Skip to main content Skip to main content

A Biography of America

World War II

America is enveloped in total war, from mobilization on the home front to a scorching air war in Europe. Professor Miller's view of World War II is a personal essay on the morality of total war, and its effects on those who fought, died, and survived it, including members of his own family.

View Transcript

Enhanced Transcript Page 1

Program 22: World War II/Total War

Donald L. Miller

Brinkley: World War II is thought of as the “good war.”

Miller: World War II is such an enormous theater. I mean, you’ve got all the big figures.

Brinkley: One of the geniuses of Franklin Roosevelt is that ability to articulate what we’re fighting for. He gave the four freedoms speech. We’re fighting for freedom from fear, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want. All. Everywhere in the world.

Narrator: “World War II” on A Biography of America.


Miller: On the morning of December 7th, l941, a Japanese air armada attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, knocking out half the U.S. Navy in a few hours. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress and got a declaration of war against Japan, a country in the grip of maniacal war lords.

Roosevelt: A date which will live in infamy.

Miller: Three days later, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy declared war on the United States. That week, the European war that had begun with the Nazi invasion of Poland became a world war. It was already a total war, a war waged against innocent women and children, as well as men in arms.

It would be America’s first experience with this kind of warfare. In the Civil War, Union Generals Grant and Sherman had carried the fight to the homes and farms of the South, but civilians were rarely fired upon, except, as at Vicksburg, when trapped with armies in a siege situation. In World War II, civilians were deliberately attacked.

Japanese and Germans marked the way in l937: the Japanese with the Rape of Nanking, and the Germans, in the Spanish Civil War, with the bombing of Guernica, an atrocity captured on canvas with terrifying power by Pablo Picasso. In the ancient city of Nanking, Japanese soldiers shot, stabbed, beheaded, hung, castrated, and raped tens of thousands of non-resisting men, women and children, in what has been called a “Hidden Holocaust.”

The world war that followed, two years later, was fought with vindictive fury by both sides. As Roosevelt assured the American people: “The militarists of Berlin and Tokyo started this war but the massed, angered forces of common humanity will finish it.” And they did, annihilating from the air over fifty German and Japanese cities before dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August l945. In ending the war in this way, the United States began a new era in history, as well as in warfare.

Humankind’s powers of reason and capacity for irrationality remained unchanged on the eve of World War II. What changed was the technology of destruction: ships and tanks and planes of prodigious power, a cascade of destructive force culminating in the atomic bomb.

World War II would be the most terrible war, maybe the most terrible catastrophe, in the history of humanity. Over 50 million people died, most of them civilians. Six million of them killed in a Holocaust that had no direct connection to the fighting. And over 400,000 American servicemen lost their lives as well.

World War II is so enormous in its scope and savagery, it’s almost impossible to imagine, let alone encompass in a short lecture. What follows is less a lecture than a memory book, a series of story-telling snapshots which try to capture the war and what it meant to ordinary Americans who experienced it. This is about what happened to an aroused democracy, the most powerful on earth, when it was forced to wage a war it didn’t desire, but chose to fight, without let-up, to the finish.

It’s also a story that touched me personally. I was born too late to experience the war. But I grew up in a working class neighborhood of a Pennsylvania town in which nearly every young man served in the war, and dozens of women worked in war industries. My mother worked at Jacobs Aircraft, which produced parts for the planes for the air arm my father served in. And my grandfather worked in a steel mill that forged armaments for General George Patton’s Army. That army swept across Europe and into Germany, where my Uncle John, serving as a GI in Patton’s blitzkrieg, was captured as a prisoner of war. Before that, he had fought on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Except for those like him who saw combat, Americans didn’t directly experience the plague of war. We weren’t invaded as other combatants were; nor were our great cities turned to rubble. America was the only country in the world to grow fatter, more prosperous during the war. Yet Americans at home did suffer. I’m not talking about the enforced rationing of butter, coffee, or gasoline. Minor inconveniences. I’m talking about the greatest sacrifice a family can make: the loss of a loved one. Engraved in my mind is the living room of our neighbors, the Adamses, turned for many years after the war into a shrine for the boy who never came back.

My father was President of The Catholic War Veterans Post that was named after Francis Adams. And it’s there at the bar, over a number of years, that I coaxed and pulled stories of the war out of veterans who wanted to forget.

Then I starting reading the memoirs of men who had been in battle. One of these men is E.B. Sledge — Sledgehammer to his old Marine Corps buddies. Historian Studs Terkel interviewed Sledge for his fabulous book, The Good War.

