The American Home Front and the Buildup to World War II: Plan for The Worst, Hope for the Best

Black text on orange paper. Speakers include Governor of Wisconsin Phillip LaFollette, journalist John T. Flynn, and others. Free admission.
“Let’s Stay OUT of Europe’s War and Make AMERICA Safe for Democracy.” Flyer for an America First rally at Municipal Auditorium, St. Louis, Missouri, April 4, 1941.


America Tries to Stay Out of World War II

The American government and the American people were aware of the conflicts brewing in Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 1930s. Still hurting from the losses of World War I and in the grip of the Great Depression, there was little congressional or public interest in getting involved. In fact, there were efforts to keep America out of the conflict.

Between 1935 and 1939, Congress passed a series of neutrality laws. These included banning US companies from selling arms to countries who had declared war on each other (“belligerent nations”). Until 1939, these laws kept American factories from investing in large-scale manufacture of implements of war for export. Manufacturers were afraid that, at any moment, the law would cut them off from their buyers. And so, they chose not to tie up their money in product or retooling their production lines. [1]

With Congress repeatedly refusing to fund any preparations for war, FDR used New Deal programs to build up military readiness.[2] Researchers have identified over 6,000 military projects done by the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. They built armories, airfields, target and bombing ranges, as well as hundreds of military ships and airplanes. [3]

In the 1930s, Japan left the League of Nations. They invaded China (but did not officially declare war) and began expanding their military presence in the Pacific. [4] Because they were not technically at war, Japan was able to buy supplies and materials from the US throughout the 1930s. In particular, they bought a lot of high quality scrap iron and oil. By 1940, 80% of Japan’s fuel supply was coming from America. [5] Japan built airfields, ports, and fortifications across the Pacific. [6] This concerned the United States, who saw it as a threat to American political, business, and civilian interests in the region, as well to US allies China and Australia. [7]

The American government responded by looking to increase US presence in the Pacific. But they had to be careful not to violate (or appear to violate) the League of Nations restrictions on military expansion. The government wanted to be cautious also, that they didn’t aggravate the Japanese or worry the American public. The perfect cover? Civilian settlement via the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project and commercial expansion through Pan American Airways’ ambitions for trans-Pacific service. Both of these programs were still active when the US entered World War II. [8]

Black and white photo. Four men of color wearing shorts and hats stand at the shoreline. Behind them up a slope are four wooden structures. One flies the American flag.
Four colonists – Joseph Kim, Charles Ahia, Bak Sung Kim, and Edward Young – wave to the ship that dropped them off at Jarvis Island. Photo, January 19, 1937.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (Record Group 80, Series CF).

American Expansion in the Pacific

The American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project and the establishment of Pan American Airways facilities across the Pacific were, on the surface, both civilian projects. Behind the scenes, the US military facilitated the programs as a way to build up American presence in the Pacific. All the civilian improvements, like landing fields and radio facilities, could be (and were) transferred to military use during the war.

American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project

The US government established this secret project in 1935. The purpose was to solidify US claims on the islands. And to have the civilian colonists build weather stations, landing fields, and other strategic resources. The colonists were not told of these military ambitions. As far as they knew, they were there to record events, wildlife, and weather and to collect specimens for Hawai’i’s Bishop Museum. [9]

Over 130 colonists, now known as Hui Panalāʻau (“society of colonists” or “club of settlers of the southern islands”) took part. They were mostly native Hawaiian men between 19 and 24 years old, recruited with the promise of adventure and $3 per day (almost $67 in 2023 dollars). Little information is available on average wages for Hawaiians at this time, but evidence indicates a high rate of unemployment on the islands. [10] The US Coast Guard dropped off five to seven Hui Panalāʻau at a time on Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands. The Coast Guard left enough water and supplies to last six weeks to several months. When the ship returned, it would bring new supplies and new colonists. The first response of the colonists on their arrival was of dismay:
Black and white photo of a one-story building. The center entrance has “Pan American Airways System” over it. Several people sit inside a vehicle driving on a shell-covered roadway. There are small plants and scrub grass.
The Pan Am Hotel on Midway, 1930s. Pan Am used similar “woody” style cars at all of their Pacific hotels.

Courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation /

Once you get there, you wish you never got there. You know, you’re on this island just all by yourself and it’s, you know, nothing there at all. Just birds, birds, millions and millions of birds. And you just don’t know what to do with yourself, you know. It takes you a while to adjust to that, but once you adjust to it, it’s fine. -- Elvin Mattson, colonist

Initially housed in tents, the government later provided permanent structures including housing, administrative buildings, fences, and water and food storage. [11]

In 1940, the colonists began sending reports back to the mainland of nearby Japanese ships. In June of 1941, with military tensions in the Pacific rising, US Naval officials recommended evacuating the islands. Superiors denied the request, and colonists were on-island when the Japanese attacked just a few months later. Two of them were killed.[12]

Pan American Airways

American civilians also lived and worked on several Pacific islands in support of trans-Pacific flight. Advances in airplane technology in the 1920s and 1930s made commercial air flight possible – for people, mail, and cargo. [13] In the 1930s, Pan American Airways (Pan Am) established a fleet of flying boats that they called Clippers. Able to land on water, these planes did not require runways and could refuel in shipping ports. [14]
Black and white map shows the route from San Francisco to Honolulu (2410 miles) to Midway (1380 miles) to Wake (1260 miles) to Guam (1560 miles) to Manila (1600 miles) to Macao.
Pan Am’s transpacific route hopscotched from Alameda (later San Francisco) to China by way of islands belonging to the United States.

Popular Mechanics 1935 Issue 4, p. 485.

With airplane technology able to handle long Pacific distances, Pan Am (in coordination with the US government) began building the infrastructure for a trans-Pacific service. They built facilities – small towns, really – at Wake Island, Midway Atoll, and Guam where the Clippers could re-supply. And they leased and built out facilities in Hawai’i and the Philippines. [15] US ships blasted and dredged lagoons to make landing safe for the clippers. Pan Am installed radio navigation systems, and built employee housing, power plants, hangars, and desalination plants to produce fresh water. They also planted gardens to produce food.

The first trans-Pacific airmail flight was in November of 1935. Less than a year later, in October 1936, the first passengers crossed the Pacific. Passenger and mail service ran on regular routes connecting California, the Philippines, and later Hong Kong until World War II started. [16] Pan Am transferred their operations to the US military immediately after Pearl Harbor. By that time, the Pacific clippers had carried 350,000 passengers, 750,000 pounds of mail, and logged 2.4 million miles. [17]

FDR and the US government worked hard to remain neutral and stay out of direct involvement in the conflicts in Europe and across the Pacific. Despite their best efforts, however, events unfolded that pulled the United States into a World War on three fronts: Europe, the Pacific, and at home.
This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

More From This Series

Last updated: November 16, 2023