By the time of Pearl Harbor the war had erupted in Norway and Mongolia, on Crete and in the Dutch East Indies; the Italian Army had marched on Egypt, and the German army was pushing into the outskirts of Moscow; there had been savage fighting in Finland north of the Arctic Circle and sea battles off the coast of Argentina. The United States was one of the last secluded places left on earth.
But the depths of that seclusion were still profound. This is one of the things about America in those days that’s hardest for us to imagine now: how impossibly far away people thought the problems of the world were. It’s not just that there was no TV, and thus no live satellite feed from the current crisis zone. America didn’t even have a decent road system back then. Any long trip across the country was a fearsomely ambitious undertaking — and foreign travel was as fanciful as an opium dream. People grew up with the assumption that anything not immediately within reach was inconceivably far away. It wasn’t unusual for them to spend every moment of their lives within walking distance of the place where they were born — and to die thinking they hadn’t missed a thing.
[ Note: Another Excerpt from a long read on the realities of World War II: Losing the War – by Lee Sandlin]
There’s a phrase people sometimes use about a nation’s collective reaction to events like Pearl Harbor — war fever. We don’t know what a true war fever feels like today since nothing in our recent history compares with it; even a popular war like the gulf war was preceded by months of solemn debate and a narrow vote in Congress approving military action. World War II came to America like an epidemic from overseas. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, recruitment offices all over America swarmed with long lines of enlistees; flags and patriotic posters popped up on every street and store window; wild and hysterical cheers greeted the national anthem at every rally and concert and sporting event. Overnight the war was the only subject of conversation in the country; it was the only subject of the movies you could see at the local theater (Blondie and Dagwood were absorbed into the war effort in Blondie for Victory; Sherlock Holmes came out of retirement to chase Nazi spies in Sherlock Holmes in Washington). War was the only acceptable motif in advertising: for years after Pearl Harbor every manufacturer of spark plugs and orange juice routinely proclaimed that its product was essential to an Allied victory.
In an earlier time poet Rupert Brooke had written that people hurried into war out of the moral griminess of civilian life “like swimmers into cleanness leaping.” In World War II the leap was perfect, complete, and profound. To the end there were none of the signs of disaffection we’ve come to expect from Americans over the course of a long war: no peace rallies, no antiescalation petition drives, no moves in Congress for compromise or a negotiated settlement. Men who appeared able-bodied found themselves harassed on the street by strangers demanding to know why they weren’t in uniform; baseball players who hadn’t yet enlisted, godlike figures like DiMaggio and Williams, were loudly booed by the hometown crowd when they came out on the field.
American soldiers early on grew accustomed to the idea that the truth of their experience wasn’t going to be told to the folks back home. They knew the score: despite the drone of triumph surrounding their every deed, the American entry into the war was a gory fiasco. The military had been caught wholly unprepared and was rushing troops into battle all over the world with a minimum of training and a maximum of chaos. To this day, if you ask any veteran for war stories, what you’re likely to hear first is some appalling epic of American military incompetence. Every unit rapidly accumulated its share of grim legends. There was the arrogant lieutenant fresh out of officer school who was assigned to lead troops into battle and turned coward under fire or was fatally befuddled by ambiguous orders. There was the murderous stupidity of a supply clerk up the line who contemptuously mishandled an urgent request for emergency provisions — on Guadalcanal, for instance, desperately needed drinking water arrived in used oil drums nobody had thought to wash out first. And there was the almost daily occurrence of the routine patrol turned into a nightmare by friendly fire. Friendly fire was a worse problem in World War II than in any other American war before or since. American troops on the ground were so frequently bombed by their own planes that they were known to shoot back with their heaviest guns.
The folks at home learned none of this. The news was being censored of course: American reporters in the field, like those of every combatant nation, had to submit all stories for official clearance, and reporters who tried to describe the war honestly would quickly find their stories going unapproved and their press credentials in doubt. But the First Amendment was still in force back home; unlike the newspapers of the Axis, which were wholly given over to government-enforced fantasies of imminent global triumph, American newspapers were still free, at least in theory, to publish whatever they liked. Some of them did so: the Library of America’s Reporting World War II anthology contains reasonably honest and critical pieces from major newspapers and magazines on conditions in the internment camps, on the lack of enthusiasm for the war in African-American ghettos, and on the institutionalized racism of the military. But when it came to what was happening on the battlefields themselves the unbreakable silence closed in.