I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

World War II

Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps: North America Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1993).

Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles: Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981).

Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990).


Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered more for his domestic policies than his foreign. His New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, and welfare legislation, such as the Social Security Act are attributed more readily to his legacy. When Roosevelt’s foreign policy leading to and during World War II is analyzed by historians, the conclusions are usually negative. His decisions are typically written off as superficial and naïve, argues Robert Dallek. In Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, Dallek refutes this common, critical analysis of Roosevelt’s foreign policy record. The purpose of the book is to provide a comprehensive study of the topic—a goal he arguably reaches tenfold—and to reassess the events using a wide-variety of sources including personal letters, government records, and an abundance of secondary literature. One of Dallek’s main ambitions is to provide a complete picture of the context in which Roosevelt was working, including domestic and foreign affairs, which he feels has been neglected in prior examinations of Roosevelt’s foreign policy conduct.

Similar to Robert S. McElvaine’s explanation of Roosevelt’s leadership qualities in The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, Dallek also places a great deal of emphasis on his upbringing. Like McElvaine, Dallek refers to Roosevelt’s aristocratic background as having a major effect on his character, pointing out that he was one of the most cosmopolitan presidents in history. His family’s belief in democratic ideals and the assistance of helping those less fortunate coupled with an excessive amount of reassurance in his exceptionalism groomed Roosevelt to enter manhood as a man confident in his leadership capabilities. Dallek also claims that the young Roosevelt was obsessed with following in the footsteps of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt admired Teddy’s penchant for manly interventionism, and scoffed at individuals that were committed to pacifism during the World War I era. When examining his early years, Dallek also highlights Roosevelt’s tendency to adopt those stances which were politically prudent at that moment, such as supporting Wilson’s League of Nations when he was actually much less enthused about it. When the interventionism dialogue appeared to no longer garner public support, he stopped campaigning for it, yet continued to believe in it privately. He recognized that domestic problems were more imperative than foreign policy during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, regardless of common misconceptions, the 1930s were on a time of complete American isolationism, Dallek argues.

Dallek provides an impressively detailed account of Roosevelt’s foreign policy actions before and during World War II. His account underscores the high level at which Roosevelt held public opinion; many of his stances including clinging to neutrality at the beginning of the conflict were the result of careful consideration of his domestic situation and the atmosphere of public opinion. One of Roosevelt’s main goals, according to Dallek, during the war and when looking to the future, was to establish a new world order, in which the great powers and their smaller partners worked together to preserve peace and prosperity. Many of his actions during World War II have been labeled too hesitant or secretive, but to focus on these characteristics, Dallek states, is to focus too much on Roosevelt’s faults and not on the astuteness he demonstrated during a very difficult and complex time period in history. The caution that he used while considering the World War II situation is something to be celebrated and respected, not ridiculed. “His appreciation that effective action abroad required a reliable consensus at home and his use of dramatic events overseas to win national backing from a divided country for a series of pro-Allied steps were among the great presidential achievements of this century,”  (530) Dallek writes. Like George Kennan, Dallek asserts that Roosevelt’s seemingly lenient policies toward the Soviet Union were necessary if he was to avoid another conflict and possibly leading the world in to World War III. Dallek’s emphasis on Roosvelt’s commitment to trusteeship after the war is also reminiscent of Kennan, as it suggests a moralistic approach to foreign policy.

Dallek admits that Roosevelt’s actions in regards to Pearl Harbor and Japanese internment in the United States were negligent, but contends that Roosevelt genuinely believed that the Japanese were a threat to American security. Roger Daniels also believes that Roosevelt truly thought that Japanese immigrants were capable of malicious actions, and that the expediency of the decision to place these individuals into concentration camps made it acceptable in the situation. In Concentration Camps North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II, Daniels examines the situation surrounding the internment of 112,000 foreign and native born Japanese in 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor using manuscript and document collections as well as secondary sources. This period of intense discrimination against a specific subset of the population, is an event in United States history in which no American can take pride, Daniels asserts. Like the discrimination faced by African Americans and Native Americans, the internment of the Japanese was a “logical outgrowth of thee centuries of American experience,” (xv) which had celebrated the supremacy of white men. Yet, even though it is an awful episode of the past, Daniels writes that historians should not simply write it off as a heartbreaking blip, but rather should attempt to explain the situation and decisions that led to its occurrence, which is what he sets out to do in Concentration Camps North America.

