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The American Homefront: Pearl Harbor

The American Homefront: Pearl Harbor

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Identify causes and effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor

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what's covered
Events in the Pacific, particularly the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, shattered remaining hopes that the United States could remain neutral in World War II. Pearl Harbor united Americans behind the war effort as they sacrificed to ensure success abroad.

Wartime mobilization created opportunities in employment and wage earning. Fear, discrimination, and racism, however, were important problems in America’s “arsenal of democracy.”

This tutorial examines the American homefront during World War II in five parts:
  1. December 7, 1941
  2. Wartime Migration and Employment
  3. Rosie the Riveter
  4. The Double V Campaign
  5. The Tragedy of Japanese-American Internment

1. December 7, 1941

To protect its interests in the Pacific against Japanese expansion, the United States applied a series of economic sanctions against Japan and sent military supplies to the Chinese.

Beginning in July of 1940, the U.S. enacted an embargo (i.e., a ban on trade) on the shipment of certain materials to Japan, including gasoline, machine tools, and scrap iron and steel. By late 1941, Japan felt the pressure resulting from the embargo.

Japan was determined to obtain a sufficient supply of oil, and planned to seize the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to satisfy this desire. A key American possession — the Philippines — was located between Japan and Indonesia. Japan first attempted to end the embargo diplomatically, but the negotiations broke down in November of 1941. This convinced the Japanese that they would have to go to war against the United States.

In early December of 1941, two Japanese fleets mobilized in the Pacific. One moved towards Hawaii under cloud cover and radio silence. On the morning of December 7th, it launched a surprise attack on the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.

This famous photograph shows the explosion of the USS Shaw after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. American losses were significant, but the Japanese lost only 29 planes and five miniature submarines.

Some 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo bombers attacked the American ships, hitting all of the eight battleships anchored in the harbor. Four of them sank. Nearly 200 American planes were destroyed on the ground, and 2,400 servicemen were killed. Another 1,100 were wounded.

The second Japanese fleet moved southeast, attacking Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies in late 1941 and early 1942. It also attacked the American island possessions of Guam, Wake, and the Philippines.

Rather than provide a knockout blow against the U.S., the attack on Pearl Harbor invigorated American support for involvement in World War II. It convinced citizens to support the war effort in any way that they could, including in the workplace. Unfortunately, the attack also revived racial discrimination toward Japanese-Americans.

2. Wartime Migration and Employment

President Roosevelt, referring to December 7th (when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor) as “a date which will live in infamy”, asked Congress for a declaration of war. The declaration was delivered to Japan on December 8th. On December 11th, Germany and Italy, in observance of their alliance with Japan, declared war on the United States.

Additional Resource

Listen to audio of FDR's speech December 8, 1941: Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War (following attack on Pearl Harbor)


(You won't be tested on this.)

U.S. entry into World War II changed everyday life for all Americans. One positive result was that the demands of wartime production finally ended the economic depression that had plagued the country since 1929.

The United States had been preparing for war before the Pearl Harbor attack. The government had stimulated investment and development of factories and infrastructure in the West. in anticipation of a war in the Pacific.

did you know
In August of 1940, Congress created the Defense Plant Corporation. By 1945, it had organized the construction of 344 factories and invested over $1.8 billion in the economies of the western states.

The populations of cities in California, Oregon, and Washington grew as thousands of Americans traveled to the west coast to take jobs in defense plants and shipyards.


Richmond, California’s population jumped from 20,000 to 100,000 within three years of Congress' declaration of war.

Additional Resource

Watch a short PBS newsreel about industrial production in WWII.


(You won't be tested on this.)

Mobilization of the economy for wartime production created opportunities for women. They often relocated on their own, or with their husbands, to military bases and cities, to work at jobs in the defense industries. Like the Great Migration that followed World War I, many African Americans migrated from the South to northern and western cities in search of new places to live and work.

This U.S. Census Bureau map compares the migration of African Americans in the United States before and after 1940. African-American migration patterns after 1940 mirrored those of the entire U.S. population.

try it
Do some research on your family history. Do you have any relatives who moved to a new place during World War II to participate in the war effort?

