The year opened with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms Speech. In this State of the Union address, the president told Congress and the country that “the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” Following World War I, the U.S. had reverted to isolationism, with the majority of the public not favoring involvement in foreign disputes, but the tide was slowly turning as many Americans began to ponder the impact of Axis victories in Asia and Europe and wonder about the extent of their ambitions.
The Four Freedoms Speech would inspire Norman Rockwell to create four paintings depicting these freedoms, which would later be used as posters to help sell war bonds.
In March, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law, which allowed the U.S. “To manufacture in arsenals, factories, and shipyards under their jurisdiction, or otherwise procure. . . any defense article for the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” This made the way for the shipment of much-needed supplies to allies like Great Britain and Russia, including food, aircraft, ships and land vehicles. In a press conference, Roosevelt compared the program to lending a neighbor whose house was on fire a garden hose to help extinguish the flames, saying that he wouldn’t want to charge that neighbor for the hose, but rather, he would just like the hose returned when the fire was out.
Also in 1941, Germany attacked and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece, and in June, invaded Russia. After the invasion, mobile units of Einsatzgruppen, or death squads, followed and performed mass executions of primarily Jewish victims in the invaded areas of the USSR. This year also saw the establishment of death camps in Birkenau and Chelmno, as well as the massacre of 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar.
The year would end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaring war on Japan and Germany. National Geographic has an interesting online exhibit of first-hand accounts, photos and footage on the Pearl Harbor attacks.
In the entertainment world, popular movies included Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York. The USO was born in 1941 and in May, Bob Hope performed in his first USO show. The USO continues to serve as a bridge between Americans and American servicemen and women through USO centers, clubs and shows to boost morale and as a vehicle of American support for troops. Soldiers at the USO canteens would have likely danced to the Chattanooga Choo-choo, Green Eyes, and We Three.
The year 1941 and the U.S. entrance into World War II would bring changes to all families in the U.S. As my dad recalls, in the ensuing war years, his family would follow the progress of the war through newspapers and plot locations on maps, and his coloring books would have a military theme, depicting planes, tanks, soldiers and snipers. His family also grew a victory garden and collected tin cans for recycling.
What are your memories or what stories have you heard about 1941?
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.