"Nervous out of the service" : 1940s American cinema, World War II veteran readjustment, and postwar masculinity
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Conventional wisdom tells us that World War II veterans were greeted by an adoring public, moved smoothly from battlefield to suburb, and never looked back. A close look at American culture in the 1940s, however, reveals that concern about returning veterans and their possible impact on society surfaced nearly everywhere. Public and professional discussion of the “veteran problem” in a short-lived but substantial genre of non-fiction literature began during the latter stages of the war and continued into the early years of peace. At the center of this discourse was a debate about the impact of the war on those who fought it. Some psychiatric experts suggested virtually every discharged soldier would return psychologically damaged, coarsened by military life, and potentially dangerous. Left progressives and New Deal liberals argued instead that society could not disappoint veterans, who had risked their lives for democratic ideals, by allowing injustice and reaction to continue at home. All feared that, in one way or another, the homecoming would be difficult. viii This study examines Hollywood’s participation in that culture of “reconversion” by considering a wide range of movies in the context of public debates about the social function and responsibility of the motion picture, the larger discourse about veteran readjustment, the increasing authority of psychiatric experts, and the first stirrings of Cold War politics. Hollywood developed a standard narrative that encouraged veterans to abandon their wartime identities and idealism by moving into the role of mature male breadwinner, but some filmmakers challenged that narrative by presenting reconversion as an attempt to undo the ideological lessons of the war. Social problem films and films noirs at the end of World War II abound with men back from the war and out of sync with American society, and what emerges is an often contradictory portrait of the veteran as confused neurotic, crazed psychopath, zealous crusader, or cynical loner. The eventual triumph of therapeutic reconversion defined the social and political parameters of masculine “maturity” and as a result established precedents for the critiques of masculine conformity, concerns about teenage rebellion, and the culture of consensus in the 1950s.