3. Rosie the Riveter and Beyond

As many American men joined the armed forces and went overseas, women gained employment opportunities. More than a third of the domestic workforce during the war was comprised of women. Married women outnumbered single women in the workplace.

did you know
In 1943, most workers in the aircraft industry were women.

Wartime conditions enabled some women to work at high-paying defense plant jobs. Others were employed in factories and offices. This enabled them to earn more money than they ever had, but their wages remained lower than those earned by men for the same work. Despite this inequality, many women achieved a degree of independence and financial self-reliance by working during the war.

To recruit women for wartime jobs — and to counter criticism that women did not belong in such occupations — the federal government conducted an advertising campaign centered on a character known as Rosie the Riveter.

term to know
Rosie the Riveter
A symbol of female defense-industry workers during World War II

Rosie, who was a composite based on several women, was depicted by illustrators including Norman Rockwell and J. Howard Miller.

Rosie the Riveter, as depicted by Norman Rockwell on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943.

The famous “We Can Do It!” poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 sought to motivate American workers.

think about it
  1. Who is the audience for the above images?
  2. What feminine characteristics do you notice in the Rosie depictions pictured above?

Rosie looked strong and tough, but also feminine. By picturing Rosie wearing lipstick and makeup, illustrators and factory owners sought to reassure men that wartime employment would not result in "masculine" women. Some factories went so far as to give female employees lessons in how to apply makeup. The federal government did not ration cosmetics during the war.

did you know
Elizabeth Arden created a special red lipstick for use by female Marine Corps reservists.

Rosie the Riveter became a generic term for all women who worked in the defense industry. Although Rosie, as depicted on posters, was white, many female workers were black — including the woman in the photo above, atop an airplane at the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Burbank, California (a), and Anna Bland, a worker at the Richmond Shipyards (b).

Employers and federal officials promoted female workers’ feminine attributes because the increased employment of women required recognition of their dual roles as employees and mothers.


IN 1944, 33% of women working in defense industries were mothers who worked “double-day” shifts: one shift at the plant and another at home.

To address the dual roles of women, Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to approve funding of childcare facilities by the federal government, under the Community Facilities Act of 1942. She also urged employers to build childcare facilities for their workers. By the end of the war, the government had funded childcare centers that served hundreds of thousands of children.

4. The Double V Campaign

The need for Americans to come together to support the war effort after the Pearl Harbor attack led to a spirit of unity throughout the population. However, African Americans continued to be treated as second-class citizens, despite their proclamations of patriotism, participation in the workplace, and willingness to fight overseas.

By 1941, black communities had forged promising relationships with the Roosevelt administration through the work of Mary McLeod Bethune and African Americans who were federal employees. However, the southern states — and the armed forces — remained legally segregated. Private corporations also discriminated in their hiring and compensation policies.

To protest the near-complete exclusion of African Americans from jobs in wartime industries, A. Philip Randolph of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for a “March on Washington”. On June 25, 1942, days before the march was scheduled to occur, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802.

term to know
Executive Order 8802
Issued by President Roosevelt; forbade racial discrimination in defense industries and government offices

To enforce the order, Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate complaints of discriminatory practices. The FEPC required the defense industries to hire blacks.

did you know
In 1944, over one million African Americans were employed in manufacturing jobs.

However, the FEPC was often unable to force corporations to place African Americans in well-paid and managerial positions.


At a plutonium production plant in Hanford, Washington (overseen by the DuPont Corporation), African Americans were hired as low-paid construction workers, but not as laboratory technicians.

Still, the existence of the FEPC indicated a shift in federal policy regarding black equality, and reflected the emergence of a civil rights movement in the U.S.

At this time, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded by James Farmer, engaged in sit-ins and other forms of peaceful protest to desegregate public facilities in Washington, DC. CORE's goal was to deprive the Axis Powers of the ability to label the United States a racist country. They argued that since the U.S. had denounced Germany and Japan for violating human rights, our country should be a positive example in that area.

