War and Society in the United States, 1939-75

Tutor: Shaul Mitelpunkt

Module type: Period Topic

Module Code: HIS00061C

“War, what is it good for?” asked the 1969 number one hit “War” by soul singer Edwin Sarr, quickly completing the phrase with a resounding “absolutely nothing.” Not all Americans shared this sentiment. Mid-twentieth-century Americans often saw war as the catalyst that would usher in a host of favourable processes for the American people: virility, equality, employment, divine prophecy, and often, confusingly, peace.

In this module we will ask three separate, yet interlinked, questions: what circumstances brought the U.S. into war? how did war change the domestic life circumstances (including racial and gender relations, conscription duties, labour conditions and freedom of speech) of Americans from the beginning of War World II to the end of the Vietnam War? and how did American attitudes towards war itself as a national undertaking change during that same period? We will examine the ways Americans redefined the borders of civic participation during wartime, empowering some and marginalizing others from fireside chats with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second World War internment camps for Japanese Americans, through the mushrooming of the military-industrial complex in the 1950s, to anti-war protest in universities during the Vietnam War. We will also pay attention to the changing laws and practices of military conscription, and the cultural capital attached to military service through different eras.

During the term we will examine a wide range of primary sources relating to war’s effects on domestic American life, including political speeches, war memoires, commercial adverts, military entertainment, cinematic depictions, and other visual and audio sources that would allow us to assess how historical actors shaped and reflected popular attitudes towards war across time. The module will also invite students to evaluate recent historiographical approaches to the ways war transformed American citizenship, culture, and politics.

Seminar topics may include:

  • Introduction: Wars, states, and individuals
  • A day that will live in Infamy? What brought the U.S. into the War
  • The Warfare State: Soldiering and Civil Rights in WWII
  • Military-Industrial Complexes of the Cold War
  • Keeping Vigilant at Home: Fighting from the Kitchen to the Bedroom
  • The ‘Great Society’ Chooses Vietnam
  • The Saigon Experience
  • Hippies, demonstrators, or soldiers? The mutations of dissent
  • The All Volunteer Force: War as someone else’s Business

To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Appy, Christian G. Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Caroline Press, 1993.
  • Sparrow, James T. The Warfare State: World War II and the Age of Big Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.