Photo by Joan Marcus .

World War II on the Home Front

The War Economy and the Emotional Toll of Wartime Service

World War II on the Home Front

All My Sons takes place in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. What would become the costliest and deadliest conflict in human history was sparked in September 1939 by German leader Adolf Hitler, who led his military to invade Poland in the first move of a campaign for world domination.

As a response to Hitler’s aggression, most countries in the world joined one of two alliances: the Axis Powers (chiefly Italy and Japan), who aligned themselves with Germany; and the Allied Powers (chiefly Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States), who opposed them.

The United States did not enter the war until December 8, 1941, a day after a surprise attack by Japanese aircraft on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Over the next four years, millions of American servicemen and servicewomen would join the Allied forces all over the world, and Americans back at home—like the Kellers and Deevers of All My Sons—would have their ways of life drastically altered by a war effort that became all-consuming. Though primarily waged on foreign soil, WWII transformed the American economy and changed countless American families forever.

The War Economy 

Even though the United States would not enter the war for over two years after it began, the alarming developments overseas in 1939 and 1940 prompted the U.S. Government to massively expand America’s arsenal of military machinery, a process called rearmament.

To meet this unprecedented demand for war supplies, a war economy began to take shape in which the U.S. Government owned and funded new manufacturing plants that were operated by private businesses. These government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) plants allowed for increased production of military goods and signaled a new kind of partnership between America’s governmental and business interests.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set extremely high goals for America’s military production: 185,000 aircraft, 120,000 tanks, and 55,000 anti-aircraft guns between 1942 and 1943 alone. The war economy grew, pushing GOCO plants to redouble their efforts and forcing many companies, especially those in the automobile industry, to fully convert from manufacturing civilian goods to producing military supplies.

General Motors reconfigured their car factories to build airplane engines and tanks; Ford made B-24 Liberator long-range bombers. Businesses like the one owned by Joe Keller and Steve Deever in All My Sons were under intense pressure to meet their high production quotas in short periods of time. Coordinated by the federal government’s War Production Board and Office of War Mobilization, these breakneck efforts to expand America’s arsenal quickly transformed the United States into the single largest producer of war goods in the world.

The Workers and the Wealthy 

Photo by Ann Rosener

War mobilization so stimulated the American economy that it single-handedly ended the decade-long Great Depression of the 1930s. Though unemployment plummeted and women and people of color found new opportunities to join the workforce with so many men away in the Armed Forces, prosperity remained concentrated at the top of a very small number of corporations.

Many factories operated nearly 24/7, leading factory workers to put in long hours, sometimes even as their wages were frozen. In response to the harsh conditions of factory life, over 6.7 million laborers went on strike during the war, in some instances getting labeled “traitors” for their demand for fairer conditions.

The wealth enjoyed by the corporate and governmental elite as a result of the war mobilization efforts exemplified the dangers of what would later be known as the military-industrial complex. President Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term in his 1961 farewell speech to the American public, warning against the powerful combined interests of politicians and big business owners, for whom wartime military buildup had proven very lucrative.

Wartime Service and Its Emotional Toll 

1942 War Production Board poster, created by Stevan Dohanos

Over 16 million men and women, about 12 percent of the total U.S. population, served in the armed forces during World War II. Six million of them volunteered for service, and the other 10 million were drafted into the military as part of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. Of all military personnel who served during World War II, 406,000 died during the war. By the end of the war, about 79,000 servicemen and servicewomen were reported missing in action. 

Soldiers reported “missing in action,” like Larry Keller in All My Sons, are those whose whereabouts are unknown to the government and who are not confirmed alive or dead. Such a classification can bring particular hardship to a missing soldier’s family, who are denied the closure of a death. Such an ambiguous loss can lead to years of unresolved grief, with which all the Kellers struggle in All My Sons.

Of the soldiers who came home from the war, many developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as the memories of the horrors they had experienced in combat made it difficult to return to a normal life. Though not officially recognized as a mental health problem until 1980, PTSD manifested itself for many WWII veterans in the form of flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and other involuntary reactions to the violence of wartime.

Also common among veterans—and experienced by Chris Keller in All My Sons—was survivor’s guilt, a phenomenon associated with PTSD. Many soldiers who had emerged unharmed from wartime situations that left others injured or dead felt a strong and sometimes debilitating sense of guilt at their own survival. Veterans struggling with survivor’s guilt would often take on blame for circumstances out of their control or battle constant feelings that they could have done more to save their fellow soldiers.

The difficulties faced by the Keller and Deever families in All My Sons are emblematic of the struggles of a nation deeply scarred by the most destructive war in history. In addition to leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans dead and many more injured, WWII gave rise to a war arsenal of unparalleled proportions, forged from the labor of millions of American citizens.

1942 War Production Board Poster created by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is now running through June 30 at the American Airlines Theatre.