Sledge had this to say, “My parents taught me the value of history. During my third day overseas, I thought I should write all this down for my family. We were told diaries were forbidden because if we were killed or captured, any diary might give the Japanese information. So I kept little notes which I slipped into the pages of my Gideon’s New Testament.”

Later, Sledge transformed these slips of paper into the most searing account of war, “With the Old Breed at Peleleiu and Okinawa.”

There was a lot of censorship in World War II, both of the letters of American servicemen and of the dispatches of war correspondents like the legendary Ernie Pyle. The military didn’t want the folks at home to know how terrible the war was. And Pyle and his colleagues wanted to contribute to the war by bolstering home front morale, not by twisting the truth, but by not telling everything. Or as the playwright Arthur Miller says of Pyle, by telling “as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting.”

If memory and history are to be used for a better future, not simply to recreate the past, these stories, I think, are instructive. One problem historians have in re-creating the past is that readers know how it will turn out. So events often seem inevitable. But they’re not. An Allied victory was not preordained. A thousand things could have gone wrong. Consider just one — Nazi scientists, instead of ours, develop the atomic bomb.

In the spring of l942, in fact, it looked like the Allies might lose the war. Hitler was master of continental Europe and his armies were threatening Cairo and the Suez Canal. And Japan’s empire dwarfed Hitler’s. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran the United States forces in the Philippines, forcing commander Douglas MacArthur to evacuate to the South Pacific, leaving his men in grisly prisoner of war camps. Then in a series of a lightning-like strikes, the Japanese gained control of almost one-seventh of the earth’s surface, all of it in Asia and the Pacific.

Enhanced Transcript Page 2

The Home Front

At that time, our army had more horses than tanks and didn’t have a single combat unit confronting the enemy. And America wasn’t even able to function, as it had up to then, as the arsenal of democracy, supplying armaments to England and the Soviet Union. Nazi U-boats were sinking American merchant ships with shocking ease. Many of these merchantmen were sunk within sight of shore because coastal cities like New York and Miami refused to enforce a blackout, fearing a loss of their tourist trade. Their bright lights gave U-boat captains a perfect background to site and sink ships headed for Europe. That spring, the American task wasn’t victory — it was holding off defeat.

It took a tremendous exercise of American will and power to turn the tide, a national mobilization such as this country had never seen before, and may never see again. And fueling it was raw revenge, retribution for the humiliating defeat at Pearl Harbor. Pearl might be the greatest American victory of the war. It awoke a sleeping giant.

But it took almost no time to re-tool the economy for wartime production. The world’s greatest automobile society stopped making cars during the war and geared its auto plants to the production of every imaginable instrument of mobile warfare. At Henry Ford’s gigantic new plant at Willow Run, outside Detroit, an assembly line a mile long poured out B-24 bombers at a rate of a plane every 63 minutes. While out on the West Coast, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser used women welders and Ford’s assembly line techniques to build Liberty Ships. These were the “Model Ts of the Seas,” slow, ungainly looking ships that carried prodigious amounts of military cargo to the war. And it was Kaiser who convinced Roosevelt to use small escort carriers against the U-boat menace. Kaiser built these baby flattops, as he called them, and they, along with the navy’s new convoy system, drove off Nazi wolf packs from the North American waters and out into the central Atlantic, opening sea lanes to the Allies.

Germany’s armaments minister wrote Hitler an interesting memorandum describing the war as a contest between two different systems of industrial organization: the German system, based on skilled, high-quality production; and the American system based on unskilled, high-volume production. Unless we change, he warned the Führer, the Americas will bury us.

But Americans needed time to bury Germany, and that was provided by the Russian army on Germany’s eastern front, which suffered more than three million casualties in 1941 alone.

[picture of a tank being assembled]

America was a third rate military power in 1940. By 1945 it was producing more weapons and firepower than the rest of the world put together. To take these new war-production jobs, over l5 million Americans changed their place of residence, a great number of them moving to the West Coast.

The war lured black people by the millions from cotton fields in the south to northern industrial centers. And in a war against the world’s most vicious racist, blacks were discriminated against in war work as well as in the armed forces, where soldiers, and even blood plasma, were segregated by race.

Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces in the war, and that opened up jobs for women as well. Women made airplanes, bombs, and ships, and performed secret administrative work on the atomic bomb project. They joined the WACS and the WAVES, auxiliary forces of the Army and Navy. And some 12,000 women served with the lesser-known WASPs, the Women Air Force Service Pilots. The WASPs piloted bombers from assembly lines to air fields in the United States, taught male pilots how to strafe and bomb, and flight tested repaired aircraft before sending them back into service. They were eager to fly in combat, but only the Soviet Union would let women fight.

For many Americans, wartime prosperity, coming on the heels of the Great Depression was “an absolute miracle.” Working with her mother and sister in a shell-loading plant, Peggy Terry, a mountain woman from Kentucky, made what she called the “fabulous sum of thirty-two dollars a week. Before that,” she said, “we made nothing….We were just a bunch of hillbilly women laughing and talking. Now we’d have money to buy shoes and a dress and pay rent and get some food on the table.”

But at this point, Peggy Terry pauses and adds, “But when I look back and think of him.” That was her husband, a paratrooper who made 26 drops over Europe and North Africa. “Until the war,” Peggy continues, “he never drank. When he came back he was an absolute drunkard. And he used to have the most awful nightmares. He’d get up in the middle of the night and start screaming. I’d just sit there for hours and hold him while he just shook. Then he started to beat me and the kids. Combat does things like that to men.”

My grandfather, on my father’s side, returned from the trenches of World War I, where he had been wounded, a broken man, unable to keep his life or his marriage together. One evening, when my father was very young, he slipped away and never came back.

Enhanced Transcript Page 3

The Air War

At that time, military strategists were determined not to fight another World War I, a long war of attrition and senseless slaughter. They were looking for a way to shorten war by returning the advantage to the offense, which from the days of the Civil War had been battered almost every time they attacked dug-in positions. The solution the strategists came up with was air power — winged victory.

The European theorists of winged victory insisted that the next war would be short and total. It would be won from the skies with air fleets of long-range bombers whose chief targets would be civilians. Pulverizing entire cities would shatter civilian morale and lead to a mercifully quick capitulation.

In World War II, first the Germans, then the British, in retaliation, attacked enemy cities from the sky. But when America’s Eighth Air Force entered the war over Europe in 1943, it had its own idea about air power. The key to it was the top-secret Norden bombsight, which pilots said could guide a bomb into a pickle barrel from 25,000 feet. This would allow Americans to bomb cities with surgical precision, targeting only strategic economic positions like armaments factories. Few lives, friend or foe, would be lost.

[picture of B-17s in flight]

The ultimate weapon of strategic bombing was the B-l7 Bomber, the Flying Fortress. It was a fearsome air machine bristling with machine guns and capable of delivering huge bomb loads deep into enemy territory. With planes like this, and the equally formidable B-24 Liberator, the war could be won, the Bomber Barons argued, without terrible slaughter on the ground, an idea that appealed to Americans back home.

Strategic bombing was warfare perfectly suited to the American character. As the British historian John Keegan writes: “It combined moral scruple, historical optimism, and technological pioneering, all three distinctly American characteristics.” The problem was, it didn’t work.

To bomb precisely, you must bomb in clear daylight. So it was agreed the British would go into Germany by night and terror bomb entire cities. And the Americans would go in by day after their strategic targets. Right off, the Americans ran into problems — recurring cloud cover over targets, and heavy enemy resistance from fighter planes and ground-based artillery. Pin-point bombing became an oxymoron.

German military production actually increased in 1943, and strategic bombing turned out to be deadly dangerous. A flyer had only one chance in three of surviving a tour of duty. Going on a deep penetration bomb-run over Germany was more dangerous than fighting in a foxhole.

The crew’s first battle was with the cold. Temperatures dropped to 50 degrees below zero at 20,000 feet. Since the planes weren’t pressurized, the crew had to wear ill-fitting oxygen masks. Saliva, or vomit from airsickness, would sometimes get in the mask and freeze the hose, causing men to pass out, and even die from oxygen deprivation. And when a gun jammed in the chaos of combat, men would forget and pull off their gloves to try to clear the jam. Their cold hands would freeze to the bare metal of the gun, and to pull them away they had to tear off the flesh.

Combat usually began when the limited range fighters peeled off and left the bomber fleets. Then came the Luftwaffe, climbing out of the sun. German pilots discovered that the “forts” were inadequately armed in the nose section. So the Germans attacked the bomber formations head on, in packs, wing to wing, wing-tip to wing-tip, blazing away, coming in so close one crewman said he could see a German pilot as if in “a movie close-up.” And bodies without chutes would tumble out of shattered planes, as machine gunfire ripped through your fuselage.