Daniels begins his study by looking at the development of discrimination against persons of Asian descent in the United States. At the turn-of-the-century, as touched upon by Patricia Nelson Limerick in The Legacy of Conquest, Chinese immigrants were significantly involved in the construction of railroads and other projects in the West. Initial prejudice was exclusively economic in origins, Daniels argues, and developed out of this situation as white Westerners resented the Chinese for taking their jobs. Japan was initially favored over China because it was considered to be stronger militarily and thus passed Theodore Roosevelt’s manliness requirements, of which Gail Bedermann discusses in Manliness and Civilization. However, after World War I, Japan emerged as a villain, and American public opinion swiftly deteriorated towards those of Japanese ancestry, leading to the quick embracement of “yellow peril” philosophy during World War II.

Daniels effectively points out the divisions not only between the Japanese and other Americans, but also amidst the Japanese themselves. The divide between those that were of the Issei community—those Japanese that were not citizens of the United States and were more Japan centered—and the Nisei Community—who were native born and considered themselves full-blooded Americans—ran deep, and usually took the form of a generational divide. Surprisingly, right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nisei community supported the internment of older generation Issei, largely in an effort to demonstrate their loyalty. Yet, such distinctions were not taken into account once the “round-up” began, as many white Americans believed that the Japanese were collectively guilty and subsequently collectively dangerous. Daniels demonstrates the ways in which policy was manipulated by certain government officials, such as John DeWitt, to support these racist notions, and how these individuals were supported by public and even Supreme Court opinion. He illustrates the way in which the entire movement was often a “self-fulfilling” prophecy, as Japanese were often the victim of predetermined guilt, from which little could exonerate them.

Daniels illuminates the way that more liberal officials, such as Milton Eisenhower, while still effectively keeping their post, were able to moderate the process. “Eisenhower did at least try to ameliorate the conditions of the evacuation,” Daniels states, “and one shudders to think what it might have been like had not Eisenhower and others at the top of the WRA bureaucracy been essentially on the liberal side of the American ideological spectrum.” (102) The liberals were not in decision making positions during World War II; the military and its civilian cronies were in power. Thus, it was the military that initiated the internment and the military, reacting to liberal demands that ultimately loosened the program’s hold on the Japanese. Although Daniels touches upon the effect on Japanese families, more in depth treatment of the individual experiences of these people would have added to Daniels’ narrative.

Discriminatory behavior was not limited to Japanese during World War II in the United States, however. The level of continued discrimination towards women as opposed to the level of social advancement experienced by women during World War II has long been a source of contention amongst historians. Karen Anderson explains that wartime is often a time of great opportunity for women because the disruption of day-to-day life causes traditional customs and beliefs to become unhinged. Due to the loss of man power to the war effort, women are often invited to assume roles outside of their traditional sphere in order to serve economic pragmatism. However, the long term effects of this shakeup have been considered negligible with the exception of World War II. In The American Woman, William Chafe argued that changes for women during the war involved a multitude of inconsistencies and the gains that women experienced were largely snuffed out after the war as the country nestled back into normalcy. Paddy Quick similarly disagrees that any major changes occurred, arguing that any changes in the labor force during the war have been exaggerated. Leila Rupp contends, as does Clarence D. Long, that any increase in female employment was the result of expansion of traditionally female, service-oriented careers. Glen Cain argues that the long-term effects of the war on the female workforce is more telling than looking at the short-term benefits experienced during and directly following the war. Winifred Bolin attributes advancement to the increase in white collar jobs available to women after the war as a result in a change in family expectations, which called for the maintenance of living standards rather than sex role conformity. In Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II, Karen Anderson’s argument most closely resembles that of William Chafe.

Positive developments such as upward mobility and increased pay equality did characterize wartime working conditions for women during World War II.Those women that answered the patriotic call of duty, which was widely trumpeted by the government and voluntary organizations alike, were largely married because single women had already entered the workforce beforehand, Anderson writes. However, these married women also tended to have young children, and thus their necessary devotion to the traditional realms of housekeeping and childrearing was deemed significant, and therefore their entrance into the workforce placed great strain on conventional roles.

Prior studies of the female experience during World War II, Anderson argues, have failed to address to effects of the experience on the women’s consciousness of themselves as both worker and woman. “The changes they experienced in a society with a male deficit remains largely unexplored. In addition, the effects of war on sex role socialization and family structure and role division have been treated only cursorily,” (10) Anderson writes. By using the newspaper and manuscript sources of three main metropolises—Baltimore, Seattle, and Detroit— which were especially affected by the war atmosphere economically, socially, and demographically, Anderson attempts to address these neglected topics in Wartime Women. 

