WWII and Wartime Theater

FDR had a gift for theater. It might have had a lot to do with his paralysis, and the elaborate and taxing steps he took to conceal it. He had handrails and ramps set up behind podiums he had hand controls in his car. With the discrete assistance of aides, and a cane he could create the illusion of walking for short distances. And the press at least knew it. When he re-entered politics in the 1920s, newspaper reports commented on the heroism involved and added that he was “no longer crippled, but merely lame.” More than most politicians, his public appearances were performances, acts, and known to be so.

I posted earlier about Ft. Knox, and FDR’s strategy of building a vault to guard gold which no longer had any function as backing for currency, a kind of “financial security theater.”

FDR’s war mobilization had the same theatrical quality. During the depression, the Farm Security Administration had taken famously gritty black and white photos of average Americans doing average things. When it merged with the OWI, the photographic wing switched to color and produced stylized, cleverly lit, dramatic “glamour shots” of women doing defense work.

These images made drama out of wartime production. But what’s more, they often celebrated wartime production as a source of upward mobility, not as a examples of patriotic self sacrifice. The woman above was photographed at least three times. In one, she is identified as “Beulah Faith, 20, used to be sales clerk in department store” Other captions idenitfied “Mary Louise Stepan, 21, used to be a waitress,” or noted that “Before X came to work at the naval air base she was a department store girl.” The images mix patriotic sacrifice with economic gain.

In this Youtube clip Benny Goodman sings about how “Minnie’s in the money” because of her work as a welder “on the “old assembly line.” While it’s good that “she’s helping Uncle Sam/To keep his people free,” the bottom line is “Minnie’s in the dough re mi.” The clip, from Busby Berkely’s 1943 film The Gang’s All Here, treats the war not as sacrifice, but as an exuberant celebration of abundance. [1. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. It’s totally nuts and excessive. It has Carmen Miranda in full-on tropicalismo, and  Edward Everett Horton doing his befuddled rich guy schtick: it’s full of war but filtered through Berkeley’s astonishing campy sensibility and bold camera work.]

Rationing similarly made everyday spending into a drama of sacrifice and patriotism. The Office of Price Administration set limits on how much beef, sugar, butter, meat and basic goods individuals and families could have every month. They issued ration books with individual perforated tickets. Consumers would turn the tickets in when they bought rationed goods like foodstuffs, tires, or gasoline.

Rationing generalized the sense of shared sacrifice, and it made a public drama of the war at home. Even as small an act as buying sugar was imbued with a sense of drama:

Rationing supposedly insured not just that the troops would have enough, but that you and your family would have enough:

It generalized the sacrifice and insured that the wealthy could not corner scarce resources.

Though I can’t really prove it, I’m inclined to suspect it was all theater: that there was no real need for rationing and that rationing, like scrap droves and victory gardens, made little or no substantive contribution to the war.

The United States was not an island nation with few natural resources, like Japan, and it was not vulnerable to blockade, like England. The US had millions of barrels of oil, tons of coal, and more farmland than it needed–by 1940, the government was paying people to take fields of cotton and corn out of production. The US had a climate that could support both sugar cane and sugar beets. It had developed cost-effective synthetic rubber by 1940. Unlike in England, or Germany, or Japan, or Russia, there was no resource scarcity.

There was no great increase in population during the war, and while it’s true there were about 12 million men in uniform during the war, who probably ate more and wore their clothes out faster, cotton was never scarce and neither was sugar. Even during the war, there were complaints that “shortages” of sugar resulted not from consumption abroad, but by the OPA’s meddling in the markets.

The other phenomenon that argues for rationing as theater was the black market. By all accounts it was easy to evade rationing: gas, tires, meat, sugar and butter could all be had for a higher price or from an illicit source. The OPA devoted as much as 37% of its workforce to countering the black market.

Congressional investigations found cheating at every level: illicit slaughtering, counterfeit ration stamps and coupons. J. Willard Marriot, founder of the Marriot Hotel chain, recalled:  “there was all kinds of black marketing: I guess everybody was involved in black marketing to some extent.”

There are lots of oral histories that mention the black market, usually claiming, “I never inhaled” style, that “yes, black marketeering was everywhere, but we never did that.” The OPA produced a movie, complete with ominous music, overacting and creepy scenes of neighbors informing on neighbors. There’s a weird Tex Avery Cartoon mocking black market buyers and sellers. It was clearly a widespread phenomenon, one which undermines the glib “greatest generation” cliches.

If black marketing made consumption into theater, wartime advertising treated war as the occasion for abundance. Look at virtually any issue of Life magazine between 1942 and 1945, and you’ll notice the astonishing ways war is linked to virtually every product imaginable. Just lok at any issue of Life from, say 1943. Google books has them. It’s as if the entire purpose of the war was selling products:

The Roosevelt administration’s spending for the war amounted to a massive economic stimulus. It ended the depression, and it created a partnership between big government and big business that completely reshaped American society. The rationing campaign, with its hardships and calls for sacrifice, barely concealed the exuberant consumerism that characterized American popular culture.

Of course WWII was a genuine hardship, and extracted genuine sacrifice from men and women in uniform. But looking at the homefront gives you a very different picture: rationing as theater in the midst of a consumer carnival.


  • Meredith wrote:

    Nice work, Mike! There is another piece of the puzzle, at least as far as advertising goes. The ads you write about also represent the salvation of the advertising industry itself. With the Depression, and then with wartime rationing and the shift away from production of consumer goods, there were fears within the advertising industry that it would collapse altogether, and declining ad revenues fueled that fear. The advertisements cemented a public-private partnership, but also gave advertising firms themselves something to do. So: more theater.

    There was a piece in the JAH on the myth of the good war that addresses this.

    On another note, I’ve always suspected that whole “waste fats for explosives” thing was a scam. It just can’t be cost effective, to gather vats of grease with bits of waste meat in it, haul it to some centralized depot, then send it to the bomb factory to be made into bombs. Can it?

    “Canning! That’s a real war job!” Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  • I just assume that it’s way more expensive to re-process bacon fat than it is to just slaughter hogs, or melt down old pots and pans and sort out the metal content. I don’t actually know this, but I can’t see how there was any reason for serious scarcity in the US. England sure, but the US was in a really fortunate position.

    That’s a great point about the ad industry. Saved by the chance to make morally grotesque connections between toothpaste and Iwo Jima.

  • Thanks for this post.

    Amy Bentley covers some of these questions in Eating for Victory (1998). For example, she writes,

    “Although some sugar went into the making of explosives, wartime shortages occurred not so much because the military needed large quantities of sugar but because of logistic and political problems caused by the war. There was a shortage of labor needed to plant and harvest the sugar beet crop in the United States, and few ships were available to carry sugar from Puerto Rico and Cuba. . . . Other sugar-producing countries, such as the Philippines, which before the war had produced a large share of the U.S. sugar supply, fell under Japanese control.” (102)

    I think Bentley would agree with you that many policies were primarily symbolic. But “all theater” may be going too far.

  • I’ll have to read Bentley’s book. There are lots of editorials, late in the war, blaming shortages on OPA mismanagement. The OPA itself doesn’t mention the Phillippines, but that may have been a morale-boosting omission. They don’t mention attacks on shipping either. Certainly “all theater” overstates it, in the same way that calling the WPA all theater would overstate the facts. The WPA employed a lot of people but I’d be inclined to argue that images of people beng employed were as important as the actual number employed.

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