It was at moments like this that many airmen resigned themselves to the certainty of their own death, usually without panicking. Then the fighters would leave, and it would get quiet. The airmen knew then that they were entering the dreaded flak field.

This was a section of sky over the target thick with bursting artillery shells, each hurling shards of steel through the air. The bombers, bumping and shuddering, couldn’t evade these deadly shells. They had to hold formation right to the target point. As one pilot said, “That’s when you learned that it’s possible to sweat at 30 degrees below zero.”

When bombers hit their targets and the men saw the columns of smoke, the lead pilot would shout into the intercom, “Okay! We’re fighting for us now. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

One crew learned at its morning briefing that it was being sent back to the German target where its formation had lost 20 percent of its planes. After this briefing, some of the fliers went back to the barracks to write a last letter or put on clothing suitable for surviving capture or for burial.

Enhanced Transcript Page 4

The Ground War

Finally, in late 1943, the American bomber barons suspended raids beyond fighter-escort range. The European war would be won on the ground.

After knocking the Germans out of North Africa and pushing them back to Northern Italy, the Allies, under supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower, launched an amphibious invasion of the European continent on June 6, 1944. D-Day. It was the most spectacular display of military might in the history of the world.

When my Uncle John fought his way off Omaha Beach and looked back at the awesome armada delivering men and machines he thought to himself: “I may get shot but sure as hell, we’re not going to lose this war.”

When the invaders gained a beachhead, they began slugging through German defenses, suffering a near calamitous setback near the German border at the Battle of the Bulge. After turning back that furious German counter-offensive, the Allied armies stormed into Germany, while the Russians moved relentlessly on Berlin from the East.

In the ground war on the western front, American air power did finally make a difference. Before D-Day, Americans developed a fast, long-range fighter, the P-51 Mustang. With P-51 escorts, American bombers could fly deep into German air space and knock out vital oil refineries, depriving both the German army and air force of fuel they desperately needed to stop the Allied ground offensive. In a sense, Hitler lost the war because he ran out of gas.

As American bombers hit targets like Berlin that German fighters had to defend, P-51 escorts decimated the Luftwaffe. This gave the invading Allied armies complete air superiority. As Eisenhower assured his D-Day troops, “If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.”

When the American army reached the Elbe River and the Russians closed in on Berlin, Hitler, cowering in a Berlin bunker, ended the Thousand Year Reich by putting a bullet through his skull. Germany surrendered on May 8th, 1945. V-E Day. The last words were Eisenhower’s, written even before America entered the war. “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.”

Our Mission

There is a myth that has grown up around the citizen soldiers who knocked out the fascists — that they fought not for flag and country, not for a high purpose; but for their buddies. As one GI put it, “The reason you storm the beaches is not patriotism or bravery. It’s that sense of not wanting to fail your buddies. There’s a special sense of kinship.”

That’s true. But these guys also knew what they were in this for. As one GI said: “I think it would have been a catastrophe if Hitler would’ve won.”

“That bastard had to be stopped,” said another; “that’s why I joined up.”

And GIs had a strong sense that their sacrifice meant something when they liberated town after delirious town in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few GIs even thought they were liberating the Germans.

“Why are you making war against us?” a German soldier asked an American prisoner, who happened to speak German. His unforgettable reply was, “We are fighting to free you from the fantastic idea that you are a master race.”

Then there was the liberation of the prisoners of the Nazi death camps. America’s complete focus on the war, and its climate of anti-Semitism, which infiltrated the highest levels of government, stopped it from doing what it should have done: publicize Hitler’s genocidal policies, turn America into a refuge for persecuted Jews, and mount rescue missions. Yet when our army entered Germany and began encountering concentration camp victims, these walking skeletons tearfully greeted the soldiers as their liberators. Did Nazi evil such as these men saw justify the terror bombing of German civilians? I don’t think we’ll ever have agreement on that. Perhaps the most senseless Allied act of the war was the firebombing of Dresden, a German cultural capital of no great military value.

Dresden might have been hit in early 1945 because the Allies had simply run out of fresh targets to bomb. The British Royal Air Force did most of the damage, but the Americans participated in the destruction of over 30,000 people by fire and suffocation. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut was there and he said that the fire bombing of Dresden didn’t shorten the war by one minute. Now that’s true, but many of those who bombed it had no regret.