Anderson demonstrates that employers did not readily turn to hiring women, as is often portrayed, but rather stuck as long as possible to pre-War preferences for white, male workers. As Jacqueline Jones also highlights, Anderson points out that African American women were in the most difficult situation, as they were the victims of both racism and sexism. Once women were admitted to the workforce they did so for both patriotic and practical or monetary reasons. Anderson highlights the ways in which society was ill-equipped to assist young mothers that chose or were forced to take wartime jobs. Community services, such as childcare, were practically nonexistent. Voluntarism, at times, helped to lessen the difficulties faced by these women, but the shortsightedness of these initiatives, according to Anderson, illustrate the fact that the changes in familial circumstances were believed to only be temporary. Sex segregation in the war was not overcome, she argues. In many ways sex roles and gender segregation were strengthened. Images of men as warriors and protectors leaving the women at home to take care of domestic duties buttressed traditional culture wars. Sometimes, need for labor was allowed to outstrip levels of employment demand in order to ensure that sex divisions were protected. After the war, women quickly reverted back to their traditional, though transformed roles, Anderson argues. “With the stress on manipulative femininity and the importance of purchasing material harmony at the cost of a woman’s individuality, the postwar themes resembled closely those of the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity,” she writes. During the war, women’s roles ultimately changed little; they were expected to place the nation’s needs ahead of their own, and after the war they were once more expected to take their place in the background of family relations.

In Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, Allan Berube, who states that mobilization relaxed social constraints, paints a very different portrait of the extent to which social changes were enacted during the war. He argues that the fact that women were even admitted at all into the military during the war, into a traditionally, strictly masculine atmosphere, illustrates how dramatic social changes were during the war. The most dramatic social change, however, involved homosexual men and women. Using a wide array of primary sources including interviews with gay veterans, letters, and government and military documents as well as secondary literature, Berube looks at how World War II military mobilization and conscription forced American society to confront homosexuality at a professional and personal level, providing homosexual individuals a small door through which to leave the closet, which George Chauncey described at the end of Gay New York, that they had been pushed into in the 1930s.

Ironically, it was not societal acceptance that allowed this cultural and individual rebirth, but rather adversity, which was at times extreme. Knowing the challenges that would face them in the military, many young gay men and lesbians still found the drive to defend their country more powerful than their need for self-preservation. Yet, despite significant hurdles being flung their way, entering the military actually helped these individuals find other homosexuals with whom they could bond and begin the coming out process.

Much of Berube’s narrative surrounds the reaction of administrators, psychiatrists, and straight soldiers to homosexuality in their ranks, which illustrate the staying power of Bedermann’s turn-of-the-century manliness indicators. Homosexuals were believed to be too weak physically and mentally to be trusted serving the country militarily. Psychiatrists played a major role by defining homosexuality as a personality or mental disorders, sufferers of which should be excluded from the military. Tests were done during the conscription process in order to determine whether an individual was homosexual or not, often determining the applicant was not suitable for service if believed homosexual. When homosexuals passed through this barrier or encountered relaxed restrictions due to need for man power, they faced other obstacles. Similar to gay survival in Chaucey’s early twentieth century New York, gay men in the military could gain acceptance by playing up their effeminacy and either taking the role as servicer of straight men or as a-sexual fairy. The closeness of the barracks and combat situations often eroded social restrictions, leading to friendships, both romantic and friendly in nature, to develop among homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Military administrators and officials attempted to curb this behavior by using vice control methods. Men caught in compromising situations were often carded and incarcerated, or, at psychologists’ advisement, discharged for mental health reasons. Inadvertently, these officials often provided gay (and straight) men and women ways out of military service by exposing or feigning their homosexuality.

At the war’s end, the coming out process became less about private, sexual expression, and more about a public and political statement. When gay men and women came home after the war, they often possessed a sounder sense of self and had high expectations for civilian life afterward, but were often disappointed. Families, however, Berube claims, did begin to accept their homosexual kin at a higher rate, placing their feelings about homosexuality aside in order to love their family members. Gay men and women also began to band together to a higher degree, creating their own communities and heightening their visability. Men who received dishonorable discharges were most anxious for a change in the social conditions surrounding their civilian life. One of the greatest points of contention was the Veteran’s Administration’s refusal to provide benefits to gay veterans that had been discharged with a blue card, forcing the VA to develop their own policies towards homosexuals. World War II pushed homosexuals into mainstream life, Berube argues. Like Chauncey, he challenges the assumption that gays remained closeted until the 1960s, and instead demonstrates that the Gay Liberation Movement had well-grounded roots in the past.

Feature Photograph:

  • Title: Pearl Harbor widows have gone into war work to carry on the fight with a personal vengeance, Corpus Christi, Texas. Mrs. Virginia Young (right) whose husband was one of the first casualties of World War II, is a supervisor in the Assembly and Repairs Department of the Naval Air Base. Her job is to find convenient and comfortable living quarters for women workers from out of the state, like Ethel Mann, who operates an electric drill
  • Creator(s): Hollem, Howard R., photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1942 August

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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