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U.S. Military Expansion During World War II

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  • 0:03 Uncle Sam Needs You
  • 1:01 Uncle Sam Wants You
  • 1:52 Women in the Armed Forces
  • 3:01 Discrimination
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In 1939, less than 200,000 soldiers were in the U.S. Army. By 1945, there were more than eight million. This lesson tells the story of the biggest military expansion, before and during World War II, in U.S. history.

Uncle Sam Needs You

By the start of 1940, it was clear to many throughout the United States that war would be unavoidable. In Europe, the German air force was heavily bombing London and other British cities, while on the seas, U-boats were sinking seemingly more and more American ships. Meanwhile, a half a world away, Japan was increasingly aggressive in its efforts to create a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, the name it gave to its colonial ambitions in Asia.

In September of 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act was passed, which was the first peacetime draft in American history. Within six years, the draft was expanded so that more than 10 million people would be inducted into the armed forces. In the short term, it permitted the United States to train the core of what would become the largest army it had ever raised.

Uncle Sam Wants You

However, the draft itself provided only part of the total manpower requirements for the war ahead. Indeed, many people volunteered for the fight. Veterans of the war often point out that many people went straight to the recruiters right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At the recruiter's office, these would-be warriors were met with a dizzying array of options to pursue while in the military. In fact, some services, like the Marines, paratroopers, and pilots, preferred to have volunteers. It was constantly driven home to those who had volunteered that by choosing to fight, they were elite. Volunteering for combat was heavily romanticized by the media of the time; a large number of paratroopers signed up for the dangerous duty after having read an article in Life magazine.

Women in the Armed Forces

Young men weren't the only ones exposed to the romanticism of the military. Thousands of women volunteered for service, even though the war promised plenty of opportunity at home. One of the earliest uses for women in the military was as WASPs, or Women Air Force Service Pilots. These women transported planes across the country, freeing up male pilots to fight overseas. The WAC (Women's Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), respectively reserves for the Army and the Navy, also recruited women to serve in support roles, especially as nurses and clerks. These roles were not without casualties.

However, the most dangerous occupation for an American woman during World War II was in intelligence. Hundreds of women served as spies, intelligence gatherers, and analysts for the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the predecessor to today's CIA. From capturing enemy officers to blowing up railroad bridges, women may not have had all the front-line duty opportunities as men, but there was still plenty of danger to go around.

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