Ready or not
Americans hope to stay out of World War II, but Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 leaves them no choice: they'll have to fight, though they're badly unprepared. The military has a large backlog of unfilled weapons orders – expenditures Congress wouldn't approve during the Great Depression – and the population has its hands full coping with hard times. But once it commits to war, the United States holds nothing back. Millions enlist in the military, and U.S. industry cranks into full gear.
The picture of air power
With the 1937 debut of the B-17 (designed and manufactured by Seattle-based Boeing), American airpower enters a new age. In addition to its full range of practical virtues – range, speed, durability, and firepower – the plane has a popular identity summed up in its nickname: the "Flying Fortress." Better planes appear in short order, including two heavier, longer-ranged bombers (the B-24 and B-29) and a swarm of fighters led by the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang – but the B-17 is the best symbol of America's fighting spirit.
U.S. automakers suspend development of new models in 1942 and convert their assembly lines for production of tanks and planes. Bottling plants become bomb factories; home-appliance manufacturers start making guns. Wartime jobs draw millions of people from the margins of the economy into the mainstream, particularly women and African Americans. Both populations gain levels of experience, training, and status previously denied to them. The seeds of the Civil Rights and women's liberation movements are planted in those wartime factories.
Sweet land of liberty
In the tense days after Pearl Harbor, skittish sentries on both coasts fire their weapons at imagined Japanese fighters. The federal government imprisons more than 100,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, on the dubious grounds that they threaten national security. The Civil Air Patrol's over-age (and unpaid) pilots safeguard U.S. shores, sinking 57 enemy submarines during the war. City dwellers conduct air-raid drills, hang blackout drapes, and plant victory gardens; kids pitch in by scavenging rubber and steel. Everyone submits to tight rations on gasoline and food, feeling a personal stake in fighting the war.
The spoils of victory
Unlike their counterparts in Europe and Asia, civilians in the United States enjoy rising standards of living during the war. All the combat takes place overseas, so Americans sustain no damage to homes or livelihoods. The rush of men into the military creates a labor shortage, driving up wages; all those troops have to be fed, so demand rise in the farm sector as well. The government invests heavily in scientific and technological research, creating lucrative wartime niches for entrepreneurs. Those trends accelerate after the war, when America achieves prosperity more widespread than at any time in its history.