Here’s Lieutenant John Morris: “I don’t rejoice at the 30,000 Germans killed. I doubt that there were many Jews in that number. The good burghers of Dresden had shipped them all off to Auschwitz.” And, as Morris says, Dresden was not unique. Berlin and Leipzig were hit ever harder by the Americans and the British.

The targets of Berlin and Leipzig were industrial, but since the weather was bad, it amounted to terror bombing. The Eighth Airforce had crossed a moral threshold. Both Eisenhower and Roosevelt went along with this. Ike preferred precision bombing but wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. And Roosevelt believed that the German people must be compelled, this time, as opposed to the last war, to recognize their defeat and accept responsibility for the horrors their country had inflicted on the world.

What kind of behavior is morally justifiable to win a war against a ruthless enemy? This question would surface again, with even greater urgency, in the final months of the war against Japan. There in the Northern Pacific, total war would merge with racial hatred to produce fighting of unimaginable ferocity and destruction such as the world had never seen before.

You Decide: Was the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans Appropriate?


When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States quickly declared war on the Empire of Japan. Nine weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which gave the War Department the authority to define military areas in the West Coast states and to exclude anyone who might threaten the war effort. The United States Government then made a controversial decision to imprison most of the 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States, 77,000 of whom were American citizens. The remainder were registered aliens of Japanese ancestry, many of whom had lived in the United States for years.

The Japanese Americans were moved inland to ten permanent camps in isolated parts of the American West. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and were complete with guard towers and armed guards. There were permanent camps in California, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. There were also dozens of other assembly areas and temporary camps. The evacuation began on March 25, 1942, and by August 12, 1942, almost all Japanese Americans were imprisoned.

Was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?

Yes: What if you knew that the government never made it clear why all Japanese Americans were arrested?

No: What if you knew there were rumors of sabotage and great public fear and confusion in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The Government Perspective

  • The Executive Order appeared to be a direct response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • None of these individuals were charged with a crime. There was no evidence that any of them had done anything wrong or was spying for Japan.
  • There was a long history in the United States of denying citizenship rights to persons of Japanese ancestry.
  • The FBI had been monitoring Japanese American activity for several years before the war broke out, and right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, swept into Japanese American communities and arrested possible subversives. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover told President Roosevelt that the West Coast was secure, and he recommended that the Japanese American communities be watched. He did not recommend mass arrests.
  • U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle warned President Roosevelt that the forced removal of American citizens was unconstitutional. Although we were also at war with Germany and Italy, there was no mass detention of German Americans or Italian Americans.
  • Anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast increased dramatically once Pearl Harbor was bombed.
  • There were a number of anti-Japanese organizations in California that had long opposed citizens of Japanese ancestry and Japanese aliens. Did the government think they were protecting Japanese Americans by moving them out of harm’s way until the war was over?
  • One argument used by the California Attorney General Earl Warren was that Japanese American loyalty to the United States and the lack of sabotage only proved that Japanese Americans would soon become disloyal.

Was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?

Yes: What if you knew that internment resulted in great dislocation and economic hardship?

No: What if you knew that the Supreme Court found this action to be constitutional?

Japanese American relocation

  • Citizens of Japanese American ancestry living in California were as surprised as anyone else when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Suddenly signs were posted on telephone poles stating that if you were of Japanese ancestry, “alien and nonaliens alike,” you were to report on certain days to assembly centers where you would be processed and sent to a camp. If you were lucky, you had two weeks to sell your possessions, your home, your business, and pack what belongings you could carry for the trip to the camps. If you were a farmer, you were forced to leave your land just weeks before the spring harvest. With tens of thousands of property owners forced to sell all at once, you would get virtually nothing for your possessions.
  • The vast majority of Japanese Americans were law-abiding citizens and obeyed the law and went peacefully to the camps.
  • About 100 persons refuse to obey the evacuation order. They were all arrested and convicted. Since their property was sold, they had no money to appeal their cases. Three individuals who were arrested were able to mount cases in federal courts that eventually led to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the removal order on grounds of military necessity, even though the order singled out only persons of Japanese ancestry.

Was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?

Yes: What if you knew that many Japanese American men served in the American Armed Forces during World War II?

No: What if you knew that many in the camps refused to serve in the Armed Forces?

