In Michael Curtiz’s 1954 film, White Christmas, two WWII Army veterans conspire to reunite their entire unit to show their appreciation for the general that led them during the war. Though the story begins in Monte Cassino, Italy, on Christmas Eve, 1944, White Christmas is not a war movie: the war images are muted, the edges softened. It is a movie that reflects what Americans wanted to remember about the war (with singing, dancing, and large set pieces added in for good measure). Home Front U.S.A.: America During WWII author America Allan M. Winkler washes his discussion of post-Pearl Harbor America in the same shades of sepia, forcing us to also wonder whether he is writing about the war, or what Americans most wanted to remember about the war.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, shocked Americans out of their complacency. Neither the ocean nor pledges of isolationism could keep the country out of the conflict. Winkler writes the attack fostered the “sense of shared purpose” long missing from American popular support for the Allies.Roosevelt’s Office of War Information (created June 1942) capitalized on this wellspring of patriotism by framing the war as supporting “American values and portraying Americans as they wanted to be seen.”As the OWI proclaimed the glories of what the boys abroad were fighting for, including baseball and homemade blueberry pie, the Office of Civilian Defense (1941) stepped up its efforts to educate Americans on their own defense. The sale of war bonds, victory gardens, and other programs allowed those who were not serving overseas to fight the war where they were- every bond, turnip, and scrap of rubber was another strike against the enemy.
Winkler waxes rhapsodic about the war efforts that brought the country together, but we should not lose sight of the fact that post-Pearl Harbor America was united against the Japanese, not united behind the Allies. He writes Pearl Harbor “brought a sense of unity to all Americans,” a generalization that is not supported by historical fact.Racism and prejudice played a deciding role in identifying the “they” who did this to “us.” German Americans and Italian Americans were openly discriminated against, but thousands of Japanese American citizens were forcibly removed to internment camps for based on unsubstantiated claims they posed a threat to national security. (Historians have yet to identify credible evidence for the “military necessity” behind Japanese internment, but the nation did not apologize or attempt reparations until the 1980s.) “Anti-Japanese hysteria gripped the home front,” explained Dolores Flamiano in “Japanese American Internment in Popular Magazines: Race, Citizenship, and Gender in World War II Photojournalism.” “Wartime internment stories were rife with racial slurs and stereotypes, which most readers apparently accepted or at least tolerated.”Popular music reflected this trend, with songs like “We’re Gonna Find a Feller Who Is Yeller and Beat Him Red, White, and Blue” sharing air time with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
Winkler does include the unfair treatment of Japanese Americans during the war in his chapter on “Outsiders and Ethnic Groups,” but his failure to even allude to this development in discussing post-Pearl Harbor war mobilization and propaganda underscores a disconcerting paradox. “For all of the hardships, the United States fared well in World War II,” he writes, but “(n)ot all Americans fared well.”The attack on Pearl Harbor united the country, but in mobilizing American patriotism, it also mobilized American hate. Pearl Harbor’s legacy was a united nation, but a divided people. We entered the war secure in our belief that we would help democracy prevail overseas while playing fast and loose with the civil liberties of entire groups of citizens at home. Historians played into the myth, content to ignore the constitutional concerns raised by Japanese internment until the 1970s and 1980s. American historical memory of the war and the war era became increasingly sepia-toned as we allowed the recollection of our hatred of all things yellow (and black) to fade.
The acknowledgment of our wartime errors does not diminish our successes, but refusal to recognize these errors perpetuates division. Our collective memory of WWII should include Mom’s homemade pie and women’s baseball games, but also the barbed wire surrounding the camps at Manzanar. We are a country who found its place in the world amid dreams of white Christmases, hopes to return to the comforts of home and blueberry pie, and the insecurities that preyed upon our fear and led us to act counter to everything for which we said we stood. To borrow the phrase, the World War II generation can be the “greatest generation” without being understood as a perfect generation.
Allan M. Winkler, Home Front U.S.A. America During World War II, (Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2012), 31.
Dolores Flamiano, “Japanese American Internment in Popular Magazines: Race, Citizenship, and Gender in World War II Photojournalism,” Journalism History36, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 23-35, accessed October 31, 2016, EBSCOHost., 23; 24.
Ibid., 55; 56.
Flamiano, Dolores. “Japanese American Internment in Popular Magazines: Race, Citizenship, and Gender in World War II Photojournalism,” Journalism History 36, no. 1 (Spring 2010):23-35, accessed October 31, 2016, EBSCOHost.
Winkler, Allan M. Home Front U.S.A. America During World War II. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2012.
Kate Murphy Schaefer, 2019