The Home Front


During the Great Depression, movies had served as a welcome diversion from the difficulties of everyday life, and during the war, this held still truer. By 1941, there were more movie theaters than banks in the United States. In the 1930s, newsreels, which were shown in movie theaters before feature films, had informed the American public of what was happening elsewhere in the world. This interest grew once American armies began to engage the enemy. Many informational documentaries about the war were also shown in movie theaters. The most famous were those in the Why We Fight series, filmed by Hollywood director Frank Capra. During the war, Americans flocked to the movies not only to learn what was happening to the troops overseas but also to be distracted from the fears and hardships of wartime by cartoons, dramas, and comedies. By 1945, movie attendance had reached an all-time high.

This link shows newsreel footage of a raid on Tarawa Island. This footage was shown in movie theaters around the country.

Many feature films were patriotic stories that showed the day’s biggest stars as soldiers fighting the nefarious German and Japanese enemy. During the war years, there was a consistent supply of patriotic movies, with actors glorifying and inspiring America’s fighting men. John Wayne, who had become a star in the 1930s, appeared in many war-themed movies, including The Fighting Seabees and Back to Bataan.

Besides appearing in patriotic movies, many male entertainers temporarily gave up their careers to serve in the armed forces (Figure). Jimmy Stewart served in the Army Air Force and appeared in a short film entitled Winning Your Wings that encouraged young men to enlist. Tyrone Power joined the U.S. Marines. Female entertainers did their part as well. Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich entertained the troops. African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker entertained Allied troops in North Africa and also carried secret messages for the French Resistance. Actress Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash while returning home from a rally where she had sold war bonds.

Photograph (a) shows General George Marshall pinning the Distinguished Service Cross on Frank Capra’s jacket. Photograph (b) shows a member of the French Air Force awarding Jimmy Stewart the French Croix de Guerre.
General George Marshall awards Frank Capra the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 (a), in recognition of the important contribution that Capra’s films made to the war effort. Jimmy Stewart was awarded numerous commendations for his military service, including the French Croix de Guerre (b).

The Meaning of Democracy

E. B. White was one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. During the 1940s, he was known for the articles that he contributed to The New Yorker and the column that he wrote for Harper’s Magazine. Today, he is remembered for his children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and for his collaboration with William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style, a guide to writing. In 1943, he wrote a definition of democracy as an example of what Americans hoped that they were fighting for.

We received a letter from the Writer’s War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy.’ It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure. Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea that hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It is the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

Do you agree with this definition of democracy? Would you change anything to make it more contemporary?