Of War and Men World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families
by Ralph LaRossa
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-46742-9 | Paper: 978-0-226-46743-6 | Electronic: 978-0-226-47002-3


Fathers in the fifties tend to be portrayed as wise and genial pipe-smokers or distant, emotionless patriarchs. This common but limited stereotype obscures the remarkable diversity of their experiences and those of their children. To uncover the real story of fatherhood during this transformative era, Ralph LaRossa takes the long view—from the attack on Pearl Harbor up to the election of John F. Kennedy—revealing the myriad ways that World War II and its aftermath shaped men.

Offering compelling accounts of people both ordinary and extraordinary, Of War and Men digs deep into the terrain of fatherhood. LaRossa explores the nature and aftereffects of combat, the culture of fear during the Cold War, the ways that fear altered the lives of racial and sexual minorities, and how the civil rights movement affected families both black and white. Overturning some calcified myths, LaRossa also analyzes the impact of suburbanization on fathers and their kids, discovering that living in the suburbs often strengthened their bond. And finally, looking beyond the idealized dad enshrined in TV sitcoms, Of War and Men explores the brutal side of family life in the postwar years. LaRossa’s richly researched book dismantles stereotypes while offering up a fascinating and incisive chronicle of fatherhood in all its complexity.


“By tracing the variety of ways that men from diverse class and racial backgrounds endeavored to reconcile the competing demands of family, work, and nation in mid-twentieth-century America, LaRossa dismantles the myth that 1950s fathers were distant and uninvolved. Equally as important, he locates the roots of today’s conundrums in the contradictory social context that emerged following World War II and still expects men to be both tough and caring. Of War and Men offers a fascinating, insightful, and original contribution to the study of the culture and practice of fatherhood.”
— Kathleen Gerson, New York University

“No one has written more thoughtfully or insightfully about fatherhood and spousal relationships than LaRossa. A rare breed, he is a sociologist with the sensibility and research acumen of a skilled historian. Highly attentive to class, ethnicity, race, and social context, he has, over the course of an influential career, drawn a crucial distinction between the cultural ideals and the everyday realities of fatherhood. In Of War and Men he rejects the view that fifties fathers were deplorable dads—aloof, detached, and disconnected—and instead shows the profound changes fatherhood underwent throughout the era, laying bare the poignancy and complexities of the lives of the baby boomers’ fathers.”
— Steven Mintz, Columbia University

“LaRossa’s analysis of the meaning of fatherhood in American culture from 1941 to 1960 will enlighten, challenge, and transform your thinking about the role of fathers in this key historical moment. Skillfully integrating historical examples with an analysis of cultural trends, he suggests that we expand our conception of fatherhood. The book is filled with fascinating examples and is particularly strong in its discussion of the actions of fathers in the Civil Rights movement. The leading cultural sociologist of fatherhood in the country, LaRossa has written an illuminating account that will be of interest to a wide readership.”
— Annette Lareau, University of Pennsylvania

“I cannot praise this wonderful book highly enough. Meticulously researched, extraordinarily original, thought-provoking, and often moving, it could not be more resonant and timely. Of War and Men adds greatly to our understanding not just of the history of fatherhood, complementing the author’s internationally known work in the area, but also of the complexity of fathers’ contemporary experiences and family practices. The discussion is compelling and in challenging ways of thinking about fathers and how we read the past it is a milestone in research on fatherhood. This book deserves to be read generally, by all generations—it is a work from which we can learn not only about the past but also about our present and our future.”— Richard Collier, Newcastle University

“LaRossa brings to life the experiences of fathers during and after World War II. Drawing on poignant and powerful stories of men and their families affected by racial oppression, the traumas of war, and the struggles to conform to increasingly ‘traditional’ ideas of fatherhood, LaRossa goes beyond the myths of distant postwar fathers to reveal men who loved their children and did their best to care for them.”— Elaine Tyler May, University of Minnesota




Part I

1. Attacked

2. “The Bodies That We Need”

3. The Fog and the Sun

4. “Giving It the Best They’ve Got”

Part II

5. “Rights” of Passage

6. Reentry

Part III

7. Father’s Proper Place

8. Baby Boom

9. “Adventure . . . Begins at Home”

Part IV

10. Picture Imperfect

11. “What a Man!”

12. “Daddy, That’s Not Your Job”

13. “Tempered by War, Disciplined by . . . Peace”