  • Men and women age 17 and older who were interned in the camps were presented with a questionnaire from the War Relocation Authority that asked if they would be “willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States in combat duty.” They were also asked to foreswear any allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. How they answered these two questions would have a profound effect on them, their family, and their future. These questions were very divisive and raised a moral dilemma for many.The camps divided into two groups according to those who answered “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.” Those who answered “No, No” often did so because they felt strongly that they should not be asked to serve in the armed forces when the government had arrested them. And they did not think they should have to deny allegiance to the Japanese Emperor when they had expressed no allegiance to begin with. Some who answered “No, No” were deported to Japan. Some of the deportations continued even after the war was over.
  • The Japanese American Citizens League urged those in the camps to cooperate with government officials to prove their loyalty to the United States.
  • 33,000 second-generation Japanese Americans (called Nisei) and Japanese Hawaiians formed the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion, which became the most decorated fighting unit in United States history.


With what you now know, was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?

You voted NO, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans was not appropriate.

Of the 7722 visitors who have voted since September 9, 2010, 75% believed the U.S. Government’s actions were inappropriate while 25% felt the U.S. Government acted accordingly.


Japanese Internment

The unconstitutional manner in which Japanese Americans were stripped of their homes and livelihoods remains an unresolved dark chapter in American history:

  • In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sending Japanese Americans to detention centers where they were held under armed guard during the war. Later that year the Supreme Court said that Japanese Americans of proven loyalty to the United States should be released. The camps were closed in 1945.
  • In 1952 Congress finally granted Japanese aliens the right to become naturalized citizens.
  • In 1980 Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians which had the task of reviewing President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The Commission determined that Japanese Americans had been the victims of discrimination by the U. S. government.
  • In 1988 Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which provided for an official apology from the President of the United States and a payment to camp survivors of $20,000 per person. 243 members of the House and 69 members of the Senate voted in favor of this bill, and 141 members of the House and 27 members of the Senate opposed it.

These are the words of Emi Somekawa, a nurse, a married woman, born in Portland, Oregon, who was pregnant with her second child when she and her family were sent to the internment camps. Her second child was born in a smelly horse stall, where the family lived for months at the Portland Assembly Center, before they were moved to one of the permanent camps at Tule Lake.

“Not only was it a most traumatic time in my life, but it was also the most frustrating period, because I felt that all of our accomplishments up to that time were gone. Yet, if it had to be this way with President Roosevelt’s orders, we just had to make the best of it. I’ve often felt that we’d lost several years of my younger life because of being in camp. I’m bitter towards it. I have tried to cope with it the best I can by educating my children, and I’ve tried to serve the community the best I know how. I hope that something like this will never happen to another group of people or to us ever again. But sometimes I wonder.”

— John Tateishi, And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps.

Questions to Ponder

Less than a year after the United States entered World War II against Japan, nearly all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were imprisoned in interment camps.


1. Do you think it is possible that in some future situation, a racial or ethnic group of American citizens could be sent to detention camps like the Japanese were during World War II?


2. Can you think of any circumstances that would justify the mass arrest of a racial or ethnic group?


3. Can you think of anything similar that has happened to other racial or ethnic groups in American history?


Bosworth, Allan R. America’s Concentration Camps. New York: Norton, 1967.

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.

Tateishi, John. And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984; paperback, 1999.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt
A portrait and a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Character Above All – Franklin D. Roosevelt Essay
An account of the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency with related links.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Four Freedoms
The text of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, “The Four Freedoms.”

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
An account of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
A Franklin D. Roosevelt site providing links to information on the various stages of his life and career. Includes information for further reading, Web resources and more.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: President of the Century
A photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Provides links to his biography, more photos, speeches, etc.

The American Experience/Presidents/FDR/Presidential Politics
An essay on FDR’s presidency, with links to other essays about him and to speeches and other documents.


Roosevelt & World War II

“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”
The historical background to Roosevelt’s War Address. Provides links to the first typed draft of the address and to a recording of Roosevelt delivering the address.


Ernie Pyle

James Tobin
An interview with the author of the book Ernie Pyle’s War. Includes a discussion of Pyle and excerpts from Pyle’s diaries.

Ernie Pyle Writes of a Dead Man and of Mules
The text of two famous excerpts from his Pyle’s diaries. Includes some photos of Pyle.

Ernie Pyle
A biography of Pyle with photographs and links.



Blockbuster Events in Welding’s Long History
An account of welding history with a reference to World War II and the U.S. Liberty Ships.


Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower
A biography and a portrait of Eisenhower.

Eisenhower Center
A page of links related to Eisenhower. Includes links to information on D-Day operations, etc.

Character Above All
An illustrated biography of Eisenhower with links.



The American Experience | Guts and Glory
An American Experience site about D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-202-7