Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
25 Oct. 2021
Review by Carl Cavanagh Hodge, University of British Columbia
The Year of Peril: America in 1942
By Tracy Campbell
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2020. Pp. xvi, 384. ISBN 978–0–300–23378–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, United States Print Version

Since World War II, the power of the United States and the apparently limitless confidence of its people have been the greatest constants in international affairs. At a time when that power and that confidence seem dangerously eroded, historian Tracy Campbell (Univ. of Kentucky) reminds us that America's status as the preeminent superpower was the product of the greatest military conflict in human history and that its outcome was was far from preordained. In the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of the Southwest Pacific, Americans were riven by fear and doubt as much as united by righteous rage. The year 1942 saw the beginning of the sweeping socioeconomic transformation required to build US military power and project it across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was a dark year in which the nation struggled to meet the the crisis without betraying its democratic ideals.

Campbell is a seasoned historian[1] at home with the political and social scholarship on the United States in the twentieth century. His masterful narrative is organized according to the twelve months of 1942, during which the American people responded to a series of shocks both at home and abroad.[2]

The subject matter makes for sobering reading. In the hour of peril, many Americans chose to be small and vindictive, while many elected officials who should have known better chose to aggravate their fear and resentment. Fear focused on the threat of foreign invasion and domestic subversion; the resentment stemmed from inconveniences ranging from major to trivial imposed on daily lives. The prevailing attitude of much of the country through the 1930s had been firmly isolationist. In 1939, the US Army was smaller than Switzerland's or Portugal's. President Franklin Roosevelt's administration began the collectivist, unifying, and gargantuan process of mobilizing the nation for total war, while managing public perceptions of the challenge. In most cases, the reponse of the American people was genuinely patriotic. But others acted on less worthy sentiments, singling out both foreign nationals and citizens of Italian, German, and Japanese background for special attention:

In some respects, Americans came together in ways they never had before: volunteering for military service, supporting rubber or scrap metal drives, serving in air-raid watches, buying war bonds. This collective drive to "do something" infected the entire nation. Yet while the crisis of war unified some communities, others were ripped apart. The trauma of war brought to light bitter resentments and prejudices, and in no area were these greater than when it came to race. (47)

Prejudices repressed under normal circumstances were unleashed, for example, by politicians like congressman John Rankin (D-Mississippi) for whom the crisis was a "race war" that made enemies of all Japanese. Executive Order 9066 mandating the internment of Japanese Americans was not without its critics: the editors of Christian Century, for instance, warned their readers that the nation was "headed toward the destruction of constitutional rights" (49). Campbell includes a particularly poignant photograph of a little girl waiting at an assembly area among her family's belongings as her world was about to be turned upside down, less by war than by bigotry given the power of law.

Anti-Semitism too stole into the light from the usual shadows but also from wholly unanticipated directions. Much the ugliest sentiments, however, targeted African Americans. Southern politicians were troubled by efforts to broaden federal authority that might chip away at discriminatory state electoral laws or undermine the racial segregation of southern society. Meanwhile, many industries in the North bucked rules against discriminatory hiring practices. White workers in Detroit rioted against efforts to integrate housing in the very heart of American war production (74–75, 109–10, 304–5). All this as Blacks were volunteering to fight for democracy abroad. The Tuskegee Airmen were only the most storied among the many thousands who answered the call of a nation that often ignored or denied their civil rights.The Roosevelt administration had to cope with the fragility of American democracy while ramping up the military-industrial capacity of the nation at a pace and comprehensiveness that severely strained it.

In June, FDR's administration and Americans generally received a shot of adrenalin from the news of the US Navy's victory at Midway. But the rout of a Japanese task force came at a time when the authority of the federal government over all walks of life had not yet even approached the proportions it would in 1945. Still, American businessmen were already deeply uneasy about the future of free enterprise (161–67). At the same time, national impatience with the effort to take the war to the enemy in both the Pacific and Europe troubled Roosevelt as congressional elections in autumn 1942 seemed to augur losses to the Republicans.

Matters were worsened by the bogus claims of demagogues like Martin Dies, chairman of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities, that the government and other national institutions were shot through with communist sympathizers—an early iteration of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The purview and ambition of the federal government were meanwhile growing in ways unanticipated by southern populists and race-baiters. In June, Roosevelt signed an order establishing the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. At the same time, the FBI launched the largest manhunt in its history to intercept a campaign of sabotage, Operation Pastorius, by German agents on American soil (166–67, 172–73, 236–37).

The first chapter of the Allied counteroffensive in the European theater, Operation Torch, came days after the 1942 congressional elections. Republican gains seemed to jeopardize Roosevelt's chances of re-election in 1944, but Campbell rightly stresses the difficulty of interpreting results in the fluid circumstances of 1942.

Throughout the year, polls showed that a majority of Americans wanted universal health care and federal jobs programs after the war, and the president's plans for limiting incomes remained popular. Those issues, however, would soon be forgotten, and for the rest of the war and afterward, the election would be seen as proof of a new conservatism. American electoral history has often demonstrated that there is little correlation between the policies Americans want and the politicians they put in office. (269)

By December 1942, the Germans had bogged down at Stalingrad, while the Japanese had badly over-extended their effort at Guadalcanal. The year of peril thus came to an end on a positive note, though new perils lay ahead. Roosevelt had become a war leader, and the 1944 election was to attest that, whatever Americans wanted in policy, they wanted him at the helm. The United States had mobilized scientific, industrial, and administrative strengths of which its citizens were only vaguely aware. But the nation's military victory left many of American democracy's flaws uncorrected, indeed adroitly avoided, by those in positions to rectify them. The United States was in a position to dictate the terms of peace to its adversaries, but was still not at peace with itself.

In his epilogue, Tracy Campbell concludes that wartime politics are at once heroic and squalid. Even the best government does not always appeal to the better angels of our nature.

[1] His earlier works include The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars (Lexington: U Pr of Kentucky, 1993); Short of the Glory: The Fall and Redemption of Edward F. Prichard Jr. (id., 1998); Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition, 1742–2004 (NY: Basic Books, 2005); and The Gateway Arch: A Biography (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2013).

[2] The book also includes sixteen pages of well chosen photographs, extensive notes, a bibliography of archival and secondary sources, and an index.

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