Picturing the Century

A World in Flames

In size, geographic scope, and sheer destructiveness, World War II dwarfs all other conflicts in human history. When it was over, hundreds of cities lay in ruin, and millions of people were injured, displaced, or impoverished. Fifty million people were dead. Although the war began in September 1939, the United States did not enter it until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. For the next 4 years, few elements of American society were left untouched by the war effort. On the fighting fronts, American soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and often died in places many had never heard of a few years earlier. At home, mobilizing the country meant boosting industrial production, regulating the economy, and rationing consumer goods.

World War II also generated millions of photographs. Photographers from agencies such as the Office of War Information recorded life on the homefront and mobilization of the economy. The Armed Forces also employed photographers in every theater of war. Improvements in camera and film technology permitted these men and women to get closer to combat than ever before. Other technologies - radiographs, cable, and the telephone - allowed images and stories to be sent from the front lines in a matter of hours. While military censorship often restricted what the American people saw, photographers still managed to eloquently capture much of the war's range, bravery, cruelty, and violence in ways that still ring true.

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