During the Second World War, locals in Australia and Britain described American GIs as “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” But this conflict between civilians and the military didn’t only take place abroad. Civil-military tensions could be seen at ‘home’ too. Nearly three-quarters of servicemen in the months leading up to D-Day were stationed domestically, while one in four never went abroad at all. In other words, a lot of GIs spent a lot of time in the continental United States. Their presence, combined with the anti-civilian culture that the US military cultivated during the war, made places like Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard, and Coney Island look like occupation zones.
A new book tells this important yet overlooked history of the Second World War. In Taking Leave, Taking Liberties: American Troops on the World War II Home Front (U Chicago Press, 2020), Aaron Hiltner follows GIs as they traveled through transport hubs, trained at domestic military bases, and took leave in ‘liberty ports,” such as Boston and San Francisco. By doing so, Hiltner, a lecturer at University College London, shows how theft, assault, catcalling, murder, rape, drunkenness, harassment, rackets, and fist fights were a part of the everyday domestic wartime experience. The book, therefore, challenges our tendency to isolate the home front from the war and makes us rethink where US foreign relations take place.