And there were a lot of people who said, my God, he’s the only President we ever had. He’d been there for 12 years.
BW: I was twelve in 1945…right, twelve. And I remember thinking I had never lived under another President. I thought that, you know, he was President forever. And he was mortal.
BW: When did you go into the service?
Walter Berns: Well, I was drafted right off the bat.
BW: Did you get much of a sense of what was happening in America on the home front at that time?
Walter Berns: None.
Walter Berns: None. I had letters from home, of course. And once my parents foolishly sent me a carton of cigarettes not knowing that I could buy them for fifty cents a carton on the ship…I’m going to sue the government! That’s when I started smoking (laughter).
BW: Did the massive home front effort in America play an important role in the victory?
Robert Dallek: It was essential. I mean the war production, the industrial mobilization. We were not only supplying our own armed forces but the British, the Russians. Lend-Lease supplies. Lend-Lease, the great Lend-Lease program that began with the passage of that law in March of 1941.
Robert Bateman: Germany hadn’t converted to a wartime economy as late as forty-three.
Walter Berns: They didn’t have women in the work force. No.
Robert Bateman: You could still have domestic servants in Germany in forty-two and forty-three, you know, and they’ve been in the war. And part of that was because Hitler was afraid of his own people. You know, he looked back at the lesson of World War I and one of the things the Nazis rode to power was the people rising up back at home. But for us that wasn’t a fear…
Robert Dallek: Nazi Germany was a totalitarian society and it lived by intimidation. And we were and remain a democratic society and you have to mobilize public opinion. And this takes political leadership, and that’s in part what Roosevelt and the government was providing. We had an Office of War Information, and the objective was to convince people that this was a moral crusade.
BW: Did they need much convincing? I know we had all that apparatus of propaganda and posters and the movie industry and everything else. I get the feeling it was sort of like pushing on an open door. I mean, people were genuinely aroused.
Robert Dallek: Ben, it was to a point. But what you have to remember is that there was a lot of suspicion of our allies. The British, they’re an imperial regime. The Russians are communists. And what you had during World War II was this attempt to convince the American public that Britain, Russia, that indeed all our allies, that inside of every one of them there was an American waiting to emerge. (laughter) There was that famous book by Wendell Wilkie called One World…became the greatest bestseller overnight in American history, non-fiction bestseller, March 1943. And what it preached was the idea that everybody wants to be just like us. And this kind of served our war aims.
BW: Lots of Americans still believe that.
Robert Dallek: I know they do.
BW: Including me. I mean, it’s a little bit broader than that. But I mean you know, the whole…
Robert Dallek: Right. Right. It was heightened during the war. It became really almost a cause celeb.
BW: Were all those home front activities, the scrap metal drives, the rubber drives, the victory gardens, were they necessary in terms of keeping this economy going? Or were they just sort of morale boosters?
Robert Bateman: The victory gardens really weren’t. The victory gardens, however, were massive morale boosters. And you can’t separate that from necessary to keep the war going. The scrap drives: fifty percent of our tin is coming out of the recycling. And a significant portion of our steel is coming out of the recycling effort. And that’s not something you can toss away.
BW: Is this current situation like Pearl Harbor? I mean they were both surprise attacks. They both, as we said, underestimated the resiliency of the American people. They both engendered ethnical, racial profiling. Some differences are, I mean, stark. I mean, now President Bush is going out telling the American people spend. Then they were saying, Roosevelt was saying, conserve, don’t spend. There’s rationing. Then we had three major powers against us aligned. I mean a frontal war. Now you have this sort of terrorist acting in the shadows, and yet those terrorists killed far more people on American soil than those three axis powers ever did.
Robert Dallek: But the difference between then and now, it seems to me, is that they didn’t show dead American soldiers until 1943. It would have been felt it would be maybe too demoralizing.
BW: It was all sort of John Wayne and…
Robert Dallek: Yeah, and heroic action. But the difference, I think…
BW: Because in fact it was so terrible…
Robert Dallek: Well sure…
Robert Bateman: Forty-two wasn’t a good year for us. I mean and there’s no video footage of Midway. Our successes are at sea until November, December of forty-two are we really….
Robert Dallek: North Africa.
Robert Bateman: Yeah, landings in North Africa, Operation Torch and are we really out of the woods on Guadalcanal?
BW: I mean, it’s not until, I mean you think, look at the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, which is a pretty good rendition of war, limbs flying around. I mean it’s real horror and none of that appeared. I mean it’s a butcher shop actually, and none of that appeared during the war.
Robert Dallek: The difference, it seems to me, between September 11th and World War II is that they hit us at home. You know, we’ve not suffered causalities like this on American soil since the Civil War.
BW: What is the lesson of 12/7 for us who are living through the aftermath of 9/11?
Robert Dallek: Well, you need to pay close attention to who your adversaries are and think carefully about what their potential capacity to strike us is. We were surprised by the ferocity and success of the attack at Pearl Harbor, just as we were surprised on September 11th by the ferocity and success of striking right in the American heartland. And we need a lot more thought about this. For example, as I understand it, there’s nobody in the government who knows much about Afghanistan. How much do we know about these countries, about these peoples? We need to have people with some expertise. This doesn’t guarantee our security, but it sure can’t hurt.
BW: Bob Bateman, what’s the lesson of 12/7?
Robert Bateman: Misreading America is a very, very dangerous gamble to make. Assuming that because we are divided among ourselves, because we don’t demonstrate any sort of biological or racial or political unity, that we’re not actually cohesive--we don’t even have the potential for it. We have torn ourselves apart in several elections, and you know what? We have never had an armed coup. (murmured agreement) We keep having peaceful transitions.
BW: I’ve read some of your stuff where you maintain, generally speaking, that Americans do not like the military.
Robert Bateman: During the Twenties and Thirties there was a huge backlash against the military.
Walter Berns: Against World War I.
Robert Bateman: Against World War I. Against the perception that America’s public opinion was manipulated into the war and, you know, there were Congressional hearings, the Nye Commission and then…
Walter Berns: And it was all run by ammunitions manufacturers, all that conspiracy stuff.
Robert Bateman: Yeah, yeah, I mean, we’re still seeing some of that. It’s still left over. There are cultural artifacts, you know. You look at Little Orphan Annie, Daddy Warbucks.
Robert Dallek: Right.
Robert Bateman: You know, he wasn’t the big cuddly guy to begin with. He was a war profiteer, a bad guy.
BW: Right. Walter, what should we learn from December 7th?
Walter Berns: Well, we should be reminded, to use Lincoln’s language, that we are the best, last hope of Earth, and we really are. And it’s necessary I think for the schools, including the universities, to instill that into citizens in this country. Without us, where are we in the world? Incidentally, about Pearl Harbor, I recall the conversations in tennis clubs about all the stories of the Germans and World War I, sticking bayonets into Belgian babies and so forth, and there was a kind of tendency for us to pooh-pooh that, and we’re not going to be seduced by that sort of propaganda again and so forth. In my own case, what happened was, the fall of France and the prospect that Britain would fall, that just cast a pall over my spirits, you know--that that would happen, that Britain would fall. And it made me realize what we were faced with.
BW: Okay gentlemen. Thank you Walter Berns, Bob Bateman, Bob Dallek, and thank you. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
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