'The Darkest Year' explores how Americans adapted to World War II

The appeal of William K. Klingaman’s 'The Darkest Year,' which uses contemporary sources to survey the national psyche in the tense months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is in enabling readers to feel the immediacy of well-known historical events as they unfolded.

The Darkest Year By William K. Klingaman St. Martin's Press 384 pp.

The federal government’s internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II is regarded as a shameful episode in American history. But in a February 1942 radio address, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a vocal proponent of relocating and incarcerating people of Japanese descent and their American-born children, predicted that “those little men who prate of civil liberties against the interest of the nation and the safety of the people will be forgotten in the pages of history.” 

He got that wrong. The appeal of William K. Klingaman’s The Darkest Year: The American Homefront, 1941-1942, which uses contemporary sources to survey the national psyche in the tense months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is in enabling readers to feel the immediacy of well-known historical events as they unfolded. While public opinion was behind Japanese-
Americans in the first days after the United States entered the war, anti-Japanese sentiment, in marked contrast to feelings toward German- and Italian-Americans, was soon on the rise, and most Americans supported the disgraceful internment – some, Klingaman demonstrates, in the ugliest imaginable terms. 

The early months of the war were disastrous for US forces, but the truth of Allied losses was largely kept from the public. Morale during those initial months was low, although observers also noted widespread complacency, which Klingaman attributes to “the continuing refusal of military censors ... and administration spokesmen to acknowledge the ominous significance of the nation’s succession of staggering defeats, particularly in the Pacific.” 

The sinking morale was due in part to the deprivation that almost immediately affected the nation, and the author excels in bringing to life the day-to-day impact of shortages of everything from rubber and gasoline to sugar and coffee. 

For security reasons, defense plants were typically built outside densely populated areas, but without fuel and tires, workers had trouble getting to their jobs. In addition, migrating defense workers faced crisis-level housing shortages, with African-American employees, often the victims of housing discrimination, faring worst of all. In one month, Klingaman writes, “Ford hired 2,900 new workers, only to lose 3,100 – many of whom quit in frustration over housing conditions.” One Ford executive, speaking of the company’s massive bomber plant outside Detroit, complained that “there is hardly a day that we don’t lose more than we hire.” 

Meanwhile, family roles were undergoing a profound change, with men entering the military and women taking over their jobs, and, in parts of the country, older children being encouraged to forgo school in favor of work. This was particularly true in rural areas, where, at a time when more food was needed to feed the troops, farms were beset by labor shortages. Contemporary experts attributed increased rates of juvenile delinquency in this period to the fact that young people reared during the Depression were suddenly enjoying the freedom that comes with earning wages while, at the same time, encountering less adult supervision as their fathers fought the war and their mothers increasingly worked long hours outside the home.

Klingaman has an eye for the interesting details of life during wartime. For example, he found that the Weather Bureau stopped issuing extensive forecasts in order to avoid aiding Axis forces that might be planning to attack. He’s also unearthed gems like the piece by a New Yorker writer who drove through the South to report on the experience of traveling highways made desolate by the rubber shortage and gasoline rationing: “The road stretched, sometimes for twenty-five miles, through what could have been a deserted world. It was an automobilist’s paradise, a condition previously only dreamed about. Yet the emptiness of the highway was frightening and awesome as well as exciting. It was lonely.” 

The book’s pleasures are ample enough to compensate for the historian’s lack of commentary or analysis.  Klingaman instead successfully evokes a sense of what life was like during an anxious time when the Allied victory was in no way assured. In contrast to the triumphalist World War II narratives taught in schools, America in 1942 was wracked by divisions of class, race, and gender and plagued by uncertainty. “National unity remained elusive, even in the midst of a total war,” Klingaman writes. In this way, America’s “darkest year” reflected the fissures that predated the conflict and anticipated those yet to come.

Barbara Spindel regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

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