1940s: The Pivotal Decade

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1940s: The Pivotal Decade

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of World War II (1939–45) in U.S. history. The country became involved in the conflict after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by Japanese aircraft. From that moment, massive changes swept the nation, changes that would be felt for the rest of the century.

When the decade began, America continued to suffer from the affects of the economic depression (the Great Depression, 1929–41) that had lasted throughout the 1930s. Although the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) had helped the nation avoid outright economic disaster, many Americans remained unemployed and business activity was stuck in a slowdown. Then, German leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939. Americans looked at the war that was gripping Europe and felt lucky that they were not involved. The overriding attitude toward foreign wars was that America should not get involved. But this isolationism, as it was called, did not last long once America was attacked on its own soil.

When President Roosevelt called his nation into war against the Japanese, the Germans, and their allies, he wakened a mighty force. Young men by the hundreds of thousands volunteered to fight. American factories kicked into high gear to produce guns, tanks, and airplanes. The entire American population steeled itself for what soon came to be thought of as a sacred mission to defend American freedom. But it was not an easy fight.

Fighting alongside its allies, which included France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, American forces waged war for four years. Thousands of young American men died, though their losses remained small compared with the toll that war took on the countries in which it was fought. Germany, France, and Great Britain were devastated. Finally, thanks to overwhelming victories in Europe and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, America and its allies were able to claim victory in 1945.

The world looked far different after the war than it had looked before. For one thing, Americans realized that they could no longer avoid getting entangled in foreign conflicts. Now that technological advances allowed war to be waged on countries halfway around the world, mere oceans could not provide protection. America became more and more involved in foreign affairs. In fact, over the coming decades American forces would be sent all over the globe. Secondly, the war not only lifted America out of its long economic depression but left the nation with the world's most vibrant economy. Although there were difficulties in the transition to peace, America's economy was the only one in the world that emerged from the war fully functioning.

Victorious in war and with a booming economy, Americans were determined to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Many families who had put off having children during the Depression and the war now looked with joy to having children. They helped create a "baby boom," a surge in population growth that made itself felt throughout the decade as these "boomers" came of age. In order to accommodate this growing population, Americans built highways and houses. Looking forward to jobs and careers that would allow them to provide well for their families, thousands of men attended college on a government program known as the G.I. Bill.

American popular culture during this decade shifted to match the changing tenor of the times. During the war, newspapers, magazines, and radio programs devoted themselves to providing Americans with up-to-date information on the war effort. Radio, especially, made the world seem smaller by bringing live news from distant points of the globe into American living rooms. American moviemakers did their part by producing light, entertaining diversions as an alternative to the difficult war news. Sports went on, even though many athletes served overseas.

After the war, however, a new force in American popular culture made itself felt. Although television sets had been available before the war, it was only with renewed postwar prosperity that numbers of Americans were able to purchase the new devices they called "TVs." Soon, television networks were offering a small but growing number of programs to those living in urban areas. By the end of the 1940s, it was clear that TV would be the entertainment form of the future. Both during and after the war, music provided a release from daily life, and new forms like rhythm and blues, bebop, and boogie-woogie excited listeners.

Even as Americans recovered from the difficulties of war and began to enjoy their lives again, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon. By the end of the decade, it was becoming clear that America's ideas for the shape of the postwar world were very different than those being proposed by the Soviet Union. The United States, led by President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), wanted countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to embrace capitalism. The Russians hoped that they would embrace their system, communism. Both countries wanted their way, but they did not want to engage in open warfare now that the world had seen the destruction of modern warfare, and especially that caused by the atomic bomb. Therefore, the United States and the Soviet Union locked themselves into a "Cold War" (1945–91) in which the two world superpowers engaged in a political stalemate and both sides used diplomats, spies, and anything short of outright war to get their way. The Cold War would dominate American life for nearly fifty years, casting shadows over the sunny landscape of postwar American prosperity.

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1940s: The Pivotal Decade