World War II, like its predecessor, was a distant war for Americans. Pearl Harbor was the only battle fought near “home”. Most people did not go overseas; many who went were non-combatants. American losses of men and materials were minor when compared with other nations: the Soviet Union lost an estimated 25 million dead.

So the home front was most important to most people most of the time. The class studies it, and members help each other to do so. Each student chooses a book about some aspect of the home front. (They learn to browse library shelves or online catalogs.) They then write a summary for distribution to fellow students. We comment and discuss.

To show students what’s expected, I first distribute two of my own summaries. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘No Ordinary Times: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II’, is broad-brush history. Between them, the president and the first lady addressed every major and many minor issues. Molly Guptill Manning’s ‘When Books Went to War’, treats a significant but seldom mentioned matter: how America stimulated and met service men’s and women’s demand for reading, and also kick-started the “paperback revolution”.

Was World War II “the good war”? We consider many aspects. We won, destroying the most terrible regime known to modern history. Wartime employment finally ended the Depression: nearly everyone had a job, notably including more Blacks and women. The war wasn’t followed by the usual recession; optimism prevailed. Productivity grew; combined with others’ losses and American lending, the United States became the world’s richest nation, by far.

The post-war experience reinforced good vibes, though there were setbacks (women lost their new jobs to veterans, for example). The GI Bill restructured America; socially, economically, intellectually. Cheap mortgages meant work for builders and suburban homes for millions (typically segregated). Effectively free higher education offered social mobility, new ways of thinking, a highly educated workforce (and mature, dedicated students, much appreciated by

And, of course, the United States did not retreat into isolation as it had after World War I. Instead, it asserted itself, worldwide, as a (the, for a while) great power, for better or for worse. Plenty for us to think and talk about.

David R Jones really enjoys vibrant student discussion.

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