The best books on what life was like on the American homefront during WW2

William Klingaman Author Of The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942
By William Klingaman

The Books I Picked & Why

The American Home Front: 1941-1942

By Alistair Cooke

Book cover of The American Home Front: 1941-1942

Why this book?

At the end of February 1942, British-born journalist Alistair Cooke set off upon a road trip across wartime America, to “see what the war had done to people.” His observations provide a series of fascinating snapshots of the home front in the early months of the war. Shortages of civilian goods showed up everywhere, from the West Virginia soda fountain with the forlorn sign over an orange-squeezer that read, “Regret. Out of Coca-Cola,” to Houston, where rubber and gas rationing led to overcrowding on city buses that threw whites and Blacks into unwonted jostling proximity.

On the West Coast, Cooke found that San Diego — flush with sailors on leave and recently-arrived workers in aircraft plants — was “the greatest boom-town since the Klondike”: “In the evening, roaming the bars and saloons, you see, alongside much healthy ribaldry among sailors and Marines fresh from the Pacific, plenty of saddening adult delinquency — husbands high on airplane wages toasting newfound chippies, [and] fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds sitting up at chromium bars starting out with Cokes and going on to Cuba Libres and highballs just for the hell of it.”

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One Man's Meat

By E.B. White

Book cover of One Man's Meat

Why this book?

No one wrote better than E. B. White, and no one captured the essence of daily life on the home front better than White in this collection of essays. “This is my country and my night,” he wrote from his farm in Maine, “this is the blacked-out ending to the day, the way they end a skit in a revue.” Yet White acknowledged that it was nearly impossible for him or anyone else to truly convey all the ways that the war was changing ordinary Americans. “You write something that sounds informative, throwing the words around in the usual manner, then the thing explodes in your hands, and you look down at your hands,” he explained. “As though you had crushed a light bulb and were bleeding slightly.”

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Watching The World: 1934-1944

By Raymond Clapper

Book cover of Watching The World: 1934-1944

Why this book?

Largely forgotten today, Ray Clapper was perhaps the most highly respected American newspaper columnist and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s. Especially adept at sketching the domestic political scene, Clapper restores the nation's wartime leaders to life for modern readers in this collection of excerpts from his columns. President Franklin Roosevelt was "always supremely self-confident, sometimes angry, eager to exchange gossip, quick to make a humorous dig at the expense of some opponent or critic, and especially of a stuffed shirt." By contrast, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, who ran against Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1944, was "too slippery with words to inspire any confidence." Clapper reserved his harshest judgment for the wartime Congress, which he deemed "a collection of 2-cent politicians who could serve well enough in simpler days," but whose "ignorance and provincialism" rendered them "incapable of meeting the needs of modern government."

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State of the Nation

By John Dos Passos

Book cover of State of the Nation

Why this book?

Reading Dos Passos’ account of his own travels across wartime America is a valuable corrective to the long-standing myth of a united home front, with civilians cheerfully sacrificing for the boys overseas. Instead, Dos Passos found rising rates of worker absenteeism in defense plants, management executives turning blind eyes to defects in airplanes in the name of profits, and lonely wives of defense workers living in makeshift housing going “trailerwacky” for lack of companionship. And when coal miners walked out on strike in 1943, imperiling war production, one miner explained to Dos Passos that “it’s the tough guys make themselves respected in this man’s country, the tough guys an’ the big winds.”

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Public Journal: Marginal Notes on Wartime America

By Max Lerner

Book cover of Public Journal: Marginal Notes on Wartime America

Why this book?

A former philosophy professor who joined the staff of the illustrious New York newspaper PM following Pearl Harbor, Lerner provides a scholarly perspective on home front developments. “America at war,” he decided, “is an America torn from many of its moorings, in which everything is having to move at a quicker pace.” Among Lerner’s subjects are juvenile delinquency, especially the rise of teenage amateur prostitutes; women in wartime (“the men make war happen, but it happens to women”); and the increase in racial intolerance — not only against Japanese-Americans, but Mexicans and Jews as well.

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