The efforts of black civil rights activists to advance equality during World War II were in accordance with the Double V campaign outlined in the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest black newspaper in the country.

term to know
Double V Campaign
The civil rights campaign by African Americans to achieve victory over the Axis Powers abroad and victory over racism at home

Black Americans volunteered for government work during World War II, just like white Americans did. These Washington, D.C., residents have become civil defense workers as a result of the Double V campaign that called for victory at home and abroad.

The campaign attempted to broaden the wartime goals of the United States by encouraging African Americans to win two “Vs”: victory over racism at home and victory over America’s enemies abroad. These goals became key tenets of the modern civil rights movement after World War II ended.

5. The Tragedy of Japanese-American Internment

The desire for American unity in support of the war following Pearl Harbor led President Roosevelt and military leaders to discriminate against Japanese Americans through forced relocation and internment policies.

term to know
The forced relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast to guarded camps for most of World War II

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reinvigorated racist assumptions about Japanese immigrants, and Japanese Americans, in the United States. As a result of revived racism and widespread fear of espionage and sabotage in the West, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. It gave the army the authority to remove people from “military areas” to prevent sabotage or espionage.

After the order went into effect, Lt. General John L. DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense command, ordered approximately 127,000 people of Japanese descent who lived on the West Coast to report to assembly centers. This was roughly 90 percent of the U.S. Japanese population. Over 60 percent of them were born in the United States, and were American citizens. From the assembly centers, they were transferred to hastily-prepared camps in the interior of California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas.

Japanese Americans standing in line in front of a poster detailing internment orders in California.

Photographer Dorothea Lange photographed the stark landscape of the Manzanar Internment Camp in California on July 3, 1942.

think about it
  1. How do the images above portray the uncertainties and hardships that Japanese Americans experienced during interment?
  2. Do you think Dorothea Lange attempted to make a political statement by making the American flag the centerpiece of her photograph of an internment camp?

Those who lived in the camps reported deeply traumatic experiences. Families were sometimes separated. People could only bring a few of their belongings and had to abandon the rest of their possessions. The camps were dismal: many residents lived in crudely-constructed shacks. The camps were also overcrowded. Privacy was difficult to come by.

Despite these hardships, internees built communities within the camps. Adults served in camp government and worked at a variety of jobs. Families planted gardens. Children attended school, played basketball against local teams, and organized Boy Scout troops.

did you know
Approximately 14,000 German- and Italian-Americans were also placed in internment camps. Unlike the Japanese Americans, however, these internees represented a tiny percentage of their U.S. populations.

Japanese Americans were essentially imprisoned. Minor violations of rules, like walking too close to the fence, could have severe consequences. They endured these hardships without due process: no internees had been convicted of sabotage or espionage.


Few Americans protested Japanese American internment, and many viewed it as a military necessity. Much of the mainstream press would not begin to criticize internment until late in the war. Imagine yourself as an American living in California in 1942. Would you have spoken out against Japanese American internment? Why or why not?
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 brought the United States into World War II. The war provided opportunities for advancement for women and African Americans. However, concerns about working mothers and family stability, along with discrimination against African Americans, and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans, revealed that fear and racism persisted at home as the U.S. fought for freedom abroad.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Remember December 7th poster, 1942, PD,, Map of Great Migration, PD,, Rosie the Riveter, PD,, “We Can Do It!” PD,, Manzanar Internment Camp, PD,, Derived from Openstax tutorial 27.1 and 27.2 Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Double V campaign

the civil rights campaign by African Americans to achieve victory over the Axis Powers abroad and victory over racism within the United States.

Executive Order 8802

issued by president Franklin Roosevelt; forbade racial discrimination in defense industries and government offices.

Rosie the Riveter

a symbol of female workers in the defense industries during World War II.


the forced collection and relocation of Japanese Americans on the west coast to guarded camps in the United States for the greater part of World War II.

People to Know
A. Philip Randolph

civil rights activist and leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who called for a “March on Washington” in 1942 to pressure Roosevelt’s administration to help desegregate wartime industries.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Democratic U.S president from 1933 until his death in 1945, who was elected for an unprecedented four terms; led the United States through the Great Depression and World War II; member of the Allied Powers’ “Big Three” leaders.

James Farmer

activist and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that would be instrumental to the advancement of black civil rights in the 20th century.