From the Victory Garden to the factory, how the home front supported the front lines in World War II.
‘America Responds’ gallery in the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ exhibit at the National WWII MuseumPHOTO: NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM
At first glance, it may seem odd that the National WWII Museum is opening its new exhibit, “Arsenal of Democracy,” about life on the home front, on the anniversary of D-Day. But as the show makes abundantly clear, the Allies couldn’t have embarked on the greatest amphibious landing in history without the efforts of the folks at home.
The museum’s $5.6 million permanent addition, encompassing some 9,500 square feet and nearly 400 artifacts, dedicates the first three of its nine galleries to the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A wall timeline charts the rise of fascist dictatorships and militant nationalism from Italy to Germany to Japan. Interesting artifacts include an original Volksempfänger, the “People’s receiver” created by the Nazis to pick up only Nationalist broadcasts, as well as a Walt Disney-created Mickey Mouse gas mask for children (rubber shortages limited production, making this a rarity).
“Discordant Voices,” the second gallery, reminds visitors how divided America was about going to war, and how those attitudes changed quickly. Side-by-side Gallup polls show that in January 1940 88% of Americans were against declaring war on Germany and Italy, and 60% against helping a besieged Britain. Fast-forward a year and two-thirds of Americans were in favor of going to war. Audio and video loops rebroadcast President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he outlines the fundamental freedoms people “everywhere in the world” should enjoy. The antiwar argument is given by the leading isolationist of the day, Charles Lindbergh.
“America Besieged” uses a 50-foot-wide screen to immerse visitors in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Notable artifacts include a wristwatch belonging to Storekeeper Second Class Roy Boreen, who was aboard the USS Oklahoma, abandoned ship, and swam to safety on the USS Maryland, where, a plaque tells us, “…he had a cup of black coffee and the first cigarette of his life.” The watch is stopped at 8:04 a.m., less than 20 minutes after the Japanese attack started. Oral histories recount harrowing tales of those who survived it.
‘United but Unequal’ gallery looks at how America struggled with—and resolved—its segregationist policies to fight and win the war.PHOTO:NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM
While this history is important, six of the nine galleries focus on life on the home front and how every American contributed to the war effort. “War Affects Every Home” features a mural of a woman and boy hoeing dirt in a Victory Garden, where Americans grew their own fruits and vegetables. Visitors next step into an exquisitely re-created 1940s American kitchen, complete with period appliances, ration books, and recipe books that helped women stretch those rations.
“United but Unequal” is a balanced look at how America struggled with—and resolved—its segregationist policies to fight and win the war. Personal stories shine here, telling how minorities—blacks, Latinos, American Indians—were initially rejected but eventually integrated into military service, such as Enrique Cervantes, a Mexican-American who persevered to become a distinguished B-17 pilot.
Japanese-Americans rightly get the most coverage. On display is FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which gave the military the authority to “declare any part of the country a restricted military zone.” It didn’t mention the Nisei by name, but that’s who it targeted. Among the stories told here is that of William Nakamura of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese unit that distinguished itself in Europe. Nakamura was killed distracting a machine gun away from his comrades. He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, because Japanese-Americans were not eligible for the Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton changed that in 2000 for Nakamura and others who’d been denied awards and medals based on race. Video screens embedded in period suitcases—internees were allowed to bring just one suitcase—tell oral histories, including that of Rep. Norman Mineta.
The museum has also re-created a factory floor with assembly lines for Jeeps and the Packard-built Merlin engines that gave American P-51 Mustangs a significant performance advantage over German aircraft.
Most interesting here is a wall display showing what manufacturers made before the war, and what they converted to for wartime production: Frigidaire made the Browning M2 machine gun, Kodak made Beano grenades.
This museum has long been the standard-bearer for serious World War II history, especially the oral histories it curates for the public. “Arsenal of Democracy” only adds to that much-deserved reputation.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.