The unprecedented attention to freedom as the defining characteristic of American life had implications that went far beyond wartime mobilization. World War II reshaped Americans’ understanding of themselves as a people. The struggle against Nazi tyranny and its theory of a master race discredited ethnic and racial inequality. Originally promoted by religious and ethnic minorities in the 1920s and the Popular Front in the 1930s, a pluralist vision of American society now became part of official rhetoric. What set the United States apart from its wartime foes, the government insisted, was not only dedication to the ideals of the Four Freedoms but also the principle that Americans of all races, religions, and national origins could enjoy those freedoms equally. Racism was the enemy’s philosophy; Americanism rested on toleration of diversity and equality for all. By the end of the war, the new immigrant groups had been fully accepted as loyal ethnic Americans, rather than members of distinct and inferior “races.” And the contradiction between the principle of equal freedom and the actual status of blacks had come to the forefront of national life.
Arthur Pointer's cartoon for the Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1941, illustrates how, during World War II, white ethnics (of British, German, Irish, French, Polish, Italian and Scandinanvian descent) were incorporated within the boundaries of American freedom.
Among other things, World War II created a vast melting pot, especially for European immigrants and their children. Millions of Americans moved out of urban ethnic neighborhoods and isolated rural enclaves into the army and industrial plants where they came into contact with people of very different backgrounds. What one historian has called their “patriotic assimilation” differed sharply from the forced Americanization of World War I. While the Wilson administration had established
Anglo-Saxon culture as a national norm, Roosevelt promoted pluralism as the only source of harmony in a diverse society The American way of life, wrote the novelist Pearl Buck in an OWI pamphlet, rested on brotherhood—the principle that “persons of many lands can live together... and if they believe in freedom they can become a united people.”
Government and private agencies eagerly promoted equality as the definition of Americanism and a counterpoint to Nazism. Officials rewrote history to establish racial and ethnic tolerance as the American way. To be an American, FDR declared, had always been a “matter of mind and heart,” and “never... a matter of race or ancestry”—a statement more effective in mobilizing support for the war than in accurately describing the nation’s past. Mindful of the intolerance spawned by World War I, the OWI highlighted nearly every group’s contributions to American life and celebrated the strength of a people united in respect for diversity. One OWI pamphlet described prejudice as a foreign import rather than a homegrown product and declared bigots more dangerous than spies—they were “fighting for the enemy.”
Horrified by the uses to which the Nazis put the idea of inborn racial difference, biological and social scientists abandoned belief in a link among race, culture, and intelligence, an idea only recently central to their disciplines. Ruth Benedict’s Races and Racism (1942) described racism as “a travesty of scientific knowledge.” In the same year, Ashley Montagu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race became a best-seller. By the war’s end, racism and nativism had been stripped of intellectual respectability, at least outside the South, and were viewed as psychological disorders.
Hollywood, too, did its part, portraying fighting units whose members, representing various regional, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, put aside group loyalties and prejudices for the common cause. Air Force featured a bomber crew that included an Anglo-Saxon officer, a Jewish sergeant, and a Polish-American gunner. In the film Bataan, the ethnically balanced platoon included a black soldier, even though the real army was racially segregated. The war’s most popular motion picture, This Is the Army, starring, among others, future president Ronald Reagan, offered a vision of postwar society that celebrated the ethnic diversity of the American people.
Intolerance, of course, hardly disappeared from American life. One correspondent complained to Norman Rockwell that he included too many “foreign-looking” faces in his Freedom of Worship painting. Many business and government circles still excluded Jews. Along with the fact that early reports of the Holocaust were too terrible to be believed, anti-Semitism contributed to the government’s unwillingness to allow more than a handful of European Jews (21,000 during the course of the war) to find refuge in the United States. Roosevelt himself learned during the war of the extent of Hitler’s “final solution” to the Jewish presence in Europe. But he failed to authorize air strikes that might have destroyed German death camps.
Nonetheless, the war made millions of ethnic Americans, especially the children of the new immigrants, feel fully American for the first time. During the war, one New York “ethnic” recalled, “the Italo-Americans stopped being Italo and started becoming Americans.” But the event that inspired this comment, the Harlem race riot of 1943, suggested that patriotic assimilation stopped at the color line.