Disillusioned by the horrors and outcome of World War I and facing harsh economic realities, the American people yearned for neutrality as the threat of another war loomed in Europe in the late 1930s. The America First Committee, a large and vocal organization with Charles Lindbergh as its most prominent spokesperson, opposed U.S. involvement abroad. Working around the constraints of both public opinion and a series of neutrality acts, Roosevelt took such preparedness steps as he could.

By 1940 it was obvious that formal measures were required. Touching the people most directly was the Selective Service Act; passed by Congress in September 1940, it required young men to register for the draft. The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, meant that both draftees and volunteers were needed for military service. Before World War II was over, 31 million men registered and 10 million were inducted into service.

The war years, 1941-45, brought many changes in the daily lives of ordinary Americans. As men went off to war, "Rosie the Riveter" came to symbolize women who worked in factories that produced weapons and ammunition. African Americans again took up arms, either voluntarily or by conscription, and again they hoped-and again in vain-that by fighting abroad for freedom and democracy they could secure their rights in their homeland. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans, including American citizens, were interned in "relocation centers" in the West, as the U.S. government expressed fear of sabotage. Even so, two infantry units made up entirely of Japanese Americans fought with distinction in Italy.

Gasoline and food products were rationed across America. Shortages of other material goods, such as shoes and automobile tires, were common. Waste fats were saved to make explosives. Recycling cans and bottles became necessary. Communities engaged in scrap-metal drives, and children rolled tinfoil stripped from the wrappers of sugarless gum into balls. Children also bought defense stamps, pasted them in booklets, and when the total reached $18.75 converted the booklets into war bonds with a maturity value of $25 in ten years. Adults bought war bonds of this value and higher. Most important, more than 15 million men and, for the first time, women, served in the military. Although the 300,000 Americans who lost their lives represented only a fraction of the 14 million combatants of all nations killed during the war, the loss of so many Americans and the return of many more with physical and mental disabilities affected many homes and all communities.

People cheered when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9) brought an abrupt end to the war with Japan. That the bombs killed more than 150,000 civilians and may not even have been necessary created lingering feelings of guilt. Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) on May 7, 1945, and Victory in Japan Day (VJ Day) on Aug. 10, 1945, led to celebrations in the war-weary nation. Soon the men who fought for their country and the women who supported them would return home. Presumably life would return to normal, and normal meant women would yield their factory jobs to the returning men, even if involuntarily.